It was the evening of October 16, 2007, and Stephen Kelly, SJ, and I were due in court the next day for our nonviolent witness against torture nearly a year earlier. That night we received a call from retired Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, the man who wrote the U.S. Army’s report on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq. He told us, “History will honor your actions.” The next day a magistrate in a Tucson, Arizona, courtroom reached a different conclusion, and sent us to prison for five months.
And so I write from the Imperial County jail in El Centro, California, behind bars for challenging the training of interrogators at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. In November 2006, Father Kelly and I had gone to Fort Huachuca to deliver a letter opposing the teaching of torture. We hoped to speak with enlisted personnel about the illegality and immorality of torture, but were arrested as we knelt in prayer halfway up the driveway at the Army base.
Mohandas Gandhi said that the cell door is the door to freedom. In freely entering the Imperial prison in India—and the Imperial County jail in California—there is nothing more to fear. Here we achieve a transformation, a turning, a teshvua (the Hebrew term for repentance). Here we discover the path of resistance: a vocation that we must follow in the midst of empire to overcome the oppression of our brothers and sisters.
I realize this stance in my solitary cell in Imperial County jail. As the steel doors clang shut, there is freedom to surrender to God and this universe. There is freedom to be open to the creative call of compassion toward our global community.
I HAVE COME TO this prison cell because I was moved to challenge a terrible frontier that my country has entered in its ill-conceived and ill-fated war in Iraq: torture.
Each of us has had to absorb the reality that ours is a nation that tortures. By its policies and practices, the United States has retracted the binding commitment it made when it signed the 1975 U.N. declaration on torture. The declaration prohibited torture, defined in Article 1 as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he has committed ... or intimidating him or other persons.”
As stunning as turning on our televisions on Sept. 11, 2001, to see the World Trade Towers collapse was seeing, in 2004, photos of raw torture perpetrated by the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
We have since learned the extent of these so-called “enhanced interrogation methods”—hangings, electric shock, beatings, waterboarding, and other extreme physical and psychological procedures—spelled out in memos emanating from the White House. They have been used in other prisons in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and in renditions to other countries such as Syria (listed by the U.S. as part of the Axis of Evil). We outsource our enemy combatant captives for torture so that we can disclaim any responsibility.
While in Jordan and Syria in summer 2006, I spoke with Iraqis who had been imprisoned by the U.S. in Abu Ghraib. (They were dumbfounded that some of us had gone to prison to protest their detainment and treatment.) Meeting them convinced me that this policy and practice of torture has diminished our standing in the worldwide community.
Many say torture is worse than killing in war. It destroys not only the body but also the spirit—for the victims, but also the torturer. By extension, this is surely true for the countries involved. Major religious bodies attest that torture is immoral, sinful, evil, and always wrong.
Alyssa Peterson, a young U.S. Army interpreter, was trained with interrogators of the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Fort Huachuca. She was on an interrogation team sent to one of the U.S. prisons in Iraq. After just two sessions in the cages, she objected and refused to participate in the harsh interrogation techniques being used—techniques the Army now refuses to describe and records of which have been destroyed. She became distraught and was sent to suicide prevention training, only to commit suicide shortly thereafter.
This story stunned me and Father Kelly. It induced us to join the protest at Fort Huachuca.
THE COMMANDER at Fort Huachuca, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, had been chief of military intelligence in Iraq. Though stationed at Abu Ghraib during the height of the abuses, she has never been reprimanded nor prosecuted for her command failure to prevent it. We wanted to ask about the training of interrogators, because we understood that in summer 2002, Brig. Gen. John Custer, then second in command of Fort Huachuca (in 2007 he succeeded Fast as Commander), went to Guantanamo on special assignment. Upon his return, he integrated the techniques he learned there into standard practices. Fort Huachuca is already notorious as the source of the torture manuals used at the School of the Americas—we wondered what other secrets were still untold?
So we brought a letter requesting a meeting with Fast, the trainers, and the trainees, but were stopped before reaching the gate. We knelt. Prayed. Were arrested. (Three more activists were arrested at the base on Nov. 18, 2007, and were later sentenced to supervised probation and a $5,000 fine or 500 hours of community service. Two of the three spent two months in jail without bail while awaiting trial.)
As a nation, we have crossed a line we had pledged we would never cross.
Jesus boldly challenged every barrier to the well-being of all, fearlessly breaking the innumerable taboos, customs, and laws that dehumanize, destroy, or diminish human beings, especially the rejected, the feared, the despised. His life and vision has illumined for me the obligation to say “no” to injustice and “yes” to love in action.
As a Franciscan, I have in turn been deeply influenced by Francis of Assisi, who brought Jesus’ vision alive in concrete and powerful ways in his own time.
Originally attracted to the valor and heroism of the Crusades, Francis realized that we could only approach our fellow creatures with gestures of openness and love to all. He rejected the Crusaders’ violence and passed through their lines to embrace the Sultan. Aware that God’s goodness is revealed in all creation, they shared their common experiences and saw that goodness resists those who branded all followers of Islam as violent jihadists. Francis challenged the Franciscan brothers to live among Muslims and be subject to them in order to learn their truth. We must follow these insights if we wish to realize our deepest yearnings for peace.sss
THE CELL DOOR clangs shut. Now I am alone. But instead of trying to escape this solitude, I enter it deeply: This is where I am. Here in this empty cell I have begun to experience prison in the way James W. Douglass in Resistance and Contemplation describes it, not as “an interlude in a white middle-class existence, but as a stage of the Way redefining the nature of my life.” I have sensed this, little by little. These days are a journey into new freedom and a slow transformation of being and identity: an invitation to enter one’s truest self, and to follow the road of prayer and nonviolent witness wherever it will lead.
I am in this little hermitage in the presence of God, in the presence of the Christ who gave his life for the healing and well-being of all. I am also in the presence of the vast cloud of witnesses, some represented in the icons that have multiplied in this cell, gifts sent to me from people everywhere: Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Steve Biko, the martyrs of El Salvador, Pope John XXIII—those who have given their lives to fashion a more human world. I also experience a deep connection with my fellow prisoners and with those outside these prison walls.
In my small cell, I have a growing awareness of the communion of saints—and the possibility of a world where the vast chasm of violence and injustice enforced by torture and war is bridged and transformed.
Louis Vitale, OFM, a founder of the Nevada Desert Experience and a former Franciscan provincial, was released from prison on March 14, 2008. Vitale serves as the “action advocate” for Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service (paceebene.org) in Las Vegas and is currently speaking throughout the U.S. about his prison experience and the call to end torture.