Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Don't you have anything better to do?"

It was 5:00pm on Torture Accountability Action Day, and I was standing at the corner of Lancaster and Bryn Mawr with a ragtag little bunch from the Bryn Mawr Peace Coalition. I had brought NRCAT bumper stickers and brochures, as well as the petition calling for a Commission of Inquiry, ready to scrape up a few more signatures.

We got a few friendly honks from after-work commuters and a couple of angry taunts -- the usual. A passing motorist yelled at us: "Don't you have anything better to do?" OK, I know it's a rhetorical question, but I'd have loved to lob him a few responses:

--No, my housework is all finished for the day.

--No, my place of work eliminated overtime.

--No, I taught my dog to walk himself.

--Yes, but why waste the first sunny day all week?

--Yes, and I'm doing it!

A police office came over and took our organizer's name and address. Apparently BMPC had failed to apply for a permit or something. He asked us if we were planning a peaceful demonstration. The question was ludicrous. A couple of the demonstrators were senior citizens propped up on canes. Maybe the signs we were holding resembled lethal weapons?

One of the members had a very large cow bell that she rang intermittently to get the attention of passersby. Sort of reminded me of a Salvation Army volunteer at Christmas time, except that she wasn't standing next to a donation bucket. In fact, next to her was a huge boy-like figure made of Legos brought by one of the other members. Apparently it had been used as some sort of toy advertisement. Sure was colorful.

So, how did I ever get into the torture-protesting business? I used to be someone who just minded her own business. Writing and calling my public officials wasn't something I was in the habit of doing, let alone taking to the streets.

It all started a few months after 911 when a columnist in the Philadelphia Inquirer posed the not-so-rhetorical question, "If we capture any al-Qaeda operatives, will we be tough enough to torture them to get the information we need?" I couldn't believe I was reading this. Will we be tough enough to torture? If I had been playing a word association game and someone had said the word "torture" to me, I would have instinctively responded, "medieval." I assumed that torture had gone out with the rack, the meat hook, and the Iron Maiden, except for some weird, kinky types, deranged criminals, shady paramilitary police in tropical countries, and --yes-- politically motivated religious fanatics. But that an American journalist would even discuss the possibility of torturing suspects --even suspects who hated our guts enough to perpetrate mass murder-- well, I just couldn't swallow it. That very week I sent contributions to both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, even though I had never been a member of either organization before. And I wrote a letter to the columnist telling him what I thought (it got published).

The run-up to the Iraq invasion came next, and I didn't really think too much about the torture question or read very closely the stories that were starting to surface about detainees dumped into Guantánamo Bay prison. Then the Abu Ghraib photos got my (and the world's) attention. I remember writing a letter to then Secretary of State Colin Powell (I still thought he was a decent type back then). After that I started "connecting the dots," as they say, following every story about US-sponsored torture I could find. Had to resort to the "alternative press" to get most of it, just as I had had to count on alternative news sources for anything close to the truth about the US invasion of Iraq. I met a Presbyterian pastor during one of my trips to Ghost Ranch who told me about the organization no2torture. That organization led me to NRCAT and then to the QUIT Conference, which I attended with other F/friends in June 2007. I joined with others who felt similar outrage...and eventually I ended up here, on the corner of Lancaster and Bryn Mawr.

After all, it was Torture Accountability Action Day, and I just couldn't think of anything better to do.


  1. I just saw your comment in Sr. Helen's blog. Do you teach at Villanova? I am a student there now, and have just been accepted into the Augustinian Order. I had the great privilege of playing the lead in our production of Dead Man Walking last year, and then meeting her privately when she came to speak. Isn't she wonderful???

  2. Hi Michael,

    I'm one of the librarians at Falvey. I wasn't able to go see the play, but I did see the movie and I'm reading the book now.

    I'm also currently writing to someone on death row. I call him Jared in my blog entries, although that's not his real name(blogged about him most recently on May 4). He certainly fits the profile given by Sister Helen of those who end up getting executed. He came from a very poor socioeconomic background and his victim was a young white man. The details of his crime are on the web for all to see, and it was indeed heinous. Still, I pray that his sentence will be commuted. He's done quite a lot of reflecting in the 10 years he's been on death row.

    Like Sister Helen, I think about Jared's victim and his victim's family every time I open one of his letters. (I'm not Jared's spiritual adviser or anything, just a correspondent.) He must serve a severe prison sentence, but I don't believe he should be executed. As a matter of fact, I'd like to see him moved to a prison facility where he could work and study.

    All the best.


Comments are moderated. The decision of the blog author is final.