Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, September 24, 2005

3 in 82nd Airborne Say Beating Iraqi Prisoners Was Routine

By Eric Schmitt
New York Times 9/24/05

Question: Where might God be at work in this story? (see Ruminations at this web site)

WASHINGTON, Sept. 23 - Three former members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division say soldiers in their battalion in Iraq routinely beat and abused prisoners in 2003 and 2004 to help gather intelligence on the insurgency and to amuse themselves.

The new allegations, the first involving members of the elite 82nd Airborne, are contained in a report by Human Rights Watch. The 30-page report does not identify the troops, but one is Capt. Ian Fishback, who has presented some of his allegations in letters this month to top aides of two senior Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, John W. Warner of Virginia, the chairman, and John McCain of Arizona. Captain Fishback approached the Senators' offices only after he tried to report the allegations to his superiors for 17 months, the aides said. The aides also said they found the captain's accusations credible enough to warrant investigation...The Army has begun speaking with Captain Fishback, and is seeking the names of the two other soldiers.

In separate statements to the human rights organization, Captain Fishback and two sergeants described systematic abuses of Iraqi prisoners, including beatings, exposure to extremes of hot and cold, stacking in human pyramids and sleep deprivation at Camp Mercury, a forward operating base near Falluja....

The abuses reportedly took place between September 2003 and April 2004, before and during the investigations into the notorious misconduct at the Abu Ghraib prison...

In the newest case, the human rights organization interviewed three soldiers: one sergeant who said he was a guard and acknowledged abusing some prisoners at the direction of military intelligence personnel; another sergeant who was an infantry squad leader who said he had witnessed some detainees' being beaten; and the captain who said he had seen several interrogations and received regular reports from noncommissioned officers on the ill treatment of detainees.

"We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs and stomach, and pull them down, kick dirt on them," one sergeant told Human Rights Watch researchers during one of four interviews in July and August. "This happened every day."

The sergeant continued: "Some days we would just get bored, so we would have everyone sit in a corner and then make them get in a pyramid. This was before Abu Ghraib but just like it. We did it for amusement."

He said he had acted under orders from military intelligence personnel to soften up detainees, whom the unit called persons under control, or PUC's, to make them more cooperative during formal interviews. "They wanted intel," said the sergeant, an infantry fire-team leader who served as a guard when no military police soldiers were available. "As long as no PUC's came up dead, it happened." He added, "We kept it to broken arms and legs."

The soldiers told Human Rights Watch that while they were serving in Afghanistan, they learned the stress techniques from watching Central Intelligence Agency operatives interrogating prisoners.

Captain Fishback, who has served combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, gave Human Rights Watch and Senate aides his long account only after his efforts to report the abuses to his superiors were rebuffed or ignored over 17 months...

In a Sept. 16 letter to the senators, Captain Fishback, wrote, "Despite my efforts, I have been unable to get clear, consistent answers from my leadership about what constitutes lawful and humane treatment of detainees. I am certain that this confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment."

While they also witnessed some abuses at another forward base near the Iraqi border with Syria, the three said most of the misconduct they witnessed took place at Camp Mercury, where prisoners captured on the battlefield or in raids were held for up to 72 hours before being released or transferred to Abu Ghraib.

Interrogators pressed guards to beat up prisoners, and one sergeant recalled watching a particular interrogator who was a former Special Forces soldier beating the detainee himself. "He would always say to us, 'You didn't see anything, right?' " the sergeant said. "And we would always say, 'No, sergeant.' "

One of the sergeants told Human Rights Watch that he had seen a soldier break open a chemical light stick and beat the detainees with it. "That made them glow in the dark, which was real funny, but it burned their eyes, and their skin was irritated real bad," he said.

...Even after the Abu Ghraib scandal became public, one of the sergeants said, the abuses continued. "We still did it, but we were careful," he told the human rights group.

(emphasis has been added)

Link to complete article

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Voices From an Abortion Clinic

In view of the fact that the New York Times has supported abortion rights (always a questionable term) without qualification for many years, the major front-page feature story on Sunday, September 18, offers some surprises. Here are some excerpts from the story.

Under Din of Abortion Debate, an Experience Shared Quietly

By John Leland

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - At Little Rock Family Planning Services, the women filed in without making eye contact, a demographic that remains unrecognized.

Leah works in a clothing boutique. Alicia is in high school. Tammy pulls espresso. Regina is a sergeant in the Army, recently home from Iraq. An 18-year-old college student carrying twins waits to be taken into the operating room for an abortion... More than one in five pregnancies end in abortion, and it is still one of the most common surgical procedures for women in the United States, with about a million taking place each year. Though the abortion rate has been declining for years, it is still highest among black women.

Far from Washington and the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge John G. Roberts Jr., here in Little Rock on an August weekend, 26 women from as far away as Oklahoma joined the more than one million American women who will probably have abortions this year. Their experiences, at one of only two clinics in the state, offer a ground-level view of abortion in 2005....

Alexia, who wore a cross pendant, prayed all through the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Delta State University in Mississippi. At 23, she was having her third abortion. "My religion is against it," she said, adding that she is a Baptist. "In a way I feel I'm doing wrong, but you can be forgiven. I blame myself. I feel I shouldn't have sex at all."

Venetia Grunder, 21, viewed an ultrasound image of the fetus in her womb. She was 12 weeks pregnant, though she had taken birth control pills as directed. "I feel pretty messed up," she said after seeing the image. "It's different, just knowing. My husband told me not to look. This changes my feelings, but I'm sticking by it. Damn it, $650, I'm sticking by it."

...Abortion remains one of the most common surgical procedures for women in America. More than one in five pregnancies end in abortion...

While public conversation about abortion is dominated by advocates with all-or-nothing positions - treating the fetus as a complete person, with full rights, or as a nonentity, with none - most patients at the clinic, like most Americans, found themselves on rockier ground, weighing religious, ethical, practical, sentimental and financial imperatives that were often in conflict....

Regina [age 28] cried on the operating table....

Kori, 26, who was having her third abortion, asked to watch the procedure on the ultrasound monitor. "I wanted to see what it was like," she said. "It was O.K. to watch. Once you had your mind made up to do it, you just suck it up and go with it."

..."M," a high school teacher who agreed to be identified only by her middle initial [was interviewed]. She wore a miniskirt and T-shirt, her blond hair pulled back from her forehead. She said she had never discussed abortion with relatives or colleagues. Only two friends knew she was here. "I'd lose my job," she said. "My family's reputation would be ruined. It makes me nervous even being in the waiting room. You don't want to know who's here, you don't want to be recognized, and you don't want to see them ever again. Because in society's eyes, you share the same dirty secret."

....The New York Times agreed to anonymity to encourage candor and to get a representative sample of women. (Those who volunteer their full names are by nature an unrepresentative minority.)

On this August weekend, the women entering the Little Rock clinic resembled those who have abortions nationwide. They were mainly in their 20's, more likely to be poor and African-American than the area population. Most were already mothers, many single. They arrived as a result of failure of one sort or another: a poor sexual decision, a broken relationship, a birth control method that just did not work. More than half of all women who have abortions say they used a contraceptive method in the month they conceived...

While abortion rates have been falling generally since 1990, the decline has been steepest among teenagers, and rates are lowest among educated, financially secure women. Researchers attribute the drop in teenage abortion to reduced rates of pregnancy, as a result of better access to contraception - including the three-month Depo-Provera injections - and abstinence.

Conversely, for poor and low-income women, rates increased during the 1990's, possibly in response to the 1996 welfare overhaul, which reduced support systems for women who carry their fetuses to term. At every income level studied by the Guttmacher Institute, African-American women were more likely to terminate their pregnancies than white women.

Leah, 26, said money was a factor in her decision to have an abortion. A former college track athlete, she works in a clothing boutique, a job that she said did not pay enough to support a child.

Like many women at the clinic, Leah had conflicted feelings about what she was doing. "I always said I would never, ever have an abortion," she said. "I probably will regret it. I'm pro-choice for cases of incest or rape, but if it's your own fault, you should accept responsibility. And it's my own fault."

In Arkansas, as in many states, abortion providers are required to offer women their ultrasound images before an abortion. Because Leah was just five weeks pregnant, her image showed a formless mass. "If I saw an actual fetal baby on the ultrasound, I wouldn't have been able to go through with it," she said. She said she felt selfish, "but hopefully this will set me on a straighter path...."

Karen and her boyfriend have an unstable relationship plagued by money problems, and they lived with a relative after being evicted from their home. She did not come in earlier in the pregnancy, she said, because she did not have the money. In the end, because she was so far along, her abortion took two days and cost $1,375, nearly three times what it would have cost if she had come in at 12 weeks.

"For many women at the clinic, their desire to end their pregnancy clashed with their religious beliefs. Tammy, a Muslim, had her first abortion a year ago, after having three children. She is married and works in a coffee shop in Tennessee. She became pregnant this time after erratically taking her birth control pills.

"I know it's against God," she said of her abortion. "But you have three kids, you want to raise them good. My friends and sister-in-law say, 'You care about money problems but don't care about what God will do.' I believe it's wrong. I pray to God to forgive me. This will be the last one. Never, never again."

....In a pre-operation holding room, Alicia, 17, awaited an abortion for which her parents were not asked permission. Under Arkansas law, as in 33 of the 34 states that require parental consent or notification, juveniles can bypass their parents if they persuade a judge that they are mature enough to make the decision themselves, or that it might be in their best interest.

Alicia, who was 17 or 18 weeks pregnant, said she did not have the abortion earlier because she was afraid to confront her parents. When she finally told her parents she was pregnant, she said, her mother threw a stool at her and kicked her out of the house.

"But I can't give a baby a life it should have financially," she said. "My boyfriend didn't want me to go through with it, but he realized he couldn't support a baby either...."

Threats against abortion clinics are on the decline, in part because of sterner laws to protect clinics. But picketing has remained steady, at 80 percent of clinics. Dr. Edwards and Ms. Osborne [who operate the Little Rock clinic] said they felt isolated from the local medical community and the community at large. Even the patients often have a negative view of abortion. "I very often hear, 'I don't believe in this, but my situation is different,' " Ms. Osborne said.

..."I've done this once and swore I wouldn't do it again," Regina [age 28] said. "Every woman has second thoughts, especially because I'm Catholic." She went to confession and met with her priest, she added. "The priest didn't hound me. He said, 'People make mistakes.' "

In the operating room, a team of nurses gave her injections to relieve anxiety and pain. Dr. Edwards inserted a speculum and maneuvered a plastic suction device around her uterus. "Don't leave," she entreated Ms. Osborne. The procedure lasted about five minutes.

As she lay on the table, Regina wept and put an arm around Ms. Osborne, asking how things looked "in there."

"I'm not a baby, that's what's so sad," Regina said. "Thank you, ladies, for being here for me. I'm too old to make these mistakes."

She said the experience was emotional because she had expected more of the father.

She spoke to Dr. Edwards. "Thank you, sir," she said.

Ebony, 28, an operating room supervisor, rinsed the blood off the aborted tissues for Dr. Edwards to examine. Ebony, too, had a story. When she was 15, her aunt and grandmother had made her carry her pregnancy to term. Later, she had an abortion. As a Baptist, she still considered abortion a sin - but so are a lot of things we all do, she said. She squeezed Regina's hand.

"No problem, sweetie," Ebony said. "We've all been there."

Abortion is not on the top of my list of issues to pursue, but this article impressed me with its depiction of the emotional trauma involved in having an abortion and with the clear impression that it leaves that men are almost entirely missing from these scenes. Men come away with a maximum of personal gratification and a minimum of consequences.

Link to complete article:

Notes from Hurricane Katrina: A doctor on a mission of mercy

The distinguished doctor, professor and author Abraham Verghese is at the pinnacle of success and fame in his field, but he still goes out on missions of mercy. When evacuees from Hurricane Katrina began arriving at the San Antonio airport, he signed up as a physician volunteer for the 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. shift. He mused about his experience in The New York Times Sunday magazine. Here is some of what he wrote:

On the way, riding down dark, deserted streets, I thought of driiving in for night shifts in the ICU as an intern many years ago, and how I would try to steel myself, as if putting on armor.

He goes on to describe various patients and how important it was to listen to them. “Hesitantly, I asked each patient, whre did you spend the last five days?” I wanted to reconcile the person in front of me with the terrible images on television. But as the night wore on, I understood that they needed me to ask; not to ask was to not honor their ordeal.”

His concluding story concerns a semi-literate but dignified and vigorous black man in his 70s. He needed medicine for his blood sugar and blood pressure. As Verghese figured out the prescriptions, he listened to the man’s story of waiting on a ledge with his feet in the water for two days. He was rescued by a boat, then was left waiting on a bridge for two more days. “Doc,” he said to Verghese, “they treat refugees in other countries better than they treat us.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Verghese. “I’m so sorry.”

The man rose, shouldered his garbage bag of worldly possessions, and extended his hand. “Thank you, Doc. I needed to hear that. All they got to say is sorry. All they got to say is sorry.”

Verghese concludes, “Driving home, I remembered my own metaphor of strapping on armor. The years have shown that there is no armor. There never was. The willingness to be wounded may be all we have to offer.

Americans and race

from Paul Krugman’s column, The New York Times 9/19/05:

Who can honestly deny that race is a major reason America treat its poor more harshly than any other advanced country? To put it crudely: a middle-class European, thinking about the poor, says to himself, “There but for the grace of God go I.” A middle-class American is all too likely to think, perhaps without admitting it to himself, “Why should I be taxed to support these people?”
Above all, race-based hostility to the idea of helping the poor created an environment in which a political movement hostile to government aid in general could flourish.

Monday, September 19, 2005

"Dishonest Stewards" from Duke University

A few days ago I posted a Rumination lamenting the apparent absence of Christian witnesses who would go voluntarily into the hellish conditions in New Orleans to share the misery. Today I found an example. Perhaps these young men are not even Christians, but they surely acted in a Christlike way. Moreover, their resourcefulness and determination verging on dishonesty (!) is highly reminiscent of Jesus' parable of the dishonest steward! Here is the article, by Ian Urbina from the New York Times daily feature called "Voices From the Storm":

Watching the horror unfold on live television, David Hankla and his friends at Duke University felt angry and bewildered. "It made no sense whatsoever that reporters were getting in and out of New Orleans, but the National Guard couldn't remove those people from the convention center," said Mr. Hankla, 20, a sophomore. "All we knew was that we were sick of being armchair humanitarians and that we intended to help get people out."

So he and two dorm mates, Sonny Byrd and Hans Buder, set out in Mr. Byrd's Hyundai sedan for a road trip and rescue mission.

But heading into New Orleans on Interstate 10 after the all-night drive from Durham, N.C., they were turned back by National Guard troops who said it was not safe to proceed. "We tried a couple ways in, but they sent us back at each," Mr. Hankla said. Demoralized and exhausted, they retreated to Baton Rouge, La., where after a few hours of sleep, they began working at a Red Cross shelter.

That afternoon, the three devised a plan to sneak into New Orleans. Visiting a nearby television station, one of them swiped a press pass, which Mr. Hankla altered and duplicated at Kinko's. "For $11.68 and an hour of work, we became members of the media," he said. "We didn't even have to roll down our windows to get into the city this time."

At the convention center, Mr. Hankla said he waded through a smell so bad "it could knock you down."

"A woman out front said that she was leaving the shelter because she heard screams from a woman being raped in the bathroom," he said. "Inside, a guard told me that the smell was from bodies stacked on the second floor."

Soon, he said, he came across a man named Jessie with white welts covering his body and face. The man told him that when the floodwaters had come, he had climbed a tree that was swarming with fire ants. Because he could not swim, the man said, he was stuck in the tree and bitten by ants for 18 hours.

The students drove him to a Baton Rouge hospital, along with three women whom they dropped at an emergency center. They then made a return trip for the women's husbands.

Worried that their luck with fake press credentials was wearing out, they began their long drive back to Duke.

"We felt pretty satisfied that we got involved," Mr. Hankla said. "But we all kept talking about how it was possible that three kids in a two-wheel-drive Hyundai were able to move people out of the city and the National Guard wasn't."

Link with photo of the three students:

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Thomas Friedman on governance, community and sacrifice

There is something troublingly self-indulgent and slothful about America today - something that Katrina highlighted and that people who live in countries where the laws of gravity still apply really noticed. It has rattled them - like watching a parent melt down.

That is certainly the sense I got after observing the Katrina debacle from half a world away here in Singapore - a city-state that, if it believes in anything, believes in good governance...When a subway tunnel under construction collapsed here in April 2004 and four workers were killed, a government inquiry concluded that top executives of the contracting company should be either fined or jailed.

The discipline that the cold war imposed on America, by contrast, seems to have faded...

Speaking of Katrina, Sumiko Tan, a columnist for the Sunday edition of The Straits Times in Singapore, wrote: "We were shocked at what we saw...the pictures of dead people left uncollected on the streets, armed looters ransacking shops, survivors desperate to be rescued, racial divisions - these were truly out of sync with what we'd imagined the land of the free to be...If America becomes so unglued when bad things happen in its own backyard, how can it fulfill its role as leader of the world?"

Janadas Devan, a Straits Times columnist, tried to explain to his Asian readers how the U.S. is changing. "Today's conservatives," he wrote, "differ in one crucial aspect from yesterday's conservatives: the latter believed in small government, but believed, too, that a country ought to pay for all the government that it needed.

"The former believe in no government, and therefore conclude that there is no need for a country to pay for even the government that it does have. ... [But] it is not only government that doesn't show up when government is starved of resources and leached of all its meaning. Community doesn't show up either, sacrifice doesn't show up, pulling together doesn't show up, 'we're all in this together' doesn't show up." (emphasis added)

A letter about race and class at the Astrodome

To the Editor (New York Times):

My experience as a doctor treating evacuees from New Orleans at the Dallas Convention Center did not confirm the general impression of masses of poor indigent people.

I met many professionals, by and large African-American - teachers, hospital technicians, engineers and midlevel administrators, as well as skilled tradesmen and even medical students. Many had good health and evidence of good health care.

Some of the worst experiences I heard from them included swimming past bodies to get to the Superdome; families tying bodies to trees for later recovery; sleeping on feces-covered floors for days; helplessly watching elderly people and children die of heat exposure and dehydration; and having weapons aimed at them (emphasis added).

The emotional theme was anger and disbelief of the kind that might bring about political change.

Kathleen Delaney, M.D.
Dallas, Sept. 12, 2005

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The significance (not) of Paris Hilton

In the end, Hilton's popularity may be a sign of the times. "We're in the most aggressively anti-intellectual, anti-literate, anti-middle-class discourse," (Naomi) Wolf says. "The American population is being literally hypnotized by affluence and hypnotized by consumer goods. She's like Muzak: "It's all right. What's the big deal? Doesn't matter if people are killing people in your name. Just go to the mall."

--Vanity Fair, October 2005 issue

Faulkner, the French Quarter, and the important things of life

"Everyone here is grand to me -- painters and writers; In the evening we gather somewhere and discuss the world and politics and art and death." -- William Faulkner, describing the French Quarter in a 1925 letter to his mother

Friday, September 09, 2005

Scenes and quotes in Katrina’s wake

Joe Lastie is a drummer with the legendary New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band. From his refuge in Atlanta he said this: “I go around the world sharing the joy that is New Orleans. And because of that joy, I know my city is going to survive. The New Orleans people are the type of people, well, you can’t keep them down. Through the joy of the music and the spirit of the people, we’re always going to bounce back.”
--Associated Press article by Martha Mendoza

Cecile Conway, 44, who swam to safety but lost track of family members, sat in the Houston Astrodome reading the Bible, marking Psalm 6 with green pencil for emphasis: “O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger, nor chastise me in your hot displeasure. Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak. O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled.”
(Ralph Blumenthal, “Astrodome an Orderly Host to Its Restless Guests,” The New York Times 9/114/05

The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot ran an AP photo of a little human drama from the now-infamous scene at the New Orleans Convention Center. A strapping middle-aged black man is helping a much older, frail-looking white man to have a drink of water.

On CNN: Policeman trying to calm a distraught woman who is saying over and over, “I don’t have no home! We don’t have no water!” Finally the policeman, clearly near the end of his rope, said, “I don’t either! I don’t either!” It was all too easy to overlook the fact that most of the police, medical technicians, and other “first responders” were in the same predicament as those who had fled to the Superdome and the Convention Center.

“Bureaucracy has committed murder here”

Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish (the western, suburban part of New Orleans) appeared Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He could not control his sobs as he told of his mother’s fate. She was trapped in a nursing home and, despite her repeated pleas for rescue and repeated promises from a FEMA spokesman, she drowned on Friday, Day 5. “We have been abandoned by our own country,” he said. “It’s not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans. Bureaucracy has committed murder here.” (Norfolk Virginian Pilot, 9/5/05)

Barbara Bush as Marie Antoinette

I do not typically post politically partisan Tips but this one I cannot resist.

To the Editor of The New York Times:

While touring the Astrodome in Texas, which is being used as a relocation site, Barbara Bush, the president's mother, made a comment that rivals "Let them eat cake" in its arrogant and clueless insensitivity. "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway," she said, "so this is working very well for them" (news article, Sept. 7).

The remark is a revealing insight into the sort of aristocratic and detached "family values" held by the Bush family. It helps explain the gut-level sympathy that seemed missing in the president's response to a catastrophe that fell hardest on our most vulnerable citizens.

Janice Gewirtz
Mountain Lakes, N.J., Sept. 7, 2005

Since I have very close personal and emotional ties to New Orleans, I will be posting a number of Tips and Ruminations following the Katrina calamity. Here is one. The reference is to the restaurant Ruth's Chris Steak House which is moving its headquarters to Orlando:

The bigger question facing the company is whether leaving New Orleans at its time of greatest need - something outsiders say that Ruth Fertel, who died in 2002, would have never done - will come back to haunt Ruth's Chris, particularly when its new headquarters is in Orlando, known for its suburban sprawl and dozens of bland food outlets. "When they give you a start, you kind of owe it to the city," said Brad Brennan, a member of the family that owns Brennan's Restaurant and Commander's Palace, a small New Orleans-based company with restaurants in Las Vegas and Houston, too. Mr. Brennan vows to return as soon as he can. "Payback is staying your ground," he said, "and employing the people that want to remain there and want to be employed." (NYTimes Business section)

For a moment of encouragement, go to and click on "Canal Street King Is Busy" (also called "Back in Business")

Friday, September 02, 2005

War, tax cuts, and the poor blacks of New Orleans

Why wasn't more preventive action taken? After 2003 the Army Corps of Engineers sharply slowed its flood-control work, including work on sinking levees. "The corps," an Editor and Publisher article says, citing a series of articles in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, "never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security - coming at the same time as federal tax cuts - was the reason for the strain."

In 2002 the corps' chief resigned, reportedly under threat of being fired, after he criticized the administration's proposed cuts in the corps' budget, including flood-control spending.

--Paul Krugman in The New York Times, Sept. 2