Category Archives: Agni ad Bellum/ The Lamb’s War

Quaker House at 50: We tried everything to stop U.S. torture. Even Bible study.

In 2004, like the rest of the world, at Quaker House we began to learn about U. S. torture in the “War On terror.”

An exhibition parachutist shows his stuff at a ball game near Fort Bragg. summer 2019.

In one way, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Situated next door to Fort Bragg, we knew that besides being home to the 82nd Airborne Division (Airborne means they troops jump out of airplanes to get to their targets), Bragg also was headquarters for many of the most secret military units: Green Berets, Delta Force, “Jaysock” (the Joint Special Operations Command), and others.

And as torture information leaked out, in bits and pieces, this data was like dots. And connecting the dots produced lines that were like a spiderweb, and many of those lines (not all, but many) crossed and pointed to eastern North Carolina.

There was a county airport not far from us, where a CIA front company called Aero Contractors sent “torture taxi” planes across the Atlantic, to carry detainees who were blindfolded, shackled and spread-eagled on their cabin floors, drugged and diapered for long flights to secret locations called “black sites,” and sometimes Guantanamo. There the unspeakable and illegal was done to them by U.S. government agents. This reality was supposed to stay unknown.

But it didn’t. And soon, to our packed agenda of war protest, we added torture. There were vigils, letters, articles, a few arrests, al that sort of thing. Plus we organized or joined in several conferences. Hopes rose when the now-disgraced president who green-lighted all this malign madness left Washington in early 2009, succeeded by one who promised “Hope & Change.”

Our own hopes in this matter rested on accountability: we didn’t have to write Congress demanding new laws–torture was already a federal crime, a felony.  Give us some law and order! Hopes rose further when the new president ordered a halt to torture.

But there, change was denied us, and hopes were dashed. The perpetrators of torture had walked free during the previous regime; the new boss said we would look ahead, and leave them alone.

Which was to say, U.S. torture was simply put on “Pause,” not truly stopped. The perps were still there. And sure enough, one of the main architects of the torture program was eventually promoted to head the CIA. The laws against torture were made a dead letter; impunity reigned. still does.

A mockup urging repentance for torture advocacy on Kiefer Sutherland, the star of the TV series “24”, that popularized torture from 2002 to 2011. (It didn’t work.)

Furthermore, under the influence of highly effective popular entertainment like the show “24”, which ran for nine seasons and more than 200 episodes, frequently featuring torture, public opinion swung solidly in its favor — provided that the U. S. was doing the torturing.

Within  a few years, the outcome was plain:  torture may have been wrong, but the American public above all planned to forget about it. This forgetting, or corporate amnesia,  was aided and abetted by its government, from the highest levels. It still is.

Some of us, an ever-diminishing band, kept trying. For several years, some of us periodically picked up trash along the roadside outside Aero Contractors.

There were more conferences and reports, most of which were presented to local, state and federal officials. While mostly polite, it was evident they didn’t want to hear about it, and some defend torture to this day.

It’s pretty quiet now, we’re older, energy is flagging and shouting into the wind is tiring. But a few have not forgotten.  What other countries’ experience has to teach suggests that it typically takes decades for a society to begin to face up to its own atrocities and war crimes, if it ever does.

Last spring, when a peace pilgrimage stopped to have a religious vigil outside the now heavily-protected site of Aero Contractors (the CIA front company is still there, even bigger, but more well-hidden), most of those passing by who took our flyers didn’t know what we were talking about.

Patrick O’Neill, a stalwart protester, during an Easter Week vigil outside Aero, Spring 2019. The poster he’s carrying shows Khaled el Masri, a German citizen who was snatched and put on an Aero torture taxi to five moths of abuse in a black site, before it was admitted that he was not the person the CIA was searching for. His life was all but destroyed by the experience. No one was brought to account.

Torture, along with the war, was strongly supported by many religious Americans, notably evangelicals. Many such are in the  military, even at high ranks. As an outreach to such, I even ventured into Bible study. I’m pasting it here, because I think it has wider and continuing relevance. If and when this segment of the public awakens from its amnesiac trance, it will still be apt. For others it’s brief.

From, “Patience & Determination,”
a Pamphlet from Quaker House, 2009)

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Most biblical translators seem reluctant to write the word “torture.” Yet there are places in the scriptures where softer terms read more like evasions. The spirit of torture hovers over many passages, like buzzards circling the lonely figure of Job, alone on a dung-heap.
Indeed, the entire book of Job can be seen as a meditation on the relentlessly inflicted suffering that is of the essence of torture, with Job as the archetypal torture victim. He is innocent and faithful; yet he has been stripped of everything and left bereft and in continual pain, wailing and scratching his sores.
Job’s condition is not accidental. It results from an arbitrary exercise of power, without warrant, limit, or foreseeable end. Worse, as he sees clearly, its source was supposed to be the font and guarantor of justice, not its destroyer.
Yet not only translators shy away from calling such treatment what it is. Job himself confronts a claque of commentators – one is tempted to call them spin doctors – who fill pages like memos to the White House, explaining that what he is enduring is really only a new set of enhanced interrogation techniques, and anyway he must have deserved it.
The victim is not having it. These rationalizations only reinforce his sense of what’s happening:

19:1 Then Job answered: 2 “How long will you torture me, and break me in pieces with words? . . .”

Only one among a score of versions in an online Bible collection (The New Living Translation) boldly renders the Hebrew here as “torture.” In the King James, Job merely sniffs that the apologists “vex my soul”; the Catholic Douay-Rheims version says they “afflict” him. Others speak of “torment,” which at least is closer.
But Job interrupts, at 21:6: “Know then,” he continues, “that God has put me in the wrong, and closed his net around me. . . .”
And when his vivid rage is momentarily spent, he begs,

21 “Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends,’ for the hand of God has touched me! 22 Why do you, like God, pursue me, never satisfied with my flesh?”

A searching question; and whether Job gets any real explanation of what has happened to him (I think not) has been debated by Bible students ever since the book appeared.
Further, Job’s cries for relief and vindication are more than an individual lament. For those with ears to hear, they echo as loudly for us today as they ever have down the centuries.

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There is torture in the New Testament as well. And here again, translators typically shy away from rendering the term. This is harder to understand in the gospels, because the Greek term used there unambiguously refers to torture as we think of it today.
This specificity should not be surprising; torture was a frequent feature of life and “justice” in Jesus’ world. When demons confront him, for instance, they are expecting it:

Matthew 8:28 “When Jesus came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to [torture] us before the time?”

Luke 8:27: 27 As Jesus stepped out on land (from the sea of Galilee), a man of the city who had demons met him. . . . 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torture me.” (Jesus didn’t torture him. Instead, he banished  the man’s demons.)

For that matter, the scourging of Jesus (Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15) certainly qualifies; and what else was crucifixion but execution by extended, public torture?
So again, torture was a feature of Jesus’ world, though he did not inflict it. Small wonder then, that when his followers were trying to consolidate their movement after his death, it turns up in a list of general exhortations in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

Hebrews 13:3 “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

As with Job, though, only one translation of Hebrews in twenty (The New Revised Standard Version) ventures to say it plain. While the Greek term here is different from that in the gospels, and less exact, it still refers to excruciating suffering inflicted as part of persecution. This is clear enough from an earlier verse from the same epistle,

Hebrews 11:37 “The [early martyrs] were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, [tortured] . . . .”

Here the typical rendering is “tormented.” Yet isn’t it a plausible argument that being sawn in two would be somewhat more than “tormenting”?
The earlier, more explicit term reappears in one more New Testament book, Revelation. The most vivid passage, in Chapter Nine, recounts a vision that for some readers at least, evokes surreal parallels with the more repulsive abuses of our own day, especially when carried out by those charged with upholding law and justice:

Revelation 9:1-11:
1 “And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit;
2 he opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft.
3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth.
4 They were told not to damage the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.
5 They were allowed to torture them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torture was like the torture of a scorpion when it stings someone.

Some imaginative [Bible prophecy” writers are able to see texts from Revelation being played out in almost every current upheaval. And right on time, here they are seeing “locusts” as drones.
6 And in those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.
7 In appearance the locusts were like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, 8 their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth;
9 they had scales like iron breastplates, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle.
10 They have tails like scorpions, with stingers, and in their tails is their power to harm people for five months.
11 They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon. The first woe has passed. There are still two woes to come.”Would that this woe were the worst, but there is one more passage to contemplate. It is one of the repeated climaxes of the same book, describing the wrath of divine judgement:Revelation 14:9 “Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, ‘Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands,
10 they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tortured with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.
11 And the smoke of their torture goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.’”Such passages have long been a burden to those who can’t see the justice in applying an infinite punishment for the limited evil that even the most fiendish humans can do. Nor are these doubts eased by the pious admonition of verse 12 that “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.”
Perhaps that’s why translators prefer “torment” to torture here, although there is no real ambiguity in the underlying Greek. Who wants to think about the worst human torturer in history being subjected to even a worse torture, unendingly, as an endless quasi-pornographic spectacle for the angels and the Lamb, the Lamb who represents the One who is supposed to combine justice with mercy?
I doubt there are many who want to contemplate such a scenario. And for those who were forced to, like Job, perhaps the best response was his:
21 “Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends,’ for the hand of God has touched me!”Have pity, yes. But remember, as Hebrews charges us. Remember, and then act to banish the demons.

On September 21, 2019 Quaker House will observe its 50th anniversary, and is still working with soldier war resisters, military families and veterans.  You are invited to join in. Details here.

The Fight Over the Supreme Court is not Over — Just Ask Sheldon Whitehouse

Flashbacks: an article in the August 17 (2019) Washington Post, about a donnybrook developing around the vacationing Supreme Court, is giving me flashbacks:

It seems like a century ago —

October 4, 2018. The first day of hearings on the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination. Everybody was waiting for the predicted bombshell sexual assault testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

But that morning I got my timing mixed up and tuned in early, well before the featured fireworks began. As red-robed Handmaids circled outside, my ears were filled with the platitudes and boilerplate of opening statements by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Lucky for me. At first, all were forgettable (& forgotten) including those by the three committee Democrats tipped to run for president (Klobuchar, Booker & Harris), all of whom stumbled and flubbed their opportunities. Continue reading The Fight Over the Supreme Court is not Over — Just Ask Sheldon Whitehouse

Hiroshima, El Paso, Dayton & Us

Ross Douthat, a very conservative Catholic, is persistently the most interesting of The NY Times’s stable of right wing columnists.
For me that’s because he frequently articulates perspectives that resonate to my experience, even if most of his desired remedies sound predictably retrograde.

Ross Douthat

Take, for instance, this reflection from August 6, 2019 on the recent carnage in El Paso & Dayton:

“I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that.

But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse.
The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.”

Thus far, I’m with him (& by extension, New Ager Williamson):
Continue reading Hiroshima, El Paso, Dayton & Us

Church Sex Scandals, and the Buried Lead

The Southern Baptists, you ask me, buried the lead (or lede if you’re old school) about their 2019 national convention as deep as possible:
 
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in Birmingham, Alabama last week was driven by recent, sensational news reports of hundreds of unaddressed sexual abuse cases involving SBC pastors and other church staff. There were impassioned speeches, apologies to recovering victims, fancy big-screen graphics, fervent pledges and new programs, etc.
 
This year, with the U.S. Catholic bishops meeting on a similar topic in Washington the same week, and major media buzzing like dragonflies around both events, it’s a thing.

Continue reading Church Sex Scandals, and the Buried Lead

Harriet Tubman: Beyond the Underground Railroad

This Memorial Day, I’m setting aside my Quaker pacifism (briefly), to remember one of the most unique and valiant war veterans I know of.

Yeah, I’m talking about U.S. Army veteran Harriet Tubman.

Besides all her amazing exploits in the antebellum Underground Railroad (working very frequently with purportedly nonviolent Quakers), Tubman was no pacifist. And when the war broke out, she was eager to help the Union forces win it. After working with wounded soldiers, she also served as a scout and a spy behind enemy lines.

But she got her big chance after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863.

Continue reading Harriet Tubman: Beyond the Underground Railroad

Religious Liberty? Or Dogmatic Transphobia?

May 24 was (Authentic) Religious Liberty Day (at least it was here), but the Administration has some strange ideas about how to mark it. Like: turn it upside down & inside out.

Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, HHS.

That day it released  a proposed federal rule that would deny transgender persons many of the medical benefits and legal protections they gained in the Obama years. The proposal is one more chapter in the continuing drive to roll back just about everything the previous administration achieved or initiated. (Full text of the proposed rule is here. )

As the New York Times put it , the new rule Continue reading Religious Liberty? Or Dogmatic Transphobia?

Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update

In 1988 I wrote a substantial essay laying out my views about abortion, and describing how they had evolved over time. The piece also considered the increasing parallels, both rhetorical and political,  between this struggle and the Civil War.

Thirty-plus years later, despite some continuing evolution and updates, much of the piece still seems relevant, not least the potential for civil  strife.

(Author’s note from 1998 reprint: Many of the policy issues described in this essay still seem timely more than a decade later. Further, the personal journey it describes was an important part of my life, one not to be denied or concealed. It is also necessary background to the civil war scenarios that will also surface. . . . A much shortened version of the piece was published in The New Republic.)

INTRODUCTION: My Abortion Pilgrimage

Continue reading Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update

All God’s Quakers Got a “Place In The Choir” — Even the Non-Theists Who Can’t/Won’t Sing

So we’re hearing some complaints about sniping back & forth between “theists” and “non-theists in some liberal Friends meetings. I have some thoughts on that. Kind of a long read . . . .

I

Let me work up to them with a story, going back to the turn of the years 1990 into 1991. I was working for the Post Office, as a Mailhander, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. I mainly shuffled bundles and sacks of mail back and forth across the floor of a facility about a quarter of a mile long. It processed several million pieces of mail every day. In those years, I had real calluses on my hands, and a lot fewer pounds around the middle.

I was also surrounded by veterans there, mostly from the Vietnam era, who had preference in Post Office hiring. We weren’t very familiar with the phrase PTSD then, but it was all around me. I felt a lot of solidarity with them, though I didn’t know how to express it. I was an Anti-Vietnam veteran, had protested one way and another all through those years, and bore my own set of scars from it.

November & December at the Post Office were always hectic: Christmas meant a continuing flood of packages, mandatory overtime, and running us off our feet. But the year 1990 brought a big additional burden of stress: the buildup to the First Gulf War, what’s known as Desert Storm, was in full swing.

I’m starting these reflections with a war story, not because I like war stories, but as part of my own grappling with the fact that when I look back over my 76 years, my life as an American and a Quaker has been dominated by war.

Big wars, punctuated by smaller and more secret wars, and then periods of tension and preparations for more war. I’m not sure that many Americans, and Quakers, really take adequate account of that over-arching reality: any American my age and younger has lived in a militarized, war-making country all our lives. And  that reality doesn’t appear to be changing much today.

August 5, 1990.

Anyway, I remember when the Gulf War buildup started, in late summer 1990, when the first president George Bush learned that Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, next door. My memory of Bush is that he was riding in the presidential golf cart, and pulled it to a stop where some news cameras were clustered, and said, “This will not stand. This will not stand.” (Actually, an old video shows him saying that after stepping out of the presidential helicopter. At least I got the words right.)

Reporters shouted questions, but he waved them off with a curt, “I gotta go to work.”  Continue reading All God’s Quakers Got a “Place In The Choir” — Even the Non-Theists Who Can’t/Won’t Sing

A Quaker Meditation: Hating the Good News?

Except for how it turned out, I hate almost everything about this report:

A mass school shooting was foiled on Thursday, December 13; that’s the good part.

College students and adults too: warning booklet, in a college dorm room at a large Quaker conference.

But the first thing I hate about it is not in the news, but in myself: when I began checking the evening  headlines yesterday, a thought came:

Isn’t it about time for another big mass shooting? How long has it been—? Let’s see . . . the Pittsburgh synagogue, hmm. Oh yeah, late October: 11 dead, six wounded. . . .
Seven weeks ago; right? So  . . . another one is about due . . .”

Yes, I thought that, unbidden, and I hate that I thought it. A premonition? I don’t think so. It’s just that after these past few years, it does feel like there’s some sort of gruesome rhythm to such events.

The new ABnormal.

Then I glanced at the BBC News feed, and there it was:

Continue reading A Quaker Meditation: Hating the Good News?

Notes on a Terrible Day In Our History

I listened to and watched almost all the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing Thursday; 9 hours I’ll never get back. Can  any sense be made of the ordeal? Here are a few observations

One, Ford was very credible. She was credible in two ways: one, her stories, even if incomplete and not thoroughly investigated, hung together.

Second, she was personally credible: Beyond the impact of the assault, her story of struggling with anxiety, her fear of public humiliation (and then death threats) are all too plausible. Even Utah Republican Orrin Hatch grudgingly admitted afterward that Ford was a “very attractive” witness.

Her willingness to talk openly about needing and doing therapy with her husband and then on her own was impressive. Even her fear of flying (which she manages by force of will for work and important family trips) sounded like many people (me for instance), and explained much about why she kept quiet about her story so long. And her naiveté about politics, her vain hope that she could leave her story to have whatever impact it would in the Senate behind the scenes.

Three, her courage, to face the Committee and the country and speak her truth even as her voice shook, was undeniable.

Well, no– “undeniable” is not appropriate here.

In the snake pit of our current politics, her testimony was eminently “deniable” — by the Republican majority, many of whom are skilled professionals in denial and discounting anything that gets in the way of their agenda.

Continue reading Notes on a Terrible Day In Our History