Pentagon reflection: black hoods, white faces and the enemy within

by Guest Blogger Amy Nee Walker (with Witness Against Torture this week)

I am in D.C. again, continuing the tradition of gathering each January with men and women of the community called Witness Against Torture. The group gathers each year, and works throughout the year, toward the closure of Guantanamo, appropriate legal trials for those detained, and freedom for those who are innocent. We gather out of love for one another and for those unjustly bound; we gather hoping that dreams of justice can be come reality.

In September 2012, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif – a Yemeni national who had been imprisoned in Guantanamo since 2002 – was found dead.. This man, cleared for release three times by the Bush Administration and again by the Obama Administration, was a poet, a son, a father. With hunger strikes, Adnan protested his unjust imprisonment. His actions led to brutal – and illegal – force feedings, beatings, and further mistreatment by the hands of his American captors. Below is a poem he wrote while living in the detention center:

Hunger Strike Poem

They are criminals, increasing their crimes.

They are criminals, claiming to be peace-loving.

They are criminals, torturing the hunger strikers.

They are artists of torture,

They are artists of pain and fatigue,

They are artists of insults and humiliation.

They are faithless—traitors and cowards—

They have surpassed devils with their criminal acts.

They do not respect the law,

They do not respect men,

They do not spare the elderly,

They do not spare the baby-toothed child.

They leave us in prison for years, uncharged,

Because we are Muslims.

Where is the world to save us from torture?

Where is the world to save us from the fire and sadness?

Where is the world to save the hunger strikers?

But we are content, on the side of justice and right,

Worshipping the Almighty.

And our motto on this island is, salaam.

Portrait of Adnan Farhan Latif
Adnan Farhan Latif

 

We entered singing at seven a.m.on Monday onto the designated protest grounds of the Pentagon Building. Early in the hour-long vigil I began to notice things. I noticed I was tired from waking at 5:30 a.m. I noticed my throat was irritated, but less so than yesterday. I noticed my wrists were feeling cramped from helping hold a large black canvas banner with white lettering, “Close Guantanamo.”

Behind me the names of detainees were being read with steady reverence, interspersed with a chorus of “Courage, Muslim Brother,” and poems composed by the detained men. I tried to focus on the names, on the distant, aching lives for which those names are a small symbol that we grasp. But I could not feel their presence this morning. Before me was a steady stream of men and women, so many, so varied, and I noticed that I had not been attending to their presence either, more absorbed in the looming building, our agenda, myself.

As a young child, I would avert my eyes from people’s faces. I suppose it stemmed from an anxiety of being seen, not looking was hiding. But instead of providing me a safe view, my hiding eyes hid others from me, and my world was very small. Gently, firmly, patiently, my parents taught me to expand that world. Taking my face in their hands, they taught me to make eye contact with them, then, gradually, to look to others who were speaking. I began to practice, to become attentive, to take people in and to give myself with a gaze.

High in the wide windows of the Pentagon, breaking dawn was being revealed. The sun began to shine behind us, police officers facing us donned sunglasses to shade their eyes, and I opened mine. Faces of every shade and shape passed by, old and young, in formal and casual and military attire. I was surprised at the diversity. Some looked toward us, seeming to read the signs, though their face offered no acknowledgement of our presence. Others turned their heads. Those who swerved to the far side of the walkway to avoid nearness put me in mind of passersby on a New York City sidewalk, afraid of the man on the corner who might laden them with unwanted coupons, the woman in the doorway asking for money. A few—pale, sharp-faced men with clipped gaits and military garb—looked toward us (though not at anyone in particular) with large, leering grins, sardonic and spiteful. I felt reflexively sick and chilled at the sight of these men. I saw them as disturbing, even disgusting, and I wanted them to be disgusted at themselves. And then I realized what I was doing. I was not looking at these people to see who they were, recognizing their humanity and wholeness. I was seeing them as I felt, worse than looking away, judging them from my small world.

Behind me, the program of readings continued and I heard the words of Luke Nephew’s poem, “There is a man under that hood…” His poem beautifully and concisely encapsulates the spirit of love, active-compassion, and respect for life that draws me to Witness Against Torture, and to the Catholic Worker; a spirit that I hope to embody. It is love, active-compassion, and respect for all lives –

Mr. President, I want you to know, that if it were you hooded and chained We would be standing right here, demanding the same basic human rights for you… If it were you facing indefinite detention Mr. Senator, We would march in these streets with your name on our backs We would fast In solidarity with your hunger strike, Mrs. Congresswoman Even while months of breathing through black cloth made you cough We would speak for you Mr. Newsman, Mrs. Citizen, we would be here for you… –knowing that individuals are more than the images we see, whether that image be a black hood, a white face, or our own face in the mirror.

During the Fasters Meeting after the vigil, Jules commented, “hearts and minds were hard to change there.” Each year that I come to D.C. with WAT, each day that I put on the hood, I am challenged with the recognition that I am still hiding, guarding myself with quick judgments of another that makes less of us both. I find that the one heart and mind I can know is my own, and it too needs changing, stretching; gently, firmly, patiently stretching and seeing that we are all far more expansive and complex than eyes can perceive. In this, community is both a comfort and a constant chastening. Ever revealing and reminding us of one another’s beautiful, bewildering, cruel and kind, fragile and sturdy, contradictory, mysterious being; and giving us the chance to practice again and again how to respond in love and truth.

Amy Nee at January 2013 Witness Against Torture vigil in DC photo by Justin Norman
Amy Nee at January 2013 Witness Against Torture vigil in DC photo by Justin Norman

 

Witness Against Torture photo
Photo credit: http://witnesstorture.org/blog/2013/01/09/fast-for-justice-2013-day-3/
People protesting
Photo credit: http://witnesstorture.org/blog/category/fast-for-justice-2013/

One thought on “Pentagon reflection: black hoods, white faces and the enemy within

  1. This is a beautiful and heart wrenching post. You inspire me with new ways to become closer to God and man. You remind me of why I returned to the church after years of atheism. Bless you, bless you, bless you.

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