No such thing as a little torture

Rev. Alden Besse
The Rev. Alden Besse spoke at last Wednesday's forum on the United States and torture during wartime. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Michele Nepton - November 1, 2007

Last Wednesday evening, close to 75 people sacrificed watching game one of the World Series in order to raise awareness and share thoughts and feelings about United States-sponsored torture during the Iraq War. The Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center was the host to a free screening of the film "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," a documentary directed by Rory Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy's film interviews victims and perpetrators, shows photographs, and reviews the events following public knowledge of the torture. He delves into the psychological and political realms in which the torture occurred, opening and closing the film with clips from the well-known Yale psychology research called "the Milgram experiment" of 1961. This experiment studied subjects' obedience to authority figures in spite of personal consciousness and sense of right and wrong.

Author of "A Question of Torture," Alfred W. McCoy was interviewed as the torture expert of the film. "There is no such thing as a little bit of torture," he said.

The film shows the evolution of the U.S. definition of torture, from the 1949 Geneva Convention of binding international law, to more recent years when standards of treatment have been reduced. The film reports the consequences received by the low ranking-torturers as imprisonment and dishonorable discharge from the U.S. military. The consequences to the higher-ranking military personnel who were in charge at the time were revealed as receiving higher rank in the U.S. military.

Rabbi Brian Walt
Rabbi Brian Walt asks the audience to silently reflect on their own thoughts and some people cried.

Following the film, Rabbi Brian Walt asked the group to give a moment of silence "to notice what our thoughts and especially our feelings are." He then facilitated a discussion on the film and on torture throughout the world. In response to the changing definition of torture, one participant indicated that "we live with a government that has defined torture in such a limited way that they can say we don't torture."

Other members of the forum expressed a sense of betrayal, anger, and a "deeper commitment to exposing Bush, Cheney, and all those who gave a false impression of 9/11." A discussion ensued in regards to the loyalty of the young troops and how dangerous power can be when used in secret without checks and balances.

Rabbi Walt then asked what steps might we take in order to change the current administration's practices and policies in regards to torture.

"We need to express the values of our nation by holding accountable the government for all we have seen tonight," someone indicated.

Another community member indicated that this type of behavior "is a symptom of the lack of leadership in our businesses and government." He went on, "Until we elect members of Congress with leadership skills, these problems will accelerate."

At the close of the evening, Rabbi Walt encouraged interested parties to support the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, whose mission is to restore America's commitment to end torture by signing a petition against U.S.-sponsored torture.

"The Rabbi was peaceful and a great facilitator," said Jane Loutzenhiser, a concerned and active member of the community. "He allowed people to take the time to feel how they needed to feel. His passion seemed really earnest. I loved it."

The event was co-sponsored by Grace Episcopal Church, The Martha's Vineyard Peace Council, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, The Good Shepard Parish, and the Social Justice Committee of the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center. Rabbi Walt and his co-sponsors, primarily from local congregations, wanted to provide a space for the community to confront torture and to inspire people to take time to register their feelings and support the movement to end torture. He indicated that the objective of the evening was "to create a moment for our community to reflect on the crisis of torture and reflect on what we can do about it." The Rabbi was "very pleased with the number of people from different communities who participated in the evening."

Michele Nepton is a contributing writer to The Times.