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Pace e Bene’s Louie Vitale and the Movement to End Torture

Posted by Ken Butigan

The release of the U.S. Senate’s Torture Report this week prompts us to think not only about the heinous suffering, illegality and deceit that has flowed from the policy of torture, but also the staunch resistance that numerous organizations have engaged in to stop this policy, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Witness Against Torture, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

In addition to these and other groups, many individuals have taken a stand against this policy. One of these is Pace e Bene co-founder Franciscan Friar Louie Vitale, who repeatedly has served significant jail sentences opposing torture. Former Franciscan provincial and a founder of the Nevada Desert Experience, Louie is a tireless worker for justice and peace. Inspired by Louie’s acts of conscience, Pace e Bene in 2008 organized “The Declaration for a World without Torture,” which invited people everywhere to take a public stand against torture.

In 2008, Pace e Bene published “Letter from Imperial Jail,” which was Louie’s account of one of his efforts to oppose torture.  Below is an excerpt from this publication.

In November 2006, Louie and Jesuit Fr. Steven Kelly attempted to deliver a letter opposing the teaching of torture at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, headquarters of US Army Intelligence and the training center for military interrogators. The priests were arrested as they knelt in prayer halfway up the driveway at the Army base. On October 17, 2007 a federal judge in Tucson sentenced the two priests to five-month prison sentences, which they began serving immediately.  

The night before their sentencing, retired Major General Antonio Taguba (who wrote the Pentagon’s report on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq) phoned the priests to tell them, “History will honor your actions.”


I write from Imperial County Jail in El Centro, California.

I am serving a five- month sentence as a federal prisoner for challenging the training of interrogators at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and Training School based at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona.

The months spent in my solitary cell have enabled me — as Gandhi suggested — to “find freedom in the Imperial cell that allows fear and our own concerns to evolve into ‘the way of Liberation’ of all peoples and of all creation.”

Gandhi claimed that the cell door is the door to freedom. In freely entering the Imperial prison in India — and the Imperial County Jail in California — there is nothing more to fear.  It is here that we achieve a transformation, a turning, a teshvua (the Hebrew term for repentance).  Here we discover the path of resistance: a vocation that we must follow in the midst of empire to overcome the oppression of our brothers and sisters.

I realize this stance in my solitary cell in Imperial County Jail. As the steel doors clang shut, there is a freedom to surrender to God and this universe. There is a freedom to be open to the creative call of compassion towards our global community.

For me it begins here with those in this prison who have been cast aside by our society. Those who have been rejected I see as brothers and sisters, attempting to live good lives in the face of severe social, economic and personal obstacles.  So many are here because of the nearby arbitrary border between the US and Mexico, which is more and more offensive, and a desperate economy in which they seek to survive.

A World Without Torture

I have come to this prison cell because I was moved to challenge a terrible frontier that my country has crossed into in its ill-conceived and ill-fated war in Iraq: torture.

Each of us has had to absorb the reality that ours is a nation that tortures.

By its policies and practices, the United States has retracted the binding commitment it made when it signed the 1975 Declaration Against Torture. Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, the declaration prohibited torture, which it defined in Article 1 as: “Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he has committed, or intimidating him or other persons.”

As stunning as turning on our televisions on September 11, 2001 and viewing the World Trade Towers collapse was seeing, in 2004, startling pictures of raw torture perpetrated by the US military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  It did not comfort us to learn that some of this cruel behavior took place at a staff birthday party.

General Antonio Taguba, who produced the official US Army study of Abu Ghraib, reported at a conference held at the University of San Francisco that the torture photos the world saw were only the tip of the iceberg.  He feared for the sensitivities of the viewers if he released the bulk of the incriminating photos.

We have since become aware of the extent of these so-called “enhanced interrogation methods” — hangings, electric shock, beatings, waterboarding and other extreme physical, and psychological procedure — spelled out in memos emanating from the White House.  They have been used in other prisons in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in renditions to other countries such as Syria (listed by the U.S. as part of the “Axis of Evil”).  We outsource our enemy combatant captives for torture so that we can disclaim any responsibility.

While in Jordan and Syria in the summer of 2006, I spoke with Iraqis who had been imprisoned by the US in Abu Ghraib. (They were dumbfounded to hear that some of us had gone to prison to protest their imprisonment and treatment.) Meeting them convinced me that what this policy and practice of torture represents has diminished our standing in the worldwide community.

Many say torture is worse than killing in war. It destroys not only the body but also the spirit. This is true not only for the victims, but also for the torturer.  By extension, this is surely true for the countries involved, as Viet Nam torture survivor Senator John McCain has said. Major religious bodies attest that torture is immoral, sinful, evil and always wrong.

Alyssa Peterson, a young US Army interpreter, went through training with interrogators of the U.S. Army Intelligence Headquarters at Ft. Huachuca  (the source of the torture manuals used at the School of the Americas).  She was sent as part of the interrogation team to one of the US prisons in Iraq.  After just two sessions in the cages, she committed suicide.  This story stunned me and Fr. Steve Kelly, S.J. It induced us to join a protest at Ft. Huachuca focusing on interrogator training.

The newly appointed commander at Ft. Huachuca, Major General Barbara Fast, had been commander of interrogators at Abu Ghraib.  We wanted to ask about the training of these interrogators.  We brought a letter requesting a meeting with General Fast, the trainers and the trainees to discuss the training at Ft. Huachuca but were stopped before reaching the gate. We knelt and prayed and were arrested. Now we are serving five-month sentences as federal prisoners.  (Three more activists were arrested at the base on November 18, 2007 and were sentenced to supervised probation and community service.)

As a nation, we have crossed a line that we had pledged we would never cross.  Now we must say no to torture.  We must resist these oppressive practices.  We are urged to take up the campaign against torture, joining with such groups as the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition.  We must insist that Congress overturn the 2006 Military Commissions Act. It must restore habeas corpus, close prisons such as Guantanamo Bay, cease renditions to outlaw countries, renounce all “enhanced interrogation” methods such as waterboarding and abide by the UN Declaration Against Torture.

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