By Sherwood Ross
Are you ready to go to jail for what you believe? Would you stand up to the Pentagon by engaging in non-violent civil disobedience to protest torture?
Two men of faith who have done so, who have walked the same road of Mohandas Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King, are Franciscan Louis Vitale and Jesuit Stephen Kelly. They were 75 and 58, respectively, when they were jailed.
They submitted themselves for arrest in November, 2006, as they knelt in prayer in the driveway at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
Ft. Huachuca has been described as the source of the torture manuals used at the infamous School of the Americas.
Writing about his experience in “Sojourners,” an ecumenical Christian magazine, Father Vitale says he and Father Kelly had “hoped to deliver a letter opposing the teaching of torture” to those in charge and to speak with enlisted personnel about the base’s “illegality and immorality.”
Sadly, for the military as well as for themselves, they were arrested and sentenced by a Tucson, Ariz., magistrate to prison for five months. Both have since been released.
In the Imperial County jail in California, Father Vitale made a discovery, that he had nothing more to fear: “we discover the path of resistance: a vocation that we must follow in the midst of empire to overcome the oppression of our brothers and sisters.”
“I realize this stance in my solitary cell…as the steel doors clang shut, there is freedom to surrender to God and this universe. There is freedom to be open to the creative call of compassion toward our global community.”
Apparently, it was difficult for Father Vitale to acknowledge the reality “that ours is a nation that tortures.” He chastises his country because it “has retracted the binding commitment it made when it signed the 1975 U.N. declaration on torture.”
That Declaration in Article I defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official…”
Father Vitale was disturbed by the photos he saw of torture perpetrated at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, such as “hangings, electric shock, beatings, waterboardings, and other extreme physical and psychological procedures,” procedures he says were “spelled out in memos emanating from the White House.”
These tortures have been used in prisons not only in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, but also in prisons to which the U.S. renders prisoners in Syria, Egypt, Morocco, and other countries.
Father Vitale says he and Father Kelly were motivated to protest at Fort Huachuca by the death of Alyssa Peterson, a young U.S. Army interpreter who was trained there.
“After just two sessions in the cages, she objected and refused to participate in the harsh interrogation techniques being used—techniques the Army now refuses to describe and records of which have been destroyed,” Fr. Vitale writes.
“She became distraught and was sent to suicide prevention training, only to commit suicide shortly thereafter,” Father Vitale added.
Father Vitale says he would like to know why Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast of Fort Huachuca, formerly chief of military intelligence in Iraq stationed at Abu Ghraib “has never been reprimanded nor prosecuted for her command failure to prevent it.”
He is also concerned that Brig. Gen. John Custer, who succeeded Fast in charge of Fort Huachuca, allegedly integrated “into standard practice” the techniques elsewhere he learned at Guantanamo.
Father Vitale said when he was in prison he thought about how “Jesus boldly challenged every barrier to the well-being of all, fearlessly breaking the innumerable taboos, customs, and laws that dehumanize, destroy, or diminish human beings, especially the rejected, the feared, the despised. His life and vision has illumined for me the obligation to say ‘no’ to injustice and ‘yes’ to love in action.”
While he sat in jail, Father Vitale said he felt as though he was in the presence of both God and Christ “who gave his life for the healing and well-being of all.” He wrote in Sojourners, “In my small cell, I have a growing awareness of the communion of saints—and the possibility of a world where the vast chasm of violence and injustice enforced by torture and war is bridged and transformed.” How many of the rest of us can say that?