Mr. President, stop the torture!

Abu Ghraib is only the latest chapter in America's long-standing involvement in torture.

AFTER ABU GHRAIB, IT IS NO LONGER POSSIBLE TO SAY, "we didn't know." One would have to avoid television and newspapers completely not to know that the U.S. has been involved in the torture of Iraqi detainees. Of course, officials still insist on using the term abuse, even though, in fact, it is torture they are talking about. They may be squeamish about using the latter term, but historically our government has not been shy about its involvement with torture.

It is interesting to those of us who are torture survivors that at the very time when new investigations are being started, congressional hearings being held, and atrocious visual evidence still being released, senior U.S. officials have already pronounced that such "un-American" activity is the product of a relatively few low-ranking individuals. No investigation has concluded this, thus far. And I should also note that the very officials who make this judgment might still be found responsible themselves when the investigations are finally complete.

There are times when I find it difficult to listen to the public discourse about torture. Academics from a Harvard law professor to a University of Pennsylvania ethicist to a Georgetown University priest-philosopher, among others, continue to advertise the virtues of torture for the benefit of our society. At such times I can't help but think back to my own torture and wonder what unfathomable benefit it carried for either Guatemalan or U.S. society.

Of course, these scholars and others are advocating that only "really dangerous" people be tortured. Apparently my being a nun teaching Mayan children in Guatemala was thought sufficiently dangerous that I should be burned, raped, and otherwise brutalized. And if they mean that only the U.S. should have the right to employ torture, I point to the American who had a role in what was done to me. One difference between these pundits and me, of course, is that they are speaking in the abstract while I experienced torture in body and mind.

Most disconcerting of all, however, is that the revelation about the torture at Abu Ghraib is being treated as a unique event. While it is true that throughout the years successive administrations have sought to maintain secrecy, enough is known to disabuse us of any idea that this is our government's first brush with torture.

In the plainest of language, the United States government, its leaders, and those who have done their bidding have countenanced torture, watched torture as it was being practiced, taught torture, and practiced torture on the innocent and the helpless. Witness Greece in the 1940s and Iran in the '50s. Consider as well the U.S. involvement over the years in torture in Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Argentina, and other countries.

There is one question that I-a torture survivor, a Catholic, a nun-wish to ask. In Torture and Eucharist (Blackwell), William Cavanaugh writes, "The true body of Christ is the suffering body, the destitute body, the body which is tortured and sacrificed." If Cavanaugh is indeed correct about torture relating so integrally to our faith, then why are the Christian churches not in the forefront of this confrontation with such a crime against humanity?

Cavanaugh recounts a conversation reported in 1987 in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel between the Chilean dictator president General Augusto Pinochet and then-West German labor minister Norbert Blüm. Blüm told Pinochet that he accepted that one should not interfere in the internal affairs of another nation, but he went on to note an exception to that principle: human rights. "Here interference is an obligation," he said. "Mr. President, stop torturing."

During our government's long, sorry history of involvement with torture, was there no church leader, Catholic or other, who would say, "Mr. President, stop torturing"?

Today, by our actions, survivors of torture say this every day to every leader of the more than 150 governments that torture: "Stop torturing!"

Is it not our Christian, moral responsibility to demand this of the world's leaders? If it is, then will you join with us in our efforts to denounce torture wherever and whenever it occurs and create a torture-free world?

Sister Dianna Ortiz, O.S.U. is the director of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition in Washington, D.C. and the 2003 recipient of the U.S. Catholic Award for Furthering the Cause of Women in the Church. This article appeared in the July 2004 (Volume 69, Number 7; page 50) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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