Paying Attention to Other People's Pain

By Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

At last count, Amnesty International reported that torture is being practiced in over 150 countries. This is an issue most of us have the luxury of ignoring most of the time. But like arteries slowly hardening, torture, even when hidden, eats away at our spiritual and political health. It takes energy to maintain denial. We have to work harder and harder to ignore what's happening. We have to avert our gaze, cope with rising guilt and drug ourselves with distractions to avoid thinking about the fact that with every breath we draw, someone is being smothered; as we dive into sanitary swimming pools, someone is being brought to the brink of drowning by "water-boarding"; as we relax in bed, someone is being forced into "stress positions" that strain every muscle to the screaming point; as we pull up the quilt at night, someone is being forced to stand naked in freezing temperatures.

I write on this unsavory subject because the evidence is now so compelling that torture is being carried out in our name, by our government, and by other countries acting on behalf of our government. Those of us who consider ourselves people of faith are faced with a dilemma. If we won't speak out against torture, what will we ever speak out about? If we choose not to look at evidence that our government is involved, what else might we be willing to overlook? Even if we consider reports of torture to be mere allegations, what could possibly merit serious independent investigation and accountability more than this?

If "blessed are the merciful" has any moral force, it must be invoked against those practices that should not be carried out on any human being for any reason, anywhere, ever. Every culture in the world preaches some version of the "Golden Rule," and every culture with a claim to being "civilized" supports humane limits on treatment of prisoners. Torture is a violation of our most fundamental sense of common humanity. If we're willing to abandon standards of humane treatment, we endanger not only those we don't know (and so somehow find it easier not to care about), but also those we love.

We have role models of forgiveness and nonviolence in the people of South Africa who found their way out of apartheid. We have models of sacrificial peacemaking in the many who have risked, and some who have lost, their lives traveling to sites of conflict to stand in solidarity with victims of violence. And we have plenty of historical evidence of what happens to people who cease to honor the self-imposed constraints upon which humane behavior depends. See the histories of any of the well-documented genocide campaigns perpetrated in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Torture is not a partisan issue. It's a matter of life and death not only to the victims, but in a very real sense to the body politic and the humane social order to which we belong. The macho cry of "No Mercy" may give a kind of grim satisfaction, but the mandate to "love mercy" (Micah 6) and the proclamation, "Blessed are the merciful" (Matthew 5), call us to a higher spiritual point of view that serves the common good at the deepest level.

If you share my concern I invite you to participate in National Religious Campaign Against Torture (see mission statement at To those who remain unconvinced that torture of the dimensions of Abu Ghraib and worse is being widely practiced in our name, I would suggest perusal of any of the websites listed with the online version of this article at

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Relevant websites

Amnesty International:
Church Folks for a Better America:
Human Rights First:
International Justice Mission:
Islamic Society of North America:
National Religious Campaign Against Torture:
Pax Christi USA:
Rabbis for Human Rights:
School of the Americas Watch:
World Organisation Against Torture:



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