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January 14, 2005

Let's Not Pretend We Didn't Know


by Dr. Teresa Whitehurst

The only thing worse than seeing endless news stories about the torture of "detainees" at U.S. prison camps like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay is seeing the word "shocking" in relation to something that we all, in our heart of hearts, knew was happening from the start.

That is, unless I'm the only person in the world with eyes to see and ears to hear. From the moment I saw this picture and read these words, along with Donald Rumsfeld's reassurances, I knew that those poor men dressed in flimsy short-sleeved orange jumpsuits (their backs are exposed to the cold air in the photo) were about to experience some old-fashioned American-style "discipline." Stories about the "shocking" torture in these camps – in which women and children have also been imprisoned – suggest that we had no idea they were being maltreated these last three years.

However much we may express shock at the particulars, we knew. We all knew.

When I lived in Germany, my landlady was so sweet, so kind – I just couldn't imagine her having known what went on in the concentration camps. I talked with her and with other Germans, who explained that the truth did come out rather early on but sounded too horrible to be true. It's not surprising that average people, who by the late 1930s were afraid of being branded as unpatriotic or worse for questioning their leaders, were all too willing to believe that these reports were just rumors, exaggerated as rumors always are.

But what about the existence of the camps and the secrecy surrounding them – wouldn't that have been a tip-off that terrible things were happening there? When I toured Dachau, it was clear that the surrounding community had to have known about its existence, if not the torture that went on inside. The truth is, human beings can "know but not know" – especially when we're powerless to intervene. Like the old adage, "never watch sausage being made," one learns to avert one's eyes, to subconsciously or consciously dampen one's natural curiosity:

"'We knew there were concentration camps,' she went on. 'But you must picture they were so camouflaged, people who lived in nearby villages hardly knew anything of them. Our tour guide … said, "Here you see the prison and there was horrible torture and beheadings and who knows what else, but think, I lived right over there and we didn't know anything about it." If she says that, how should we in Bremen or Hanover know what was going on?'"

- Frauen: German Woman Recall the Third Reich

What does it mean to be "shocked" that maltreatment has occurred in prisons so foul legally, ethically, and morally that they couldn't be built inside the U.S.? What did it mean, for example, when we learned that even reporters for the then-untamed BBC were denied access to prisoners at Camp Delta? Can we seriously claim to know nothing at all, when signs such as this tell us that something is being hidden, and for good reason?

Having grieved over all the children and families killed in the "justified" attack on Afghanistan, in early 2003 I flew to New York and Boston to learn what could be done to protect the children of Iraq. I talked with UNICEF and other international agencies devoted to protecting children, thinking that moral citizens might prevail upon President Bush to avoid bombing near or in residential neighborhoods, and to keep children, at the very least, out of brutal adult prisons.

What a fool believes. I soon learned that even the most accomplished people at our most high-profile humanitarian and human rights agencies (including Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, and others) have no influence whatsoever on the White House or the Pentagon.

I should have known better – Mr. Bush never was one to pull punches about his gleeful enthusiasm for punishment. His permissive attitude toward violence and torture, without concern for "irrelevant" things like international law, was given the Good White House Seal of Approval and has turned out to be quite contagious.

This and every form of abuse is presented, of course, as a necessary means (hurting the body, humiliating the soul, and terrifying the mind) to a noble end (preventing terrorist attacks). But another end, of course, is punishment. Anybody who thinks this is designed to somehow "prevent terrorist attacks," rather than simply inflict punishment, "give them something to cry about," and get a sadistic rush, is living in a dream world.

Let's get something straight: Most Americans firmly believe in violence.

In fact, we're crazy about it. Violence is the cure for every problem, from infancy on up. Violence instills something called "respect," and it feels so good when we can strike out at others. Violence begins in the home, but it doesn't end there.

From Belts to Bombs: The American Passion for Punishment

The majority of Americans firmly believe in smacking people around, especially babies, children, and prisoners who can't defend themselves. We've been conditioned to believe that we must assault the body to save the soul. Anyway, it feels so good to be the boss in at least one sphere of our lives, to see others jump to our commands.

It's not that we don't have a multitude of books teaching nonviolent methods for helping children develop self-discipline and learn right from wrong, it's that we don't want to read them. We'd much rather learn how to use religious ends to justify whatever we feel like doing to our kids. Why, we couldn't raise children without hitting them, especially in this violent age when we bear a grave responsibility to teach them that hitting and other forms of violence are wrong!

Humiliating and hurting those who are powerless is what we need if we're going to get our fix of respect. It's not that we want to cause misery and breed hate, it's just that the look of fear, that wondrous sound of submissiveness in the voice, the unquestioning obedience to our every whim, well, you could say we're addicted to the stuff.

So it comes as no surprise that the U.S. military has been encouraged to torture and bomb and humiliate those that our president calls "evildoers." Of course, we try hard to hide the fact that the military is only following the lead of its civilian command by scapegoating young troops and older contractors who got caught doing as they were told or "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" suggested to do.

The Bush administration and its fundamentalist advisors continually imply or state outright that the U.S. is a "Christian" nation, committed to human rights and opposed to torture by "brutal dictators." This would be funny, were it not so tragic.

Torture of prisoners, particularly in the name of punishment, "preventing terrorist attacks," or extracting confessions, is in no way contrary to contemporary American culture; it goes right along with our passion for violence from the cradle to the grave. After all, where else but in America can you buy a stun-gun for use on little children, a book teaching parents to force Tabasco sauce and other burning liquids down young throats, or this fiberglass rod, the better to whip your infants and toddlers with?

It's good that the world is waking up to the torture, sometimes leading to death, that our troops and our contractors have inflicted on people who've never even been convicted of any crime. It's high time we cried out for an end to unspeakable humiliations and depravity in the name of "the War on Terror" or giving people the punishment they "deserve."

Perhaps we stifled our curiosity about what was going on in the camps because we knew we were powerless to stop it. Perhaps we were all too eager to buy into the mainstream media's reassurances that the torture camps are necessary, justified, and humane. Maybe we've convinced ourselves that the fresh-faced American torturers weren't at all influenced from above, that they were "bad apples" from the start.

But please – let's not pretend we didn't know.


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Dr. Teresa Whitehurst is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting(2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One." Visit her Web site.

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