“What you did to the least of my brothers you did to me.” (Matthew 25:45) This teaching of Christ has helped create more humane societies throughout history, even in situations of war and injustice. But it has not always been lived, and the consequences can often be terrible.
The recent news of the disrespect and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers has shocked and disappointed many people. In this lesson we will look at the sources of this scandal especially the lack of personal moral courage leadership and the effect of a sexually promiscuous society. We will look at the negative consequences of the scandal, as well as the opportunity to face this problem with greater virtue.
Red Cross Report Exposes the Abuse
The International Commission of the Red Cross inspects prisons to check on whether prisoners are treated according to standards established by the Geneva Convention. The Geneva Conventions, signed in 1949 and updated in 1977, protect soldiers, civilians and prisoners from being mistreated.
The Red Cross reported that at Ghraib prison, some prisoners were subjected to “ill-treatments ranging from insults and humiliation to both physical and psychological coercionthat in some cases might amount to torture.” They were held naked in dark and empty cells. Some prisoners were photographed naked, chained together in humiliating positions. Other prisoners were severely beaten, and chained into “stress positions”.
Treatment like this is below the dignity that all human beings deserve as persons made in God’s image and loved by him. This fact reminds us that even when we have to enforce justice we should respect the dignity of the person.
Failure of Leadership Opens the Door to Abuse
Major General Antonio Taguba, who was in charge of the investigation of the abuses at Abu Ghraib reports that the abuse stems in part from a complete lack of leadership and supervision, from the general in charge of the prison down to the commanders within the cell blocks. Prison commanders and other leaders have the responsibility to establish rules ensuring proper treatment of prisoners, and to then make sure the rules are followed.
Christ tells Pontius Pilate that earthly authority comes from God, and yet we see what happened when the Roman leader did not have the moral courage to act with justice and responsibility.
“It’s not my fault.”
The soldiers accused of abuse also have personal responsibility, or accountability, for their own actions. We are responsible for any sinful action when we know what we are doing and choose to do it anyway. The guards were each trained in military law, which prohibits the abuse of prisoners. Some families and friends of the guards have tried to excuse their actions, saying that they were going through hard times in Iraq and were simply following orders. However, no matter how difficult the situation is, we are still always responsible in being accountable for our choices.
One woman who survived torture in Guatemala and now lives in the United States reacted when she heard that some people were trying to make excuses for the guards: “Stop it! How can you say that? This is not an excuse. Can’t (the soldier) say, ‘No, I will not do this to this person’?” There is always a personal choice to be made, and personal consequences to be accepted.
The abuse was also allowed to occur due to a lack of moral courage in those abusing and supervising the prisoners. Courage isn’t just overcoming our fears; it is also listening to our conscience and standing up for what we know is right. Individual soldiers and commanders knew the abuse was wrong, yet it wasn’t until January that one soldier finally demonstrated the courage to stand up for his beliefs and inform military investigators about the abuse.
Louder than words
The United States has been working to win over the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, carefully avoiding unnecessary destruction and killing, because our goal is to liberate the people from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny and to help Iraq establish a democracy. In trying to earn the trust of the Iraqi people, respect for human dignity speaks louder than force. Some might think that a quicker solution would be to use violence and force in order to make the people comply from fear, but it is worthless to reach the goal if you have stepped on people in order to get there. The end never justifies the means; you cannot say that cruelty and maltreatment are okay as long as they help us win the war. Even though strength is necessary to defend ourselves and others, we will only win the war for people’s hearts if we play fair.
Adding Fuel to the Fire of Terrorism
Images of Americans abusing Arab prisoners inspire terrorists, and increase their dedication to their violent objectives. For the terrorists, it is the perfect propaganda to recruit new members. It makes them think that they are following a noble cause, because America, the enemy, is promoting evil and immorality. When they see the photographs of prisoners being sexually abused, they also see evil in the whole society of the soldiers, a society that promotes pornography and sexual immorality. If they see the United States as something evil, then the Muslims feel more confident that they are morally superior and have the duty to destroy us and reject all Western influence.
Failings and growth
The world is now watching America to see how we handle the scandal from the perspectives of pursuing justice and taking responsibility. Rather than only being a cause for shame, it can be an opportunity to live up to our position of moral leadership. Just as the sacrament of Confession gives us a chance to be honest with God about our sins, receive forgiveness, and also receive graces (spiritual power) to be an even better follower of Christ, so a moral fall gives our country the chance to spring back again, even higher than before. It is a moment to show what true justice is, and how a morally upright country responds to its own failures.
A chance to show justice
Justice is in part the assigning of rewards and punishments according to objective ethical standards and one’s actions and motives. The military has already begun public courts-martial proceeding against some of the guards involved in the abuse. Many other investigations are being done, including public hearings in the Senate, to determine who knew about the abuse, and who may have contributed to the abuse including senior commanders and policymakers.
After responsibility and punishments have been assigned, we will be able to judge for ourselves whether justice has been served. Leaders of nations against the US war in Iraq, such as Germany’s Foreign Minister, have already complimented America on so openly and aggressively exposing its mistakes and pursuing justice. The world will also be watching to see whether the US military thoroughly addresses the mistakes and policies, or lack of policies, that led to the abuse.
Unchastity and cruelty
It is also time to look at American culture as a whole, and see that the promotion of pornography and the lack of sexual restraint lead to sexual humiliation and abuse. This creates a culture that fosters a lack of respect for the dignity of the human person. An unchaste society always becomes cruel.
The self-mastery required for chastity frees people from the tyranny of their passions. When someone knows how to use his energy for good he can naturally control other disordered desires such as vengeance and power-abuse much better. Chastity and self-mastery also build up a great respect for other people and a creativeness in helping people live in the truth.
Charity and strength
Christ taught us that justice should be tempered with charity, and that without mercy, justice can quickly become cruelty. Christ brought the new law of charity as the primary weapon against cruelty and hatred of others. On the cross Christ accepted the punishment that we deserved in order to free us from our sins. On the cross Christ teaches us that mercy must go beyond strict justice, and that love is stronger than evil and death.
These virtues do not imply weakness. Christ tells us to use them wisely, acting “as innocent as doves and as cunning as serpents”(Matthew 10:16) so as to dodge the evil of men and yet remain confident in God and Christian values. It is a call to all Christians to be heroic in living this charity, with the confidence that one day, as in the ancient Roman empire, Christian charity will change the entire culture.
Coercion – the act of compelling by force of authority
Courage – The capacity to meet danger without giving way to fear; to have the courage of one’s convictions; to be willing to put one’s opinions into practice.
Geneva Conventions– A set of agreements signed by most of the nations of the world that defines treatment of civilians, prisoners and soldiers in war.
Justice- fair treatment and due reward in accordance with honor, standards, or law; the rendering to every one his due or right; just treatment; requital of desert; merited reward or punishment; that which is due to one’s conduct or motives.
Propaganda- information that is spread for the purpose of promoting some cause
Prudence – thinking through the implications of our actions and decisions to avoid error or danger
Respect for others – affirming the value and dignity of all people.
Responsibility – Being accountable for our actions; accepting and meeting the demands of our chosen duty in life.
Scandal – leading others astray by bad example
- ” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. ” Matthew 5:44-45
- “But there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops.” Luke 12:2-3
- ” Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” Luke 6:42
- “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea.” Mark 9:42
Saints and Heroes
St. Peter Claver (1581-1654) Early in the seventeenth century, there was a prosperous slave trade from Africa to Central and South America. A thousand slaves taken from their homes in Africa every month and forced onto a ship as cargo, under such horrible conditions that half died before reaching the Americas. Peter Claver, son of a Spanish farmer, was studying to become a Jesuit priest when he was inspired to live his priestly mission in the Americas. In 1610 he landed in Cartagena, part of present-day Columbia, the chief slave-market of the New World, and worked for 44 years as an apostle to the African slaves. Although naturally timid and lacking in self-confidence, he declared himself the slave of the Africans, and became daring in his heroic charity. He went out to meet each ship that arrived full of frightened and suffering people, and won their good will by his kindness and care. He defended them against their oppressors, and instructed them in the Catholic faith while they were waiting to be sold. In his lifetime, Peter baptised over 300,000 slaves. Although he was criticized by many people, God gave him strength and even allowed him to work miracles in his mission. Peter said of the slaves, “We must speak to them with our hands by giving, before we try to speak to them with our lips.”
Judge Falcone: Giovanni Falcone was a judge in Sicily (Southern Italy) who fearlessly fought the Mafia. For years they had been killing, stealing, counterfeiting money, selling drugs, and spreading fear among the people. Judge Falcone was able to make large strides in combatting these crimes. He was appointed judge in 1964. Partly through the respect but tenacity he showed prisoners when questioning them, he was able to persuade several important Mafia members to tell him about the Mafia and its activities, and also collaborated with the American government to fight this crime network. He worked despite the threats against his life until May 23, 1992, when his car was exploded by a bomb while he was driving to the airport. He was killed along with his wife. Ambassador Sembler commemorated him: “We are here to honor the extraordinary life and legacy of Judge Falcone, a man of rare integrity and courage. Judge Falcone believed that all people have a right to live safe from terror and intimidation. He had a passion for the rule of law and confidence in its ability to improve lives in Sicily, and around the world. Judge Falcone lived his life in the cause of justice, and he lost his life in that pursuit. He will never be forgotten.” His example has inspired others to also be courageous in the fight against the Mafia.
- What emotions do you think some of the guards and interrogators may have felt toward the accused terrorists that contributed to them abusing others? What virtues and principles could have offset these emotions? What would have happened if these guards had been deeply evangelized and influenced by Christian values?
- Within a group, how important is leadership, especially when the group is in a stressful situation? What happens when no one steps forward for positive, constructive leadership? What would have happened if there was one strong and heroic Christian in the midst of the guards?
- What would you say to the argument that the guards were doing what they had to do in order to get valuable information out of the prisoners? What if they were trying to end the war and save lives? Can they do whatever they want in order to reach their goals?
- The sacrament of Confession (Reconciliation) is a special gift from Christ that frees us from our sins and allows us to keep getting back up and trying again, even when we make mistakes. In fact, the special graces that we receive in this sacrament and the honesty it gives us can make us even stronger than before. Christ gives us hope and confidence to not be discouraged by our mistakes and to be better. How can we explain this hope in the face of our imperfection to others, to non-Catholics or to Catholics who do not know their faith?
- What values do you think America stands for? What good values does it stand for? What bad values might it stand for presently? After the prisoner abuse scandal, how can we restore and enhance our leadership in these areas? What do you think God is expecting from us in using this leadership that he gave us?
- What are some ways of rebuilding the trust that was broken with the Iraqi people? What are some ways of rebuilding the values in the culture from where we are?
- Prudence means choosing the right means to reach our goals. It means thinking through the consequences of our actions. This takes moral courage. Can you think of some occasions in young people’s lives when living prudence takes real courage?
-Taking the time to reflect and listen to one’s conscience before acting
-Thinking about others whom may be affected by our actions
-Putting God’s opinion before everyone else’s
- Write about an incident where a mistake you or someone else made had unintended impacted others. Describe what happened, all of the consequences, and the lessons that you learned from that incident. How did you resolve the situation, or get back up from it?
- We have spoken about America as a leader among the other countries of the world. What does it mean to be a leader? In your journal, write what it means to be a good leader. What is leadership for, and how can it be used to improve the lives of others? Give an example of a good leader and back your example up with the qualities that make that person a good leader.
1. In pairs, have students make a flier that helps people to understand that every person has influence over what happened in Iraq, by the way they support or fight pornography in our country. Help them be aware that we cannot criticize the soldiers if we do not remove the indecency and lack of human respect that we see in the media, movies, internet, billboards, etc. Hold a contest to judge the best flier, and if possible, copy and distribute them.
2. Summer Project -Ask students to follow the courts-martial proceedings against guards and commanders, and the investigations into whether senior policy makers contributed to the scandal. Ask each student to come back with their opinion on a specific case of a guard, commander, or policy maker and whether they think justice was done in either assigning, or not assigning punishment.
3. To help the students see their country from another’s perspective, investigate the news articles about the abuse scandal, from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Have students record the key words and phrases in the article that convey a positive or negative image of America. Present the findings to the class.
4. Hold a mock trial for one of the unnamed prison guards. As the teacher, outline a hypothetical background for the case. Designate a group of students to make the defense, imagining the excuses that would normally be given to dodge responsibility (just following orders, suffering the stress of war, trying to get the prisoners to cooperate, etc.). Assign another group as prosecutor to debate this defense and make the accusations about why the guard should be found guilty. The remaining students will be judge and jury, having the assignment of determining a sentence that is appropriate and will right the wrong done. The judge and jury will strive to fulfill the definition of justice in assigning punishment in accordance with our law and ethical standards. As a variation, hold two trials with two different groups of students, first judging from a worldly court’s perspective, and secondly judging with Christian values.
Quotes for Further Formation
Pornography and violence:
“A fundamental message of pornography and violence is disdain, the consideration of others as objects rather than as persons. Thus, pornography and violence can eat away at tenderness and compassion and can foster insensitivity and even brutality.
Young people themselves can help to stem the tide of pornography and violence in the media by responding positively to the initiatives of their parents and educators and by taking responsibility for their own moral decisions in the choice of entertainment.
The general public also needs to make its voice heard. Individually and collectively, concerned citizens – including young people – should make their views known to producers, commercial interests and public authorities. There is an urgent need for continuing dialogue between communicators and representatives of the public so that those involved in the communications media may learn more about the real needs and interests of those whom they serve.” (Pontifical Council for Social Communications: Pornography and Violence in the Communications Media: A Pastoral Response)
Dignity of the prisoner:
“As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25: 40). These words contain, we could say, the “programme” of the Jubilee in Prisons which we are celebrating today. They invite us to live them as a commitment to the dignity of all people, that dignity which flows from God’s love for every human person.
At the centre of this Jubilee (day) there is Christ, the prisoner; at the same time there is Christ the lawgiver. It is he who establishes the law, proclaims it and strengthens it. However he does this not with arrogance, but with meekness and love. He heals what is sick, strengthens what is bruised. Where a faint flame of goodness still burns, he revives it with the breath of his love. He forcefully proclaims justice and heals wounds with the balm of mercy.” (John Paul II, Homily of the Jubilee of Prisons, 9 July 2000).
Justice and Mercy
“The Church shares with the people of our time this profound and ardent desire for a life which is just in every aspect, nor does she fail to examine the various aspects of the sort of justice that the life of people and society demands…
“…The experience of the past and of our own time demonstrates that justice alone is not enough, that it can even lead to the negation and destruction of itself, if that deeper power, which is love, is not allowed to shape human life in its various dimensions. It has been precisely historical experience that, among other things, has led to the formulation of the saying: summum ius, summa iniuria (maximum justice, maximum injustice). This statement does not detract from the value of justice and does not minimize the significance of the order that is based upon it; it only indicates, under another aspect, the need to draw from the powers of the spirit which condition the very order of justice, powers which are still more profound.” (John Paul II, On the Mercy of God, no. 12)
Pontifical document on the ethical use of the means of social communication: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/pccs/documents/rc_pc_pccs_doc_20000530_ethics-communications_en.html
Military code of law: http://www.armystudyguide.com/code_of_conduct
International newspapers: http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/viewer.aspx