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)

                                             I

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.

                                             II

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.

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