Would you like to donate to NCR?

June 2, 2005 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 5

  The shock of being shocked
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Am I the only one who's shocked by this? And if not, why aren't we hearing an outcry about it.

Share NCR with your Friends
It may seem a little naive, I realize, to claim to be "shocked" at the obvious. After all, I've gone to graduate school. I've taught at all levels of the educational system. I've been around the world a couple times. I am, in other words, a living example of what is now a rather sizable segment of the current population. I'm not an isolate, not ghettoized, by any means. By this time, given that kind of background, that kind of experience, I should be a little jaded, a touch cynical. A "realist," I think they call it.

But I am also part of the generation who were taught to fear Communists, who were trained to hide under school desks or sit on the floor in darkened basement corridors to protect ourselves from nuclear attack, who were told lurid tales about Russian gulags. And who, most of all, in my case, learned that when the godless Communists came, they would take down the crucifixes on our schoolroom walls and destroy our religion with them.

We prayed public prayers for "the conversion of Russia" after every Mass, in fact.

These people, these barbarians, these Communists, wanted to impose a way of life on us that went to the core of the American dream and ate out the heart of the Catholic faith. They believed in the common ownership of goods rather than good old Yankee capitalism with its ethic of "rugged individualism" -- the notion that if you worked hard enough you could get anything you wanted. They considered religion "the opium of the people," the way you got a people to offer up hard times in this world as the will of God for you and so be content to wait for good times in the next.

It was a time of tension, of great enemies, of implacable resistance.

Laugh now, if you will. But those were very real and present horrors then. Especially the part about the suppression of religion.

We were prepared to do anything to avert such a fate, to destroy such an enemy. We built bombs big enough to destroy the globe. We sent thousands of young Americans into the jungles of Vietnam to block the advance of the Red Tide and brought thousands of them home in pine boxes. We had defeated the Germans. We would defeat the Russians, too. Whatever the cost.

We were a Messianic people. We did no wrong, and we destroyed the Darth Vaders who did. We were international heroes. If you were a citizen of the United States somewhere else in the world, you were, indeed, received with flowers and cheers. Drum roll, please.

Then we won the Cold War, became the world's only Super Power, set out to make the rest of the world just like us, and began immediately to lose -- our international image and our integrity. Our president told us that it was all because people were jealous of us. "Some people hate freedom," he said. And, apparently, some people believed it.

Then, in May, Amnesty International, the world's most reputable human rights organization, released its annual report on the state of human rights around the world. That's where the shock came in.

Amnesty International, founded by British lawyer Peter Benenson in 1961, functions as a kind of watchdog organization of volunteers whose purpose is to monitor and evaluate the practice of Human Rights around the globe as defined by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Human rights are in retreat worldwide, this year's report states, and -- most disturbing of all -- the United States bears most of the responsibility for it. Citing routine abuse of detainees, detention without trial, fishnet roundups of men labeled "enemy combatants" without cause, and U.S. attempts to circumvent both domestic and international bans against terror, the report is a scathing indictment of U.S. dishonor and international lawlessness.

What's more, the report says, U.S. actions, imposed by the military but sanctioned by the government, justify repression, dictatorship and abuse by oppressive regimes everywhere. Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International explained, "When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a license to others to commit abuse with impunity."

The U.S. war on terror, Amnesty International argues, has been used as an excuse for "murder, mayhem and abuse of women and children" from one end of the globe to the other.

The U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, the report goes on, "has become the gulag of our times."

President Bush, of course, dismissed the report as "absurd." Vice President Cheney said he was offended. Now what are we to make of that? Irene Khan is quick to answer. If our allegations are false, she said, open up the detention centers and let us look. "Transparency is the best antidote to misinformation," she said. Not a likely event.

So now people are marching in the streets from Indonesia to the Middle East, in every Islamic country on earth, not because they fear the Soviet Union or Russia. They are marching because they fear the United States.

They are as sure that we are coming to destroy them as we once were that the Communists were coming to do the same to us.

They fear the loss of a culture, a lifestyle, a value system. They fear the destruction of their religion, the loss of their way of life, the violation of their women, and the enslavement of their children to decadence and destruction.

They fear exactly what we feared. And, like us back then, they are willing to do anything --anything at all -- to preserve it.

Surely we can understand that. Why are we so surprised? We did the very same things 50 years ago, only worse. We armed the globe. We threatened the existence of the planet. We sent thousands of our best into the rice paddies of Vietnam, young and wrapped around with explosives, who never returned.

From where I stand, the shock of becoming what we say we hate is at least as bad as fearing it. Amnesty International says it all: We are the new gulag. You and I.

Why aren't we all shocked? Why -- instead of simply insisting that it is unpatriotic to say the obvious -- why aren't we all saying stop?

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

Copyright © 2005 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111    All rights reserved.    TEL:  1-816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280