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Issue Date:  September 29, 2006

-- CNS/Reuters

Iraqis are released from the Abu Ghraib prison compound outside Baghdad June 15.
Debate about torture misses the point


The publication of the Abu Ghraib photographs and articles about secret prisons was a major breakthrough in the public’s right to know about our government’s involvement in torture. Because of this, we are now able to talk more honestly about this issue. But these grim revelations have presented us with another opportunity equally as urgent, especially as prisoner treatment continues to be hotly debated in Congress. By bringing the gruesome details of the suffering inflicted into plain view, these records of gross maltreatment challenge us to humanize this historic national discussion in a way long overdue.

Those supporting torture and the suppression of these photos must have known that without this evidence of vicious abuse it would be easy to avoid empathy or sympathy for the actual victims themselves. Without it, they were able to set the tone of the discussion for many months. Unfortunately, this tone has persisted, so that even now those arguing against torture still typically don’t express heartfelt feelings for the often innocent individuals subjected to such horrific treatment.

Those against torture usually argue that it is morally wrong and ineffective, might backfire against our own soldiers and damages our reputation -- all valid points. But anyone listening to their almost clinical-sounding discussions might not realize these discussions are about real people with flesh, blood and bones, with the same exquisitely sensitive nervous systems and array of feelings as our own.

Inadvertently and tragically, this has diminished their humanity even further and imperils our own as well.

The image shot round the world of the hooded man at Abu Ghraib ranks as one of history’s most soul-searing symbols of the faceless, nameless sons, sisters, husbands and mothers in prisons in every country, jailed, sometimes wrongly, for every kind of crime. Though respecting their privacy is important, keeping such individuals totally anonymous and speaking of them in the abstract has allowed us to suppress our normal empathy. Without empathy, it’s been easy to reduce torture’s victims to unworthy nonentities whose suffering doesn’t matter. Without empathy, it’s been easy to forget that they cry when hurt, feel despair, are capable of good works and even heroism.

Empathy is the marvelous capacity we have to sense others’ emotions and see their point of view. Through empathy we communicate information essential for survival. Because of our mutual attunement, a certain look in the eyes, a tone in the voice, a tilt of the head connects us to even a stranger’s joys and sorrow. This invisible web links us to all sentient beings, as the Buddhists say, and infuses our lives with meaning and beauty.

Decades of research have turned up many findings significant to society and our discussion here. Low empathy, for example, is linked to aggressiveness, child abuse, and negative feelings toward homosexuality, while high empathy is associated with satisfying relationships, “pro-social” or helping behavior, forgiveness and the tendency not to use stereotypes.

In their more than 40 years of studying this capacity, social scientists have observed that infants and even animals exhibit rudimentary empathy. Psychologist Martin Hoffman of New York University has argued that some degree of mental, psychological and moral development is usually necessary for the growth of compassion -- a deep sympathy along with the desire and attempt to alleviate suffering. In other words, we must mature and become fully human for shared feelings to play out in actions that make life bearable in the face of loss or pain.

Most relevant to the debate on torture is Dr. Hoffman’s suggestion that certain child- rearing practices can cultivate budding empathy: Parents can point out how a child’s actions may make another sad or upset and ask her to imagine how the other person feels, or how she would feel in the same situation. Parents can serve as powerful role models by showing sympathy for others’ pain or discomfort.

This holds promise that compassion can be learned and shows why humanizing this current discussion is so vital. When our children -- also our friends and foes -- hear us talking about victims of torture, they need to sense our deep care and concern for them as fellow human beings enduring one of the worst fates imaginable. That way they can see what compassion really is and we can have some hope that such barbarism will one day not exist.

Most religions revere compassion and would urge us to conduct ourselves and this discussion more humanely. When Jesus said, “As often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me,” he expressed the deep empathic bond he had and wanted his followers to have with the ill, the impoverished -- and most relevant here -- the imprisoned. That we all have dignity and are entitled to be treated accordingly are the self-evident truths implicit in his teachings on which our democracy rests.

That leaders of our heavily Christian nation, many of whom profess Christian values, do not take these words and these truths to heart is especially troubling. That they have prevented our normal emotional reactions to the suffering of torture victims by keeping them out of sight and branding them as terrorists, even though most have never been charged with or tried for any crimes, should deeply concern us all. Such efforts threaten our free society and mock the principles for which it stands.

In keeping the discussion of torture so cerebral, even those decrying it unintentionally contribute to an atmosphere where others can avoid any pangs of empathy or guilt and more easily defend such brutality; where torture’s apologists can put forth arguments that obscure deeper questions about what’s really right or wrong and the kind of world we want.

We need to start talking about those being so unconscionably treated with heartfelt emotion. We need to retell their tragic stories to arouse genuine sorrow for them and dismay at those who have stooped to or defend such abominations. Otherwise we risk losing that which makes us most human -- our compassion. We risk being cut off from, as the Indian poet Tagore put it, “the heartthrob of the ages,” even our own souls.

We need to do this because it’s right. Because our children are listening. And the whole world is watching as well.

Margaret McCaffrey is a freelance writer. She is currently working on a book on compassion.

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2006

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