Thursday, May 27, 2004

The darkness at Abu Ghraib

And this is the judgment that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

John 3:19-21

I so much wanted to write about something positive and uplifting this last week of May. In this regard, I have always been drawn to John's vision of God as warming, illuminating, loving, life-giving light. It is a theme that runs through Scripture…from the very beginning. For, in the beginning on that very first "day," "God said, 'Let there be light.' And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness." (Genesis 1:3-4).

But each time I sought the warmth of that light this week, I found myself sucked into the depressing darkness of evil, the crimes at Abu Ghraib - the hideous nature of which is still unfolding. That depression was deepened by the attempts of those in authority to hide in the darkness "lest [their] deeds should be exposed."

In the sickeningly pale yellow artificial light of those self-damning photographs from an American torture chamber, I found echoes of other crimes by others people that have rattled around my mind and haunted my conscience for far too long. In the boarded over windows of the Abu Ghraib cells, I recalled Cell Block 11 at Auschwitz, the basement of which was described as follows by SS Unterscharf├╝hrer Pery Broad:

The door of Block 11 was always locked, while in other blocks of the camp this was not the use. If you rang the bell, you saw an SS guard approaching and his steps echoed in the seemingly deserted building. The guard looked at every newcomer with distrust and as often as not sent him about his business. The talking was done through a small judas-hole. If he let a person in, in rare cases only of strict necessity, then one could see in the dim light a strong iron lattice with a door in it which separated the back part of the building. The fact that the windows were nearly wholly bricked up, with the exception of a narrow strip not wider than a hand, to get daylight in, must have made an uncanny impression from the outside. Even the cellar windows were heavily barred. Here and there strange looking tin cases were affixed at the level of the cellar windows, and it was hard to guess what purpose they served.1

As American Consul in Krakow 1973-75, I used to take visiting American dignitaries on tours of Auschwitz. In the process, I learned that those tin cases were used to pump carbon monoxide from vehicle exhausts into the hermetically-sealed cells where Soviet POWs were killed in early extermination trials.

Later, as consul in Munich 1982-85, I often visited Dachau and about that time met Wendy von Staden, the wife of the German Ambassador in Washington (and niece of Hitler's foreign minister). Wendy wrote a courageous account of growing up in Vaihingen in the vicinity of a concentration camp (KZ Wiesengrund) where prisoners from Dachau and other camps who were too weak or sick to work were sent to die of starvation and disease. In that book, Darkness Over the Valley, she describes in graphic personal terms what Hannah Arendt described as the "banality of evil." Toward the end, as French troops approached, she and her mother came face-to-face with a work detachment rioting over a kettle of potatoes.

"What kind of people are these anyway?" mother asked [an SS guard], horror-struck. "They're no longer human beings"...."They are Jews," replied the guard, "sub-humans. You can see that for yourself." I was standing next to mother, when suddenly we heard a man's voice behind us. The voice itself was low and soft, speaking in good clear German, but there was an undertone of almost menacing fury. "It's you who've made us into animals, and you'll pay for what you've done to us.2

Later at home Wendy's mother confronts her father, who had been watching from a window:

"Do you realize what it is, that so-called special camp?" She turned to my father. "It's a concentration camp, it can only be a concentration camp. And do you know what that means? If the front comes any closer, they'll kill those people - that is, if they haven't already died of starvation....

"Keep out of this," my father said almost threateningly. "It has nothing to do with us. We can't do a thing about it." And then he grabbed his walking stick and went outside.

Mother continued to pace, talking as if to herself, "These people are simply starving. That's it. They're half-crazed with hunger. Where do they come from? That man was right, we've made them into beasts, into subhumans. We."3

I remember yet another instance of evil in a darkened place - a place called Long Phu, the place I learned to cry. I was a young Navy Lieutenant j.g., the junior of two advisors to a Vietnamese junk force unit on the Bassac River. The senior advisor, let's call him Dale, and I shared a dirt-floored thatched "hootch," the opposite side of which comprised the "office" of our counterpart, Lieutenant Qui. The dividing thatched wall was open at the top. One night, as we were dozing off to sleep, the 60 watt bulb on the other side clicked on amidst a commotion of shouts and pleas, as a VC prisoner was hauled into the "office." There were sounds of beatings - pistol whippings, the click of an unloaded pistol (probably held to the prisoner's temple), and screams as a battery-powered telephone was cranked. Pushing back the mosquito-netting, I hopped out of bed, and was about to dart around to the other side of the hootch, when Dale barked at me "Go back to sleep. It's none of our business. That's the way they do things." I fell back on the rubber air mattress and spent the night in tears and sweat, listening to the screams, and watching the shadows on a dimly lit thatched roof...unable to form a prayer.

It was against this flood of awful memories that I tried this week to process the atrocities of Abu Ghraib. I'm still trying...and still crying...trying to form a prayer for forgiveness. For it is we who have created - in, I fear, a gulag stretching from Bagram to Guantanamo - new legions of "sub-humans" who will seek to "make us pay." But I - we - have already paid. For, in staring at those awful pictures and contemplating worse to come, we are staring at our self-made, self-willed hell. As Raymond E. Brown, has said in his commentary on John:

Evil is darkness; with Jesus, the light has come into the darkness. But the darkness will not receive it, and this very refusal constitutes judgment (theology, too, tells us that in condemning to hell God is simply accepting people's sate of will at their death; they have turned away from God and God leaves them to their fate).4

But, are we, like Wendy's Germans, condemned to live in some hell of collective guilt? If, like Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity, and O'Reilly, you believe that we have nothing to apologize for or confess to -

War is hell! The end justifies the means! – perhaps. If you believe, like President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld, that the ultimate epithet to be tossed at the crimes of Abu Ghraib is "un-American," perhaps. A people that so believes in its exceptionalism that "God" becomes "America" and "sin" "un-American"; deserves a divine slapping around. It is truly surprising that a president who views the world through a neo-Manichean prism of black and white, good and evil, light and darkness, cannot recognize a sin when he sees one and call it by its true name.

On the whole, I'm inclined to believe that sin is universal and that we, too, are capable of sinning in the same way and to the same extent as Germans sixty years ago. In this regard, I have learned much from Zygmunt Baumann, a Jewish Polish sociologist who warns, concerning the Holocaust, that: focusing on the Germaness of the crime as on that aspect in which the explanation of the crime must lie simultaneously an exercise in exonerating everyone else, and particularly everything else. The implication that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were a wound or malady of our civilization - rather than its horrifying, yet legitimate product - results not only in the moral comfort of self-exculpation, but also in the dire threat of moral and political disarmament. It all happened 'out there' - in another time, another country. The more 'they' are to blame, the more the rest of 'us' are safe, and the less we have to do to defend our safety. Once the allocation of guilt is implied to be equivalent to the location of the causes, the innocence and sanity of the way of life we are so proud of need not be cast in doubt.5

Well, I'm here to cast doubt on the innocence and sanity of the American way of life. For, like Hannah Arendt, I agree that it is the individual's obligation to resist socialization in the face of authority - governmental and/or societal – in which the "social foundations of morality have been cast aside."6

I believe, moreover, with Baumann's hopeful conclusion that:

...putting self-preservation above moral duty is in no way pre-determined, inevitable, and inescapable. One can be pressed to do [evil], but one cannot be forced to do it, and thus one cannot really shift the responsibility for doing it on those who exerted the pressure. It does not matter how many people chose moral duty over the rationality of self-preservation - what does matter is that some did. Evil is not all-powerful. It can be resisted. The testimony of the few who did resist shatters the logic of self-preservation. It shows it for what it is in the end - a choice. One wonders how many people must defy that logic for evil to be incapacitated. Is there a magic threshold of defiance beyond which the technology of evil grinds to a halt?7

I find hope also - a hope I didn't have a few hours ago when I tapped the first key on this short essay - in the words of another author, a Moroccan, Tahar Ben Jalloun, who endured horrors similar to those at Abu Ghraib in the darkened underground prisons of his King Hassan II. Temporarily blinded, he described his experience in a searing "novel," This Blinding Absence of Light. Only shortly into his "fiction," he described a light that John would understand:

A sliver of sky must have hovered right above the vent, the indirect opening that let the air in but no light. I sensed the presence of this sky, and filled it with words and images. I shifted the stars around, meddling with them to make room for a little of that light imprisoned in my breast. I felt the radiance. How can one feel light? When an inner brightness caressed my skin and warmed it, I knew that it was visiting me.8

The Holy Spirit in a Muslim’s breast...and mine. It warms me too.


“KZ Auschwitz” in Jadwiga Bezwinska and Danuta Czech (eds.), KL Auschwitz Seen By the SS (Oswiecim, Poland: Panstwowe Mzeum w Oswiecimiu, 1972), p. 144.


Wendelgard von Staden, Darkness Over the Valley (New Haven and New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1981), p. 70.

3 Ibid., p. 70-71.

4 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospels and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1988), p. 34.

5 Zygmunt Baumann, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), p. xii.

6 Ibid., p. 178.

7 Ibid., p. 207. Emphases Baumann’s.

8 Tahar Ben Jelloun, This Blinding Absence of Light (New York: The New Press, 2002), p.51.
Posted by Vicki at 11:53 PM | Comments (0)
May 11, 2004