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Issue Date:  January 13, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

What is being done in our name

In 2004, when the news of torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib began to break, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seemed at first dismissive of the stories. As Seymour Hersh reported in the May 17, 2004, New Yorker, when asked at a news conference if he thought the photographs and reports from Abu Ghraib were a setback for American policy, the secretary responded, “Oh, I’m not one for instant history.”

In later testimony before Congressional committees, Rumsfeld claimed that he had not seen any of the photos until they had appeared in the press and that he had reviewed the copies in the possession of the military only the day before his appearance. He found them “hard to believe” and said there were other photos depicting acts “that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel and inhuman.”

“It’s going to get still more terrible, I’m afraid,” he added. “I failed to recognize how important it was.”

~ ~ ~

I find it difficult to imagine that someone in as vital a position as the secretary of defense would be so far out of the loop on something as damaging to America’s image and policy as torture. But then I don’t pretend to know how things work at Rumsfeld’s level or how the Pentagon works when it understandably might be protecting its own and keeping bad news from the boss.

More telling, perhaps, is Rumsfeld’s acknowledgement that even after he became aware of the situation “I failed to recognize how important it was.”

Rumsfeld might stand in for all of us who, dimly aware of some chatter in the background, never quite grasp the significance of what’s going on behind our backs until we see the equivalent of the gruesome photos. And often there’s no photographic record.

Dr. Steven Miles, a distinguished physician who deals in medical ethics and end of life care, has concentrated recently on another area he is familiar with -- torture and the failure of physicians to alert the world to what was going on at Abu Ghraib. He has worked with victims of war and torture with the American Refugee Committee and the Center for Victims of Torture. He begins, in a sense, to show us a new stack of photographs, actually old photos, in the interview with Richard Thieme. (See story)

Torture is a horrible reality to contemplate. It goes against all that we profess as people of faith, as civilized humans, as Americans. It is not what we do, not what we authorize people to do. And if it is being done -- with our money, in the line of duty, in fighting Latin American guerrillas, in conducting the war on terror -- then maybe we have failed to recognize how important it is. Perhaps we ignore how corrosive it is to the national soul.

~ ~ ~

Thieme’s interview with Dr. Miles was much on my mind when I sat down for the start of the Texas-USC championship game last Wednesday night. Patriotic fervor is in full swing these days, especially at major sporting events. Stadiums end up foggy from the fireworks and smoke-trailing parachutists; the blood pumps a bit faster at all of the renditions of “God Bless America” and the national anthem. Color guards, jut-jawed and in crisp uniforms, flags flying and weapons glinting under the lights, inspire pride and a sense of national purpose.

Torture? Rendition flights? Suspending habeas corpus? Secret wiretapping? None of it fits the scene or the soundtrack. We do have much to be proud of in our history and culture. But it is a flirtation with peril we engage in, I think, if we refuse to understand the importance of the dark and sinister side of what is being done in our name.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, January 13, 2006

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