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Witness Against Torture: Trying for 'Tough Minds and Tender Hearts'

Ted Walker

This morning reflection was given on January 15th, 2010 as part of the Witness Against Torture "Fast for Justice." We offer it today to mark Martin Luther King Day.  Later on the 15th, we created a silent vigil at and disrupted John Yoo's book signing.  Our fast and presence around Washington D.C. began on January 11th, the eighth anniversary of the opening of the Guantánamo detention center. More than 150 people around the country will break the fast on January 22, the day by which President Obama pledged to shut down Guantánamo. The 18th is day eight of the WAT Fast.

Today is our fifth day of fasting and we have, potentially, a stressful day ahead.  As you are all well aware, we will be at John Yoo's book signing.  Mr. Yoo is former lawyer of the United States Department of Justice and now professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He co-authored legal memos for the Bush administration pertaining to the men detained at Guantánamo that rejected the Geneva Convention, denied Habeas corpus and legalized torture. 

John Yoo also legally argued that the president should gain almost dictatorial power in time of war, even, we can infer, during this perpetual war on terror.  If the video of the January 13th demonstration at Mr. Yoo's New York City book signing is any indication, we should prepare ourselves for a rough time.

That being said, I would like to offer two points of focus for reflection.  I believe we can be encouraged and challenged by the fact that today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.  And so I offer a mantra for us to use that Dr. King developed in his work Strength to Love, "tough mind and tender heart."  The second point of focus is a poem from a Pakistani man, Shaikh Absurraheem Muslim Dost, who spent three years detained at Guantánamo with his brother. 

According to the collection Poems from Guantánamo: the Detainees Speak, after their release, Dost and his brother co-authored a memoir of their time there, and Dost was subsequently arrested by the Pakistani police.  He has not been heard from since.  I would like to read the poem now to you:

"They Cannot Help"
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Most Merciful,
a poem written in Camp Delta, Guantánamo, Cuba

Those who are charitable
Cannot help but sacrifice for others.

They cannot help but face danger
If they wish to remain true.

When they face injustice, dishonesty, and iniquity,
They cannot help but be under the power of traitors and the notorious.

Consider what might compel a man
To kill himself, or another.

Does oppression not demand
Some reaction against the oppressor?

It is natural that a man is driven to invention
And to creation in times of duress.

The evildoer will be punished.
He cannot avoid making amends, and must apologize eventually.

Those who foolishly dispute with Dost the Poet
Cannot help but surrender, or else run away.


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In many ways, this poem is addressed to us. And I believe it responds to one of the questions we have repeatedly asked ourselves during our fast and daily demonstrations: what can we do together to give hope to the men at Guantánamo that change will occur?  I am tempted to read the poem as: we cannot help.  We cannot help, but give of ourselves sacrificially.  We cannot help, but be at the mercy of - be under - the powers that be. 

I understand the concept of charity in the sense that Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker wrote of and lived it--as a radical practice that attempts to live in voluntary poverty as close as possible to the destitute in order to help them step across the threshold with hospitality.  Dost's poem is sobering for me, especially in our context this morning.  And yet, it is not disheartening.  It takes a tough mind and tender heart to admit the truth to ourselves that we cannot help in the usual way we think about it. We need to acknowledge that to force change usually leads to greater suffering.  It takes a tough mind and tender heart to not allow ourselves to fall prey such hubris.  The poem is for us today an admonition, but it opens up to the possibility of countless affirmations.

Dynamic Contradictions, Tough and Tender

Let's pause with this troubling thought to consider the importance of the words that Martin Luther King Jr. uses to describe the mind and heart.  The mind must be tough.  It is not hardened in ideology, nor is it too weak to ask questions. It has been toughened through the development of principles that have been put through endless trials of discernment. It is tough like a muscle through the exercise of these morals at each and every moment of our lives.   The heart, however, must be tender - neither soft, nor made of stone.  The heart must be tender through compassion and forgiveness, even as we struggle to face those horrors that otherwise make us go limp or burn with hatred.  The mind and heart, each within its own conflict, are dynamically aided by the tension created by the two working together.  Only with a tough mind and a tender heart are we able to honestly, truly follow Dost's plea to "Consider what might compel a man/ to kill himself, or another."

It is not for us to judge.  Nor is it for us to assume that such sacrifice and humiliation necessarily compel one to destroy life.  We are first called to listen, to consider the situation of another in all its fullness and complexity.  With a tough mind and tender heart we are called first to attend to the other.  This holds true not only for the powerless, but also those who are in power.  In this way, I hold that we must not judge John Yoo today, nor those who come to his book signing.  Likewise, as hard as it may be, we should not automatically condemn those who indefinitely detain and torture at Guantánamo.  A reaction is indeed demanded in these situations, but I believe it makes all the difference how we respond to the oppressor.  The strength to love is primary for the tough mind and tender heart.

Though many of us met for the first time a just a few days ago, the fast has brought us together in a unique way.  It has helped us shed our individual egos, allowing us to be attentive to each other.  It has also bolstered our ability to be strikingly composed at our vigils.  Our silent presence in the orange jumpsuits and black hoods creates a tone far different from other types of demonstrations, forcing on-lookers and passer-bys to pause and think rather than be berated by angry shouting that invokes horrific facts.  The latter often only petrifies hearts, hardens minds.  We, instead, are trying to be a different kind of witness.

I propose a connection: the ignorance that sustains and justifies torture and indefinite detention functions very much in the same way as that of the racism Dr. King confronted during the Civil Rights Movement.  It is driven by an institutionalized fear that cannot be overcome by dialogue with those who legislate our laws.  We seem to have exhausted those rational means as much as they did a half a century ago.  No, what will awaken the conscience of the ignorant, Dr. King believed, is only an action that does not make sense. 

In our world, it is violence in reaction to violence that makes sense.  Civil disobedience does not.  Willingly offering one's body up to be beaten, willingly going to jail... such actions do not make sense, and therefore seek to break the cycle of violence by first refusing to participate in the common sense that infects our society.  In this way too, our silent demonstration itself refuses to play a game that is rhetorically structured by the ignorant, and thereby sets a different tone that we want the other to adopt.

Regaining the Power of Imagination

In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King qualifies the charges that he is an extremist for practicing civil disobedience by writing, "Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."  Let us try to be such creative extremists here and now.  Our task today and in the days ahead toward our direct action on January 21st is to invent new ways of speaking out and demonstrating against torture.  Toward this goal, is not the rigorous use of the imagination an integral midway between a tough mind and a tender heart? 

We should not confuse the imagination with a source of fiction or escape.  On the contrary, the imagination is our means to see the reality that is hidden and forbidden to us.  The imagination is our tool to resist how reality is dictated to and framed for us.  It also allows us to find ways to connect, for instance, to the men at Guantánamo - a relationship that is denied us. 

The strength of our imagination uncovers what reality is, and then asks how it could be different.  It is opposed in all way to the violence perpetuated by reaction.

In closing, I am thinking of an answer Father Dan Berrigan once gave when asked what was the greatest loss after the tragedy of September 11th, 2001.  He responded, "The imagination."  Fear has strangled each of us, it has shut down our minds and closed in our hearts.  As we go out to confront John Yoo today, please bear with you Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words.  Use "tough mind and tender heart" as a mantra to quell the fear within you, and to put forth a dynamic silence to crack through the expressions of fear that is the continued justification of torture and indefinite detention.  Let us heed the words of Dost the poet, and struggle to act accordingly.  Our burden is lightened, gladly, by doing this work in community 

Ted Walker is a member of the New York Catholic Worker. For more information of the Witness Against Torture’s “Fast for Justice,” please see our website at:

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