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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Truth and Reconciliation

Two separate but related controversies have been swirling in the news this week: (1) whether to close the military prison at GITMO (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) and (2) whether to release, or not to release, those series of photographs depicting Americans engaged in torture.

Both are complicated and complex questions, which makes them all the more compelling.

President Obama, clearly not pleased by yesterday's Congressional denial of the funding necessary to close of GITMO, often found himself in the unimaginable (well, at least to me) position of sharing a split screen on almost every television news station I saw, with former VP Dick Cheney. Both were arguing their positions vigorously and forcefully about American acts of torture.

Cheney, of course, argued the Party Line: torture is justified as a matter of national security. He trotted out 9/11 again, which is always the starting point for the argument from the Right in defense of torture. . . and illegal wire tapping. . . and the Patriot Act. . . and the misinterpretation of the executive powers written in the Constitution of these United States of America.

The man had an epiphany, see, while he was in a bunker under the White House, on 9/11. He is a man on a mission to keep America and future generations of Americans safe from future attacks. And, he argues, boldface and without an ounce of shame, his own terrorist version of 'by any means necessary'.

Let's be clear: Cheney is all about preserving his 'legacy'. Why, exactly, escapes me. I should think he'd just want to slink out the back door and thank God that he will be dead when the history books that judge him harshly will be printed.

I mean - is that all the Right has to offer as a means to peace? Torture as our best defense and the erosion of our Constitutional Rights? Oh wait. It's not peace they want. It's security.

I've always found security - in any form - to be a highly seductive illusion. This has never been more true in the aftermath of dealing with my brother's recent diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease. At age 55.

Despite all our best efforts to the contrary, there are no promises or guarantees of security. Not in this life.

Obama, on the other hand, acknowledged the complexity of the situation with the system, maintained that he intends to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility by January, 2010, and announced five categories of prisoners that will be used to determine what to do with the 240 men still being held there.

He also absolutely blistered the previous administration's policies on torture. He cited Pentagon numbers that show one in seven of the 534 detainees already released from the prison have returned to the battlefield. He used that as evidence that the Bush administration's approach to prosecuting the detainees didn't work.

"The Supreme Court that invalidated the system of prosecution at Guantanamo in 2006 was overwhelmingly appointed by Republican presidents," Obama said. "In other words, the problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility; the problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place."

"Listening to the recent debate, I've heard words that are calculated to scare people rather than educate them; words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country," he said.

The president rejected the idea of an independent commission that would investigate the whole range of national security issues under the Bush administration.

"I know that these debates lead directly to a call for a fuller accounting, perhaps through an independent commission," he said. But "our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability," he said.

That's where I respectfully disagree.

And this is where I make the connection to my belief that we need to release the photographs depicting Americans engaged in torture.

They need to be release.


They are going to come out sooner or later. We have enough excellent, well connected journalists who will soon find a way to have access to them. It would be much better for the government to release them than to have them splashed over the front pages of the New York Times and spilling into our living rooms from our television sets.

Further, I think the release of these pictures should be the impetus for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Yes, I know. There has been a great deal of criticism about the 'success' of the original South African model, which is probably best summed up by South African Manon Nicole Terrell who wrote:
"No serious examination was made of the system that gave rise to some of the most horrific, racist social engineering of modern times. Instead, there was a concentration on a proportion of the individual victims who came forward and on their immediate torturers, killers and persecutors."

I think that's a cogent criticism, but it doesn't mean that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission doesn't have merit. It simply means that the process is not complete without 'true repentance and amendment of life'.

It means that an important component which ought to be built into a TRC process needs to be a systemic analysis of the reason for and context out of which the problem arose.

Some have argued that we should simply 'forgive and forget' - to apologize (even if half-heartedly) and then move on as if nothing ever happened. Indeed, I have had it said to me just this week, that Christians are 'supposed to forgive', instantly and without reservation; and that, because I wasn't able to do that, I was called a 'hypocrite.'

Forgiveness and reconciliation, when authentic, are part of a process which can not - must not - be coerced or demanded or confined to a time line. And, it starts with telling the truth - or, at least, creating a space in which the truth is allowed to emerge. If there is not truth, there can be no forgiveness, and without forgiveness there can be no reconciliation.

Even with all of that, when forgiveness and reconciliation have been, by no small miracle, achieved, the process is not complete without a systemic analysis, including an analysis of the dynamic of power - the way it is used and the way it is abused.

Analysis leads to 'true repentance and amendment of life'. It means that while we must forgive, but we must never forget.

I want the full story of Americans involved in torture. I want 'the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.'

I do not want future generations of Americans to discover the horrific evidence of crimes done in the name of this country - the way we are still doing, for example, as we look at evidence from slavery, or from the forced removal of American Indians, or the encampment of Asian Americans during the Second World War, or any other such national atrocity.

I do not believe that the horror of this contemporary torture will ever leave completely us until we shine the complete light of truth on it.

Records of torture, in whatever form, need to come to light because history teaches us that unless it does, it is all too easy to destroy the evidence of its very existence. Witnesses die and memories fade.

I believe that truth, even when it is tough and brutal, is always to be preferred over covert attempts to hide that truth. Some people have already seen the pictures. Instead of allowing them to leak, bit by bit, into the American imagination, release them and own up to our culpability and responsibility.

I suspect that, once the pictures are released, once a TRC is established and the truth emerges and lessons are learned, the question of the closing of GITMO will be a question which finds its own answer - a problem which finds its own solution.

So this, then: First truth, followed by genuine repentance, then reconciliation, then systemic analysis which will lead us to true amendment of our lives.

Actually, if recent personal experience is any indicator, we really have no choice but to embrace this process.

We won't be out of the woods, but we will have found a path.


Suzer said...

Amen. Another excellent post, IMHO.

You are so correct that forgiveness is not instantaneous. Even the best of us, Christian or not, needs time to process and understand something, needs some distance, before forgiveness can be completed or even begin. As one who tends to hold onto anger for a very long time, I can attest to the fact that forgiveness is often a lengthy process. Would that we were all so perfect as to be able to "forgive and forget" instantaneously! Folks need to remember that "Christian" does not mean "perfect." Neither does the word "minister" or "pastor" mean "perfect."

I agree that we need a TRC, hopefully an effectual one, to help sort out this torture mess. And I pray it takes God less time to forgive than it takes humans.

Bill said...

I wish I had more time to devote to this, but I don't. Let me just say that torture and being an American don't go together. Going all the way back to the 60's and Vietnam, going into the Army was always something I was proud of. Being an American meant being the good guy. Good Guys don't torture people. This whole issue is an embarrassment to me as an American and a former soldier. They talk about security and being able to sleep at night but how in hell do they sleep at night knowing that they have blood on their hands. I want to be able to hold up my head in pride again. They have taken that away from me.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Suzer, for me, the process of forgiveness and reconciliation, with repentance and amendment of life provides a deeper meaning of the '70 times seven' words of Jesus.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bill, "Torture and being an American don't go together". My feelings exactly.

it's margaret said...

Yes. Yes. Yes. Hey!

Good post --there is a book called "Don't Forgive Too Soon," --and its general thesis is that if one does forgive too soon, the root of the issue cannot be discovered, and the creative and imaginative way through is thus lost.

And forgiveness is not negotiated. Sometimes it is a very one-sided deal....

Paul Davison said...

As a retired military attorney, I was disgusted by my government's adoption of torture and mildly heartened at the limited opposition from the military legal community. (I'd like to think that someone might have thought it was worth a resignation, though.)

This emphasis on "security," besides being self-defeating, to me is a form of idolatry. If Cheney believes what he says, it sounds as if he is worshipping security, when his (and our) worship should be reserved for God.