This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…
–Whitman, Introduction of 1855 (first) edition of Leaves of Grass
Henry David Thoreau was a student of nature, including human nature. He put it under close scrutiny. He said, “The savage in man is never quite eradicated.”
In his most famous book, Walden or Life in the Woods, he wrote:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it…”
During his two year-two month stay at Walden, he spent an entire day observing a battle between red ants and black ants. He compared the behavior of the ants to soldiers and their officers.
The word savage is from the Latin: salvaticus, ‘of the woods, wild.’ In Roman mythology Sylvanus was the god of the forest.
War is a vestige of the primitive or savage in Man.
We were reminded of the ‘savage in man’ recently when we woke up to the nightmare of torture perpetrated by Americans on Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a prison made notorious for torture during the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
What’s behind this latest American dream gone bad?
Before I tell you some of the thoughts that have been racing through my mind about Abu Ghraib, let me simply say that there are times when those who occupy this pulpit have an assumed commitment to address momentous world events. You know what I mean. This is one of those times.
What I have to offer about the torture of detainees in Abu Ghraib is said with a sinking sense of sadness. Into the heart of those depths is the inevitable core of humility. The pictures speak louder than any words I could possibly muster. Yet it is clear to me that failure on my part to address this disaster would be tantamount to betraying our covenant: ‘to seek the truth in love and to help one another.’
Sometimes it helps to give voice to what we assume that one another is thinking and feeling, even if our thoughts and feelings are not clear. It’s one thing to say what we think; it’s quite another thing to say things in order to discover what we think. Giving voice helps to access feelings. Language sometimes precedes thoughts.
I offer this explanation because I have conflicting feelings that I’ve not been able to sort out or clarify in the quiet privacy of my office. The pulpit becomes a place to dig in together.
I do not know what should be said about Abu Ghraib. I do not feel adequate to the task. My sense of inadequacy must not prevent me from trying, though I had considered simply standing in the pulpit in silence for twenty minutes. I had also considered reading snippets from the avalanche of editorials and op-ed pieces that I’ve studied in the last two weeks.
But we need to give voice to our shared concerns.
I was interested in the meaning of the name of that prison, Abu Ghraib. In Arabic the word Abu means ‘the father of,’ and Ghraib means ‘raven.’ The name of the notorious prison literally means ‘the father of the raven.’
From raven we get the word ‘ravenous.’ The intransitive verb, raven, is ‘to seize prey, to plunder.’ Ravenous means ‘greedy for gratification.’ That strikes a bell.
The noun raven is, of course, a large bird with shiny black plumage and a croaking cry.
You will recall Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, The Raven. It’s about waking up-being startled or alarmed. Indeed, Poe’s poem about the raven that came tapping and rapping in the night is a metaphor for being alarmed by becoming aware of something that is frightening.
I’ve culled some lines from Poe’s poem that have new meanings in the face of Abu Ghraib, ‘the father of the raven’ prison. (Note the reference to Pallas, aka Athena, who in Greek mythology is goddess of war, wisdom and the arts.)
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
” ‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door;
Only this, and nothing more.”
Deep into the darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing.
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before.
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven (and)
perched above my chamber door. Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore.”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”
Then I betook myself to thinking what this ominous bird of yore.
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore.
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
Thus I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl, whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core.
This and more I sat divining,
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!–prophet still, if bird or devil!
On this home by horror haunted–tell me truly, I implore:
Is there–is there balm in Gilead?–tell me–tell me I implore!”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming. And the
lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; And my soul
from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!”
There are so many penetrating images in Poe’s poignant poem, images that relate to our being startled awake this week–forced into a new depth of awareness by those photographs that came tapping, tapping on the door where we were ‘nodding, nearly napping.’
The bad dream we’ve been living with the war in Iraq has turned into another national nightmare.
The pictures have reminded us of other photographs: a Buddhist monk immolating himself to protest the war in Vietnam; the naked napalm girl running down the street in horror; a Vietnamese police officer executing a prisoner at point-blank range.
These pictures are now seared into our memories, like the twin towers collapsing.
“Deep into the darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, doubting, fearing.” says the poet, “Thus I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing,” while those images “now burned into my bosom’s core.”
Those pictures, burned into our collective core, speak volumes, while our spoken and written words are inadequate. Words can’t describe the penetrating and painful power of pictures that have, as Poe says, left our collective soul lying on the floor: “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, shall be lifted-nevermore.”
The pictures woke us like a thousand alarm bells, and the church steeples should be sounding the alarm. The torture perpetrated by our military personnel and mercenaries in Iraq woke us to a national nightmare that extends far, far beyond Abu Ghraib, ‘the father of the Raven’ prison.
Those who perpetrated these crimes were not following orders from their Commander in Chief, but the question we must ponder is whether they were following his example?
Anthony Lewis wrote an op-ed piece he titled “A President Beyond the Law.” He said, “Again and again, over these last years, President Bush has made clear his view that law must bend to what he regards as necessity. National security as he defines it trumps our commitments to international law. The Constitution must yield to novel infringements on American freedom. In all these matters, there is a pervasive attitude: that to follow the law is to be weak in the face of terrorism. But commitment to law is not a weakness. It has been the great strength of the United States from the beginning. Our leaders depart from that commitment at their peril, and ours, for a reason that Justice Louis D. Brandeis memorably expressed 75 years ago. “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself.”
If the prison guards were not following orders, could it be that they were following the example of their Commander in Chief, and of the Secretary of Defense-were they responding, in kind, to an angry attitude of arrogance?
We were told that we must invade Iraq for two main reasons: first, because they had weapons of mass destruction that could be launched against us in less than an hour, anytime the evil Saddam gave the order. They talked about ‘a mushroom cloud,’ and even used images of an atomic blast.
Second, we had to invade Iraq because it was a hotbed of anti-American terrorism. We were told that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were being harbored and trained there.
We failed to find such weapons, but we certainly succeeded in creating a breeding ground for anti-American terrorism that will wreck havoc on us for generations to come.
Our elected and appointed leaders have created a menacing monster that sits above our chamber doors. Who can rest?
The Suffi poet Saadi, who witnessed the fall of Bhagdad in the 13th century, wrote, “Anger that has no limit causes terror. Be not so severe as to cause disgust.”
They called the horrible bombing in Iraq ‘shock and awe.’ The Abu Ghraib guards were using their version of ‘shock and awe.’ They learned ‘by example.’
Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”
He certainly didn’t mean to love your enemies the way you love your family, to embrace them with tenderness. He meant, I think, that your need for vengeance will create more violence in an endless cycle that will consume you as well as your enemy. That’s what suicide bombers do.
Those who are driven by vengeance, visiting evil for evil, will multiply the evil in the world. Violence breeds violence. Vengeance breeds the need for more vengeance, and on it goes, reminding us that ‘the savage in Man is never quite eradicated.’
A New York Times editorial this week summarizes the point:
“Despite its best efforts, the government has never been able to demonstrate any strong link between Iraq and Al Qaeda before the invasion. But since then, Iraqi prisoners have been treated like suspected terrorists. The abuses in Abu Ghraib and throughout the military detention system stain this country’s reputation and play into Osama bin Laden’s portrait of an evil America. The Bush administration has given a gift to Al Qaeda’s worldwide recruitment efforts.”
A year ago the Commander in Chief was flown onto the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to declare that the war in Iraq was over. The billboard on the boat said, Mission Accomplished.
I, for one, was embarrassed. The staged drama was a display of hubris, arrogance and ignorance, igniting the real war in Iraq, which conservative columnist David Brooks, a staunch supporter of President Bush until the worsening disaster in Iraq, says, “For Iraqis to win, the United States must lose.”
He writes, “We went into Iraq with what, in retrospect, seems like a childish fantasy. We were going to topple Saddam, establish democracy and hand the country back to grateful Iraqis. We expected to be universally admired when it was all over.In taking out Saddam, we robbed the Iraqis of the honor of liberating themselves.”
“Now,” Brooks concludes, “since it is too late for the Iraqis to have a victory over Saddam, it is imperative that they have a victory over us. For us to succeed in Iraq we have to lose.”
Thomas Friedman, who, to my dismay, supported and encouraged President Bush’ s plan to unilaterally and preemptively invade Iraq in order to change the regime in Iraq, has changed his mind. This week Friedman admitted his mistake, and apologized for whatever part he played in this disaster. On Thursday, in his about face, he said that we need ‘regime change in America.’
“My mistake was believing that the Bush team (believed that producing a decent outcome in Iraq was of such overriding importance to the country that it had to be above politics.”)
He said that the President is more concerned about getting reelected than he is about doing the right thing in Iraq, despite the political consequences. He said that Rumsfeld should be fired.
He wrote, “I admit, I’m a little slow. Because I tried to think about something as deadly serious as Iraq, and the post 9/11 world, in a nonpartisan fashion. I assumed the Bush officials were doing the same. I was wrong.”
He asks, “Why did the president praise Mr. Rumsfeld rather than fire him?” Answering his own question he said, “Because Karl Rove says to hold the conservative base, you must always appear to be strong, decisive and loyal. It is more important that the president appear to be true to his team than that America appear to be true to its principles.”
Anthony Lewis’s point is that the mistreatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib is consistent with the attitude and behavior of the Commander in Chief who has taken us down this disastrous road.
The guards were supposed to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ the detainees who had not been tried nor convicted of any crime. The behavior of those guards was reprehensible, of course.
The president swore an oath to ‘preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States of America,’ and to preserve our moral authority in the world. He has failed. Our moral standing in the civilized world has sunk to an all-time low. It’s a sad day for America.
To fight the war on terrorism President Bush has created an ever-increasing army of terrorists around the world, resulting in an increased sense of insecurity at home. He is, as Anthony Lewis said so well, ‘a president beyond the law.’
Moral authority has now been replaced by military dominance-the misuse of power on a grand scale. It is a recipe for national disaster, on every level.
Our politicians are fond of referring to Americans killed in Iraq as ‘our heroes.’ Most have, indeed, sacrificed their lives for a cause we must presume they believed in. What constitutes heroism?
Major General Antonio M. Taguba, a hero of a different sort, singled out only three military men for praise.
Taguba said that William J. Kimbro, a Navy dog handler, should be commended because he “knew his duties and refused to participate in improper interrogations despite significant pressure from the Military Intelligence people (to use) military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee.”
I will add my name to a letter to President Bush, urging him to appoint an independent commission to investigate human rights violations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanimo Bay. The letter says:
“I am deeply concerned by recent allegations of torture and ill treatment emerging from Abu Graib prison in Iraq. Extensive research by Amnesty International suggests that this is not an isolated incident and these reported violations have exacerbated an already fragile situation in Iraq. Amnesty International has interviewed former detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan who have reported being subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment during interrogation and detention, and has repeatedly brought this information to the attention of the U.S. government. I urge you to support an independent investigation into these violations and public disclosure of the findings, and to cooperate with the United Nations Commission for Human Rights and others as they gather information on these abuses.”
In summary: arrogance and greatness are the opposite extremes on the spectrum of human morality. Arrogance is simply a sign of the savage in Man, which, as Thoreau said, is never quite eradicated.
Arrogance is characterized by power over. We invaded Iraq because we could-because we had the military power. We have become a nation that is being ‘ruled over’ by decision makers who arrogance and ignorance is lethal.
When our president invaded Iraq I stood in this pulpit and said, “We are a nation in mourning.”
Perhaps I should have said, “I am in mourning for my country.” I continue to mourn the loss of respect, of moral authority, and the loss of hope that we can move an inch closer to eradicating the savage instincts that drive us. We are living in a culture of dominance. It permeates all of our institutions.
But we must hold out hope. Just as power corrupts on a grand political scale, so does powerless corrupt within the heart of the individual.
We began with Poe’s poem about a bird that sounded the alarm. It seems appropriate to end with another kind of bird-the one Emily Dickinson wrote about:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.