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What Cox, Killmer and Serotta Got Wrong at Jan. 11 DC Anti-Torture Protest

With a few days’ distance, I’d like to offer a couple of thoughts on what Larry Cox, Richard Killmer and Gerald Serotta got wrong when they spoke at the January 11, 2008 protest against indefinite detention and torture by the United States. Don’t get me wrong: I agree with the protest and when I was there I found myself impressed by a lot of what went on (I’ll write more about that later). But that doesn’t mean I turned my brain off, and there were two areas in which these three speakers set off my brain’s bullshit detector.

Amnesty International USA executive director Larry Cox did what all good administrators do, which is to thank the people who helped him pull it all off. But then he overreached:

This is the ugly blot on the America we believe in that we are going to finally remove. Because today’s protests and vigils are one more indication that the public outrage at the Bush administration’s continued harmful approach to national security is escalating. Mr. President, the demands for respect for human rights are only going to get louder and more widespread. And there’s only one way to reduce our chants: Shut down Guantanamo.

The thing is that January 11’s protests and vigils (at least in the United States) were NOT one more indication that the public outrage at the Bush administration’s actions is escalating. A few years ago, protests against the Bush administration were held in widespread fashion not just in Washington DC but in smaller cities like Cincinnati. But on January 11, most of the American cities taking part in the day of “action” held subdued non-protest events like poetry readings, or lectures, or routine organizational strategy meetings. And Washington DC, which is the traditional epicenter of political protest in the United States, attracted 250 souls at best:

A view of the crowd at the January 11, 2008 Washington DC Protest Against Indefinite Detention and Torture on the Washington DC National Mall

Here’s the hard truth, Larry Cox. I’ve seen it at protests like yours, I’ve seen it in the letters to the editor of the country’s newspapers, and I hear it in conversation with other Americans: there is a crisis of political morality in the United States, and the momentum isn’t going the way Amnesty International might like. I don’t see any reason to be sure that “the demands for respect for human rights are only going to get louder and more widespread.” To the contrary, I see those demands settling down. Not that it’s your fault, but that’s what’s happening. The American people are beginning to accept American torture, American surveillance, and other forms of sometimes brutal American authoritarianism. They’re quieting down, and proclaiming the contrary doesn’t make the contrary true.

Here’s what I think you should have said, after a pregnant pause:

You know, this is the part of the speech in which I am supposed to say that the public outrage at the Bush administration’s continued harmful approach to national security is escalating, and that the movement against torture and indefinite detention is growing, and that the only thing George W. Bush can do to stop it is to close Guantanamo and reinvigorate the rule of law.

But I can’t say that because it isn’t true. The hard truth is that the Bush administration has sacrificed human rights at the altar of national security not to roars of American outrage, but to a whimper. From the 1960s through the 1990s, movements of moral and political reform filled this national mall. Here today we have just a handful of outraged citizens, far too few to raise the attention of any but the converted. Yes, we must continue to pressure the Bush administration to change its ways. But a second, crucial arm of our movement must be to rouse the sense of moral injustice that in too many Americans seems to have gone numb.

And then there were the comments of Richard Killmer and Gerald Serotta, each representing certain constituencies within the Christian and Jewish faith communities. Each made the claim that religion and religious scriptures stand against torture. Richard Killmer:

The religious community has concluded that torture is a moral issue… Religions require their adherents to protect the dignity of all people, to treat everyone with compassion including their enemies, to welcome all people, even those with a different religion or tradition, to work for fairness and justice for all, and to give to next generations a world at peace.

Gerald Serotta:

Torture shatters and defiles the very image of God, which our scriptures see reflected in each and every human being. Torture as well as other cruel and inhumane treatment degrades everyone involved…

The religious community as a whole has NOT concluded that torture is a moral issue, or at least one deserving of any resolution. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who is also a Christian pastor, has taken pains to note that he thinks the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo is “amazingly hospitable,” as if the detention facility were a home for urchins rescued off the street. Mitt Romney, who describes himself as part of a very religious community, has refused to call waterboarding torture. The Republican base that has supported the Bush administration’s expansion of national security and retraction of human rights is disproportionately religious. In fact, religious Republicans are more strongly supportive of the Bush agenda than non-religious Republicans.

Then there are the scriptures. The Jewish Rabbi Serotta and the Christian Reverend Killmer might want to consult their scriptures again, specifically the book of Revelation (for Killmer at least), Exodus 12, Exodus 21, Deuteronomy 2, 2 Samuel 12, 1 Chronicles 20, Number 25, Numbers 31, and so on and so forth. There’s a lot of torture and violence against humanity in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and a lot of it is sanctioned by God. Of course, there are also mentions of kindness and justice and mercy in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. In human history, there’s been a lot of torture justified by scripture and religion and appeals to God, and there’s been a lot of mercy and kindness and justice in the name of scripture and religion and God. For people who are religious, opposition to torture is not an inevitable slam dunk. It is a struggle between different factions in the religious communities who would use religion to very different ends. I wish Serotta and Killmer had recognized this.

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