Alibi V.13 No.21 • May 20-26, 2004 

Ortiz y Pino

The Menace of Blind Obedience

Our tilted scales of morality at play in Iraq

I didn't want to write about the Abu Ghraib prison atrocities this week. The last thing this community needs is one more take on the subject, I decided.

Then I went to the gym and heard an opinion voiced in the locker room that got me fuming. In that state of mind, I picked up the morning paper and read where a good friend, a gentle, thoughtful and concerned theology teacher had been fired from St. Pius High School for theological deviation.

When these two separate experiences collided, I had to add one more little angle, my two cents worth, to the discussion of what Abu Ghraib means to us as a society.

The gym rat was scratching his toes while he opined that the press was sure making a lot of commotion over nothing special.

"Torture? Hell, I went through worse in high school," he snorted for several of us to hear. "I've heard of lots worse stuff we did to Japs and Germans during World War II."

Maybe he's right. I mean, I suppose American troops in earlier wars might have sodomized prisoners of war with chemical lights.

I guess his high school initiation rituals could have included being photographed masturbating, wearing dog collars, getting punched in the face and being hooded, hooked up to fake electrical connections and tricked into thinking he was going to be electrocuted.

My high school initiation didn't include such torment, but who's to say all high schools are as wimpy as mine was?

But it doesn't matter if worse behavior went on somewhere else in recorded human history. That's not the point. We are occupying Iraq ostensibly because we want to improve their situation, not because we want to compete with Sadaam's record for torture and mistreatment.

So what went wrong? Who's going to ’fess up to creating this aberration? How did a war that began with a string of lies for its rationale manage to go downhill from there?

For starters we know President Bush is not to blame. He had no idea what was happening over there ... or anywhere.

And the Secretary of Defense didn't do nothin'. Heck, he didn't have time to even read the reports sent to him about the situation or view the photos for weeks after they appeared in the press. So how could we hold him responsible?

And the officers in charge of the prison had no idea. Nor did the CIA agents who were directing the interrogations. It is clear from all the honchos' comments that this was clearly a case of a small group of deviant guards taking matters into their own hands. Not something they were encouraged to do. Not something they were trained to do. Not something that was possible to control. Not something that ever could be done under official auspices.

Certainly not something that we would be training officers from other countries to do at a place like, say, the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia? No way!

This abhorrent behavior is completely unlike anything sanctioned by our government, you can rest assured of that.

But the culprits, those Pfcs and Spec 4s who got captured on film with their hands on the leash, their grins displayed above the stacks of naked bodies, their ... we better not go there. These culprits, we find out, when they have a chance to explain themselves, were "only following orders."

And that explanation may get them off. We have, after all, great respect for obedience in this society. Blind obedience most of all. The lemmings sprinting over the ledge into the sea or the sheep mindlessly suffocating themselves following their leader could well be our national mascots.

We send our directionless teens to the Marines to be made into men who can take orders. We promote the workaholic robots who sacrifice family for career. We reward the heel-clicking, unquestioning team players who do precisely what they are told.

And we punish those with qualms. The hesitant. The conscience-stricken. The softies who try to square obedience with personal principle. The whistle-blowers, conscientious objectors and pacifists.

Where does this start? Way back in schoolrooms where instead of how to think, how to decide, how to make choices, young souls are molded into believing that there is one right answer to every life dilemma and all issues are clearly black and white.

Michael Fitzgerald was fired by Archbishop Sheehan after 33 years as a theology teacher at St. Pius precisely because he deviated from the Archbishop's view that missing Sunday Mass is a mortal sin. He insisted that his students learn instead how to weigh the issues involved in living a life of integrity and justice while nourishing the spirit with prayer.

How much simpler it is to just pass out little score cards for tallying the number of mortal sins rung up during an adult lifetime so that they can be cancelled out neatly with a strategically timed final confession, plenary indulgence or generous donation to a worthy charity.

But it leaves a troubling question unanswered. If missing Mass is a mortal sin, one punished with eternal damnation in hell, then what is the proportionate punishment for sodomizing helpless persons entrusted to you? And what is the punishment for photographing such acts? And what is the punishment for a national leader who turns a blind eye to such acts?

The scales tilt wildly, don't they?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.