The Truth, Mainly - 03/14/2005

Yet Another Secular Serman
by Leon Satterfield

Even though I'm a dirty, rotten, secular humanist, I feel this need to sermonize. You may want to stop reading right now.

My sermon grows out of my memory of the Great Mid-Century Scandal in my hometown. I was 14 years old. I still get the fantods about it.

Here's what happened: the preacher at our largest Protestant church gave in to wicked temptation, deserted his own wife, and ran off with someone else's wife. She, along with her husband and two kids, was a part of the preacher's congregation.

As I remember it, the whole town was in a state of shock. And it pretty much ended the preacher's career. Imagine how people would have snorted derisively every time he might mention the Ten Commandments, especially the one about coveting your neighbor's wife.

It's no overstatement to say his moral authority had been undermined.

But that preacher isn't what I want to sermonize about. I want to sermonize about the connections I see between our current foreign policy and the preacher's dilemma.

Those connections started dawning on me earlier this month when I read in this newspaper an account of our State Department's annual report on human rights. The report, the story said, "criticized dozens of governments for mistreating prisoners and using practices that U.S. forces also have used in the war on terror."

Got that? We criticize other countries for doing what we do.

The State Department condemns the "routine use of torture" in Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. But the story tells us that the U.S. has "transferred detainees" to those very countries.

So if we don't have the stomach for the "routine use of torture," we send our prisoners to countries that do have the stomach.

The State Department report went on to make these charges:

•Pakistan mistreats prisoners by "prolonged isolation," "denial of sleep," "painful shackling."

•Egypt mistreats prisoners by "stripping and blindfolding" them and dousing them with cold water.

•Syria mistreats prisoners by forcing them "to stand for long periods of time."

If all that sounds vaguely familiar, it's because, the story says, "those tactics also were used and approved by the Pentagon in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay."

According to the FBI, some of our prisoners in Guantanamo "were shackled to the floor for more than 24 hours." And we're still trying to forget those pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib.

Other countries have snorted derisively about our hypocrisy:

•China suggested that no government responsible for Abu Ghraib had any business criticizing other countries.

•The Russian Foreign Ministry said that "double standards are a characteristic of the American approach…. Characteristically off-screen is the ambiguous record of the United States itself."

•The Venezuelan vice president said the U.S. was "not qualified" to lecture other countries on human rights. "The State Department report is…more falsehoods and more hypocrisies…" . Mexico, Turkey, and Egypt also had unfriendly things to say.

And what, you may wonder, does all this have to do with the wayward preacher from my hometown? And why should a dirty, rotten, secular humanist like me care?

Because I keep remembering what Teddy Roosevelt called the presidency: "a bully pulpit." And I keep remembering how other presidents have used the office in that way.

George W. Bush, more than any president in my lifetime, sees the presidency as his very own bully pulpit. But if the disgraced preacher in my hometown blew away his own moral credibility, this president may have blown away the moral credibility of the whole nation.

And that's why the story on page 14A of the March 4 Journal-Star turned me on by helping to counteract the administration's hypocrisy. You probably remember it.

It's about Capt. Scott Southworth of the Wisconsin National Guard who visited an orphanage in Baghdad in September, 2003, and found a little Iraqi boy with cerebral palsy.

(This is about to get wonderfully sticky.)

The captain and the little boy took to each other. The boy began calling the captain "Baba"—the Arabic word for "Daddy."

Capt. Southworth came back to Wisconsin last July, got his discharge papers, was elected Juneau County district attorney in November, found an immigration lawyer, and last month returned to Iraq to pick up his new foster son.

There was a picture with the story. The captain and the Iraqi boy are in Wisconsin, wrestling on a red, white, and blue bedspread. They're both laughing their heads off.

OK, thst little story may not have reversed U.S. policy in Iraq, but it's a start.

And if Scott Southworth ever preaches a sermon, I just might haul my sorry, dirty, rotten, secular humanist self off to hear it.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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