The Torture Game: A Visit with Louis Vitale

In President George Bush’s new book, Decision Points, he states that when asked about using waterboarding, an illegal interrogation method that the U.S. has historically classified as torture, Bush responded, “Damn right!”  In 2008, I visited with Father Louis Vitale, while he was locked in the Imperial County Jail, to discuss his protest of torture training conducted at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.  Vitale was particularly disturbed by what this training was doing to American soldiers.  He told me about Alyssa Peterson, a young U.S. Army interpreter who trained at Ft. Huachuca. She was sent as part of the interrogation team to one of the U.S. prisons in Iraq. After just two sessions in the cages, she committed suicide.  Here’s a story about my visit. (I also have published an article aimed at youth workers entitled “Lessons From a Holy Man”)

“Who wants to be on the torture list?”

The seven year old girl in a strawberry stained dress and white sweat pants promenades around the noon foursquare game. Her arms outstretched, she holds a sheet of yellow construction paper with a list of names written in primitive red crayon.

“Who wants to be on the torture list?” She singsongs her invitation over the sounds of the foursquare boys who shout at the game like racetrack gamblers.

“What happens if you’re on the torture list?” I ask the four foot interrogator and her two friends. “It means you’re bad,” scowls the girl whose knit cap weighs heavy over her eyes.

“And we carry you to our torture room and we torture you,” adds the dark-haired assistant. Curious I ask them to describe the activities within the torture room. They pause, look at one another sheepishly, they haven’t thought that far ahead. The leader shrugs her shoulders in embarrassment, grabs the sleeves of her friends and frowns at me, “Let’s get away from him!”

During the week that I serve as volunteer recess monitor at my sons’ school I watch these girls and their friends engage in the torture game. The game is disturbing—the list of names, the mock torture room hidden within a circle of shrubs, the kids carried away while giggling and shouting “Don’t torture me!” The victims lay on the rain soaked ground while the girls march in a circle pointing and shouting, “You are bad. You are very bad.”

The teachers and parents monitoring the lunch recess react differently to the torture game. One mother confronts the girls and in abstract phrases like “This is inappropriate play” tries to communicate the dehumanizing nature of their game and suggests the girls run over to the jungle gym. With flat expressions the three friends nod their heads obediently and then carefully wait until the mother moves to the other side of the playground before resuming their covert operations. Other parents who notice the game shrug their shoulders and shake their heads. “I guess they’re trying to make sense of it,” one father suggests and then half mumbles, “I guess we all are.”

In 2008, the images and language of torture were part of the landscape of life within which young people were being formed. Whether photographs of snarling dogs lurching at the throats of shirtless men or naked bodies attached to electric wires or radio newscasters debating the merits of “simulated drowning,” we were all aware, children and adults, that our country systematically inflicted cruelty and pain on other human beings.

In the Imperial County Jail, behind a two-inch Plexiglas wall stood 76 year old Father Louis Vitale in an orange jumpsuit. He has a large, slightly goofy grin. His white, half-moon hair sticks up like he’s rubbed it with a balloon. After the guards unlock his shackles, he waves at my friend Frank and me then sits down, lifting a heavy black phone up to each ear, “Welcome to the Imperial jail!” he shouts.

Franciscan Louis Vitale is in the third month of a five month sentence. In November of 2006, he and Jesuit Stephen Kelly attempted to deliver a letter opposing the teaching of torture techniques 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. I drove out to the Imperial jail, just ninety minutes east of San Diego because I too, like the children at my son’s school, was trying to absorb the reality that ours is a nation that inflicts cruel and inhuman punishment on other human beings.

Sitting across from Father Louis I ask why he’s willing to be jailed for this issue. “Hearing that this country is engaging in torture just hit me in the gut. It should hit everyone in the gut. That’s where I feel God, in my gut. I just had to do something. I think if I didn’t, I’d just get depressed.” He leans forward toward the glass and pauses to look me in the eye then adds, “this isn’t just about the victims, this is about the people who have to inflict the suffering as well.” He tells me about Alyssa Peterson, a young US Army interpreter who trained at Ft. Huachuca. 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 has got to stop,” Father Louis later writes from his prison cell, “Not just because of what it’s doing to the victims, but because of what it’s doing to the souls of the men and women in our military.”

What’s most striking about Father Vitale is his demeanor. Torture is a serious issue and obviously Vitale is responding with his life, and yet his demeanor is light, he smiles and laughs easily, there’s little animosity in his voice toward the military commanders or Bush administration officials who have authorized and advocated for torture. In conversing with him I notice how often he tries to see things through the perspective of those who carried out these crimes, “I can see myself in their shoes, I used to be in the military, I shared many of their viewpoints at one time…” he tells me. When I ask him how he’s able to keep from getting bitter and angry, how he avoids demonizing those who have placed him in prison he smiles and says, “Well I like people. I’ve always liked people. I’ve never met anyone that I wanted dead. I’ve never met a person that I wanted to see in hell or anything like that. I’ve always liked people.”

And there it was. The key to holding the sorrow of our country’s engagement in cruel and inhuman practices. The way to resist and root out our involvement in torture, war and perpetual violence. You have to like people. You have to value people above ideology or structures, you have to value human beings, even those who have done terrible things, above politics or patriotism. You have to remember the perspective from the great religions, that each of us, every one of us, harbors a little piece of holiness within. And that everyone, even the most criminal among us, should be treated with a basic dignity.

To be liked is much more powerful then to be loved. To love is often an obligation, a commandment, an expectation. How many times have I listened to adult friends tell me of neglectful and abusive parents but then end their comments with “But I know they loved me.” If given a choice I would much rather be liked then loved. This is the genius of Father Vitale…he likes people, he likes the person who is being tortured as well as the military commander inflicting the punishment. When you like people more than ideas, you can’t stand to see them harmed, the reality of torture hits you in the gut, shocks your conscience, and you have to do something, you have to make it stop.

One month later, on Easter Sunday, I sat in church and noticed the girl from the torture game sitting in the pew in front of me. She wore a light floral dress and held a chocolate candy bar. During the hymns she stood up on the pew, then turned and like a wild badger frowned and flashed her brown smeared teeth at me. This was a post-Easter service and so we were singing and smiling and celebrating the enduring life of Jesus that was able to absorb and transcend the fear, hatred, and violence that lives within the human creatures. And I wondered if the girl in front of me connected the hymns, the stories of Jesus and his suffering on the cross to the dark and shadow torture game that she likes to play. Despite the children’s sermons and Sunday school classes, my suspicion is that this little girl will continue to struggle to understand the reality that human beings, human beings from her country, systematically and secretly inflict pain on other people.

Meanwhile I look at the little girl and her smeared chocolate face. Just like at school her eyebrows are furrowed, her eyes narrowed and serious. While the congregation sings joyful hymns the ring leader of the torture game keeps her back to the altar and scrunches her face at me. I lower my hymnal and take this girl in. I match her eyes. I think of Father Louis Vitale. I think of his smiling face and remember his parting words, “Don’t feel sorry for me, I’m a blessed man, I’m following my gut!” And then I look at the little girl and I realize…I like her.

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