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/

a mucky way of peace

As I continue to try to be a faithful disciple of Jesus I continually confront the messy, cluttered commotion along the Way.  I feel like I keep switching from being stunned by the beauty and caught in my human confusion.

The words I pray every morning stir my questions:

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
for he has visited and brought redemption to his people.
He has raised up a horn for our salvation
within the house of David his servant,
even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old:
salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to be mindful of his holy covenant
and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father,
and to grant us that,
rescued from the hand of enemies,
without fear we might worship him
in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord* to prepare his ways,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God
by which the daybreak from on high* will visit us
to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.” Luke 1: 68-79

Good and simple and the Light on the path is mighty. The Light that shines on the path of peace glows into shadows.  There’s dusty despair floating around in the Light creating a strange beauty.  A calm collects and settles, yet the stains of sin feel like stones in shoes.  We talk about the beauty of God’s mysterious ways while a bad taste of discontentment lingers on our lips.  We remember that although we can revel in the goodness of God, we can’t forget the injustices and suffering that still are in need of great redemption.

Paths leading to trees

I’ve been on a blogging break for the past couple weeks as I finished up a semester of teaching, took a Christmas vacation and went on a silent retreat.  (Thanks to Sister Sarah and Steven for writing while I was away!)

The Christmas season is ending and I am renewed.  The blessings of the incarnation have re-rooted me in the core of who I am: a child of God.  As God’s child, I am on the path of peace.  A theme of my retreat was God’s Way of Love and I considered the power of the Prince of Peace being alive and home in the broken darkness of our messed up world.  Jesus’ way of blessing the brokenness of humanity permits us to have hope and trust.  God is enfleshed and alive in the fullness of humanity.  Back in my classroom I’m marveling with my students about how Jesus is a material man. He’s word, light, love, energy, feelings, image, sound, alive and fleshy. God is really awesome!

Still, my rejoicing feels mucky.   Many of my companions on the journey carry a lot of truth.  In the faces of many I see tears, hunger, fear and sorrow and I know that oppression is not over.   There’s more work to do.   My friends who are peacemakers remind me that we can’t sit down and give up.  Jesus loves us (yes he does!) and love is a powerful, world-changing force.

Love is messy, as written on a crumpled sheet of paper

We can’t slow in our work for peace and there’s an urgency in the good news. We keep creating the new ways of God- no matter how mucky they seem in coming. The muck can be depressing.  It’s unpleasant, but if we’re with Jesus it’s where we belong.

Nowadays, the horrors of state sanctioned torture and indefinite detention are especially disturbing me.  Guantanamo prison has been open for almost 10 years despite its human rights and international law violations.  Some of my activist friends are hard at work in Washington D.C. and here in Chicago with incredible fasting, protesting, educating and praying. Like they did last year (and Luke wrote about) they’re fasting and creatively, non-violently asking our government to end the injustices of torture and detention.  I join them as I am able: in solidarity as I fast too (from television), in action to increase awareness, in advocacy for justice and in prayer and contemplation.

I’m remembering how before Christmas we heard the news that all the troops were coming home from Iraq.  I was still in an advent waiting space in my spirit, but my mind told me I ought to rejoice and celebrate a victory for justice.  A shadowy waiting space and an enlightened celebration: I wasn’t able to unite the two.  Instead, I felt my joy fall flat.  I was opposed to the war before it began and my young activism was formative for me.  The ending of the occupation felt so long overdue that it felt more frustrating than favorable.  Peacemaking is mucky.

I am grateful that Jesus was born into the broken, confused places within our spirits and within our world.  As we suffer and struggle we find that we must remain open and empty to experience the fullness of God.  We must allow continual conversion.  After all, we can accept that on the path of peace there’s joy of the incarnation: we are forgiven, free and blessing the brokenness in the world.  The darkness cannot overcome the light, light shines through the darkness! Thanks be to God!

Road toward a light sky