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Commentary: Staying on the Subject of Torture

By Roxanne Amico

Buffalo, NY – One of the things I love about living as a citizen in a democracy is the opportunity to be a member of the informed public. The variety of perspectives in the "national conversation" about the torture of U. S. held Iraqi prisoners of war is a reminder of the meaning of this -- and that things are working as they should.

This "conversation" includes reflections on military strategy, wonderings about whether the war can be "won" anymore, people saying those upset about the photos are "getting emotional" and should "get some perspective" and inquiries into whether the torture is "systemic" or the "result of a few wayward soldiers."

Missing from the discussion is what I think of as a fundamental motivating force for all human beings: The act of seeing the photos of torture of other human beings virtually guarantees that we feel an instinctive response in our own bodies and this moves us. Reports like one from May 7th in The Guardian, tell us that the majority of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were innocent Iraqis picked up at random by US troops, making it easier to imagine ourselves in place of those in the pictures. After all, if innocent Iraqi's can be randomly chosen, all of us are vulnerable. This happened a few weeks ago, when we saw the U. S. contractors' mutilated bodies, and it is happening now. This means that we recognize a shared humanity with others -- that the suffering we witness will rightly affect our own lives.

Because of human rights workers like Amnesty International who warned of abuses last year, we can imagine how torture can affect victims for the rest of their lives. Like all people who have experienced war, they will have difficulty functioning in their lives for the most ordinary things like sleeping, eating, and embracing their families. Social workers will confirm that psychological trauma from sexual abuse -- and the resulting shame -- will affect Iraqi culture for generations. Any parent will attest from watching their child heal from wounds of ordinary socialization, that certain social resources have to be in place for that healing. But Iraq's social infrastructure is devastated because of the war, so in a poetic twist, the fact that these photos have been publicized is a positive contributing factor in their healing. Psychologists can tell us that reconciliation takes place when people tell hidden stories of injustices, such as the stories these photos tell.

Anthropologists will tell us of the positive social use of shame: To address the behavior of members of a society in order to serve the needs of the larger population. Shining the light of shame on Donald Rumsfeld is more appropriate than "getting off his back." Rumsfeld is responsible for attending to soldiers who gave up their right to free will to follow his orders that ought to honor the Geneva conventions, but he failed his duties.

Another conversation the torture is generating is illustrated in a story my mother told me. While watching the news she yelled at the TV that Bush should never have gone into Iraq based on lies told to the U. S. public. A plumber working in her home heard her and said, "You can say that again." Continuing their conversation, she learned that the plumber is a proud veteran of the Korean war -- someone who doesn't usually consider himself anti-war.

Rumsfeld said he "would consider resigning - but not for a political agenda." Now, even though I take it very personally when other people die or otherwise suffer in my name, the last time I checked, who is heading the U. S. government is a political decision. I find solace in my mother's conversation with her plumber. It's the right AND responsibility of all such ordinary people, in the context of our daily struggle for a world better than one dominated by a systematic demonizing of others -- and seeing our sons and daughters trained for this -- to stay informed, and talk about what our government is doing. Information like the pictures of torture is a tool in the democratic process, for clear decisions and active participation. Things are working well, and peace is more possible when we vote -- and take other democratic action -- based on empathy and motivation to heal the collective wounds to our humanity shared with Iraqi's.

Listener-Commentator Roxanne Amico is a visual artist, who stands with Women in Black every Saturday at noon.