The Way Beyond Iraq
How the history of Chile can help us
Imagine being tortured and raped, and then being forced to watch as the ‘evil-doers’ rape your daughter. All the while you know you do not have the information they want. You simply do not know where your son is, and these security forces want to find him.
No, this is not some plot out of a Stephen King novel. This atrocity actually happened in Chile in the early 1980s when the U.S supported, brutal Pinochet dictatorship was in power. As part of my formation as a Jesuit priest, I served in Chile from 1981-1984. Everyone was aware of the practice of torture in the country. The protest group Sebastian Acevedo regularly, and at great risk to themselves, publicly denounced the use of torture. The group was named after a father who set himself afire and died protesting the detention of his children by the government’s dreaded officers of the CNI. The Catholic Church excommunicated anyone who had anything to do with torture, a prophetic stance that infuriated the military sectors of the country.
The woman raped and tortured was freed through the intervention of the Archdiocese of Santiago’s Vicariate de la Solidaridad. At a press conference organized to publicize and denounce the incident, the woman was asked what she wanted done to those who tortured her. I’ll never forget her reply. “O, soy Catolica. Les perdono. Hay que ser enfermos mentales” (Oh, I am a Catholic. I forgive them. They must be mentally ill).
Another Chilean woman knew of her father, an Air Force General, being tortured daily for months by Pinochet’s minions. As a result of the constant torture sessions, the General died of a heart attack while in prison. The young woman and her mother were also taken and tortured for 21 days in the hell of the Villa Grimaldi detention center. Once released, they had to go into exile to protect and save their lives. Today that young woman is the president of Chile. I don’t know if President Bachelet has forgiven those who tortured her, but she certainly is not consumed and controlled by hatred and anger for those who so grievously wronged her and her family. Michelle Bachelet demonstrates that Chileans have moved beyond the nightmare of the Pinochet years.
How will we move beyond the nightmare of our Iraq debacle? How can we move beyond the fact that we Americans now routinely sanction and use torture techniques? How can we live with the stigma and shame of some soldiers raping and killing innocent Iraqis, disgracing the uniform and the vast majority of men and women who serve honorably in the U.S. military? How can we deal with our violations of the Geneva Convention at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? As a people and a nation, we must admit our wrongs and humbly beg forgiveness. We need to repent of the wrongs we have done, and forgive the wrongs done to us. Reconciliation is the only sane alternative: reconciliation between Shia and Sunni, Muslim and Christian, America and the rest of the world. Both violated and violator must reconcile, or we will be at war forever.
The acts of forgiveness that took place after the horrors in Chile were extraordinary. We can we learn from them. For the sake of our sanity and souls, we must learn to forgive those who attacked us on September 11th. Perhaps more importantly, we will muster the national and personal will to recognize and ask forgiveness for the horrendous errors we have made in responding to that tragic event. Until we choose to move beyond the insanity of the past several years, we will be perpetually paralyzed and controlled by this cynically manufactured “war on terrorism.”
According to Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, the Iraq conflict alone has already run up a bill of somewhere between one and two trillion dollars. No dollar value can be placed on the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, and the thousands of U.S. service men and women who have perished. But their loss cries out for an end to the devastation, destruction and death.
Supposedly we are a Christian nation. Some 75% of U.S. adults are counted as Christian. Yet, how many of us are ready and willing to forgive those who wrong us? Jesus’ central teaching was that we must forgive, even our enemies (Matt 5:43). While hanging on the cross, Jesus said, “Forgive them. They know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
The President of the United States is a part of the three quarters of Americans who claim to be Christians. Only God can judge the sincerity of his faith commitment. Still, it is obvious that his relationship with Christ would make more sense to the rest of the world if he were to practice what Jesus preaches. Imagine George W. Bush asking forgiveness for the deaths his decisions have caused. Imagine our asking forgiveness for our trespasses against the innocent people we have harmed and killed. Imagine a national day of repentance where we forgive the terrorists their trespasses against us. It is time to forgive the Saudis and Egyptians who perpetrated the crimes of 9/11. It is time to beg forgiveness for the horrific errors we have made in invading and dismantling Iraq.
Extraordinary measures? Yes, but we are in Lent. It is time to repent.