Beyond Abu Ghraib: Cleansing the American Spirit

Rabbi Arthur Waskow *, 5/19/2004

How can a whole society cope with having been defiled by actions that spring from its own decisions?

That is perhaps the deepest question that arises from the torturing of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. It raises not only questions of public policy but beyond them, the spiritual health of the American people.

For the tortures were not concocted by the troops in the photographs alone. When the International Red Cross reports that its appeals and reports to high officials were ignored for almost a year; when we recall Secretary Rumsfeld and Attorney-General Ashcroft insisting that the prisoners at Guantanamo stand outside all legal recourse; when we read reports that US prisons are rife with rapes and beatings; when we compare photos of the joking torturers to old photos of laughing lynch mobs in the American South —

When, above all, we realize that the tortures are the culmination of a war undertaken by violating international law and the UN Charter, and by lying to the American people — a war based on the notion that the world's single military superpower, with weapons beyond any in human history, had absolute power to do whatever it wanted in the world —

Then we remember Lord Acton's rule of thumb: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

We remember that this was exactly the reason we embedded checks and balances in our Constitution.

This is not just the discovery of 18th-century political activists. Our ancient traditions teach that we must rhythmically move from Doing to Being, from Acting to Reflecting. The use of power is not evil, but getting addicted to it produces evil. The rhythm in which we rest and reflect upon our Doings is what keeps our Doing holy.

And we realize that although deep in our national or our human character is a strand that tugs us toward exercising absolute power, especially over "others" — defined by race, religion, nation, prisoner status — there is also, thank God, a strand that tugs us toward being horrified when we stare the results in the face.

What do we do with our horror, our sense of shame, guilt, disgust?

The Torah describes a spiritual state called "tumah" — sometimes translated as defilement, but perhaps more accurately, the uncanny aftermath of direct contact with blood, birth, death, sexuality. "Tumah" takes a person out of communal contact, plunging the "tamei" person into inward awe and trembling. Being in "tumah" barred a person from the place of communal holiness — the Temple. Contact with a corpse required seven days of lone contemplation, and an immersion in the rebirthing oceanic waters of mikveh.

Has the whole American people been plunged into "tumah" by both witnessing and being ultimately responsible for the use of torture by our soldiers? (As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: "In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible.") If a whole people is "tamei," how do we return to our communal path of sacred life?

From another perspective, individuals are obligated to repent when we have sinned. The Hebrew word for this process, "tshuvah," actually means "turn" — to turn our lives in a new direction. To build an I-Thou relationship where there was only I-It.

We must make restitution to those we have damaged.

We must commit ourselves not to repeat the sin.

And then - but not till then — we must renew our relationship with God.

What would it mean for a whole nation to do this?

Our leaders must use clear and simple words from our spiritual and religious vocabularies: "We have sinned" and "We beg your forgiveness."

Since our sin involves the abuse of power over others, we cannot simply pay them off with US dollars: That would be just another expression of power. The only redress for the misuse of absolute power is relinquishing that power while empowering its victims. The only cure is to pause from our lives as Human Doings to become Human Beings.

Only from a pause to relinquish power can there grow new respect and legitimacy and a decent measure of power in the world.

How do we get from here to there? The medium must be part of the message: reflection before action.

Suppose that churches, mosques, synagogues, temples everywhere in America were to call sacred gatherings for getting in touch with the depth of feeling people have had about the revelations of torture.

Begin with ten minutes of silent meditation focused on the breath and the joyful dignity of our bodies, so vulnerable to humiliation and torture.

Then ask people to take ten minutes talking with one other person to share their own reactions to learning about the torture of prisoners.

After this exchange, take a few minutes to absorb in silence what each pair of people has said.

Then invite any who wish to stand and say to the whole congregation the central spark of what they learned.

Then ask people to spend ten minutes writing a letter to a public official or a newspaper people with their own proposal to repair the broken sense of American decency.

End with a prayer to the Source of peace.

I expect that many many Americans will see that "turning" away from the patterns of absolutist top-down power must now mean ending the US Occupation and allowing Iraqis to work out their own self-government with help from the UN.

Before, some might have hoped that on balance, despite difficulties, more legitimacy for a new Iraqi government would flow from using US power through the occupation than from relinquishing US power

But now — How can the gift of human rights be bestowed by a nation that imposed a new set of tortures in an old house of pain? — Power may, but legitimacy will not, grow from the barrel of a US gun.

No doubt other responses will also arise. The process of reflection itself puts a check and a balance on absolute power; and from the medium will arise new messages toward decent action.