Each year around this time, I receive in the mail my own personal copy of Amnesty International's Annual Report. I can't wait to rip open the envelope and immerse myself in a travelog of torture, abuse, and political imprisonment from around the world. Well, maybe I can. How many weeks has the unopened envelope been sitting on the table by my front door?
It's just in the last seven or eight years that Amnesty has had to spotlight the United States of America in its International Hall of Shame. We are not the world's worst abuser of human rights by far, but perhaps the world's most hypocritical. Our government continues to hold people without trial and without charge, torturing prisoners or rendering them elsewhere to be tortured, in violation of international law, American law, and our own Constitution. Why aren't the citizens up in arms, screaming in the streets for this to stop?
The question has many answers, of course, but one of them is "outrage overload." There are so many horrors, so many scary futures, so many injustices we feel powerless to affect, that we turn sooner or later into our shells, throw up our hands, focus our attention on something more pleasant, or something closer to our perceived locus of control.
The last three weekends, Jennifer Schelter has offered a personal antidote to this dilemma in a one-woman play at the Interact Theater in the heart of downtown Philadelphia. Her performance is full of grace, humor, and human courage, with little dips into the hell that was, and perhaps still is, life in Abu Ghraib. She succeeds in reminding us of that which we are hellbent on forgetting.
Schelter teaches and inspires us to a fuller life from the Yoga Schelter studio in the neighborhood known as East Falls. Philadelphians may know her as the leader each May of the city's largest yoga class, when over a thousand aspiring yogis spread our mats on the steps of the Art Museum in a benefit for Living Beyond Breast Cancer. She is also a compelling stage presence and a formidable actress.
Three years ago, Schelter was approached by one of her students, a lawyer named Susan Burke who had taken on the Sisyphan errand of listening to the stories of hundreds of torture victims released from US custody in Abu Ghraib prison, and seeking redress on their behalf under American jurisprudence. Would she be willing to accompany Burke to Istanbul to help receive testimony, providing a safe haven for former prisoners seeking some kind of return to normalcy? There is only one answer to such a question.
"Love Lessons from Abu Ghraib" is pieced together from Schelter's experience traveling to the Middle East, reaching across barriers of politics, religion and language to make human contact. We are treated to engaging vignettes of humor and heroism, hubris and humility. Schelter's lithe and perfectly-poised body channels Pallas Athena as she dances from a yoga pose to the slump of the weary traveler to a prisoner's terrified cringe. Her voice ranges from the soothing tones of a yogi sage to the sheepish inner reprimands of a traveler prone to cultural gaffes to the transparent braggadocio of Iraqis grasping for a return to dignity.
And only intermittently does Schelter return, for a minute or two at a time, to the corner of the stage reserved for re-enacting the testimony of the refugees: crawling on the floor with bleeding knuckles, faces rubbed in excrement, weeks of sleeplessness punctuated by electric shock and sodomization with a broomstick.
Part of the genius of packaging torture in a digestible evening is the "talkback" that follows the performance. The lights come up, and audience members are invited to stay and discuss, comment, question, respond to what they have learned. The night I saw the show, not one of us got up to leave. Some had known of these horrors beforehand, while others had assumed it was only "terrorists" who had been mistreated, or that the mistreatment had been limited to humiliation rather than physical pain, or that no one had died of the abuse, or any of a hundred other reasons not to assimilate the message of Abu Ghraib. All of us were stunned and confused in our own way. One audience member raised her hand with alacrity, only to stammer incoherently, "This is America...only in a dictatorship...but this is illegal...someone must be addressing...Aren't the newspapers...I'm sorry, I don't know what my question is."
Coming out of the theater, I felt there was nothing I could add to that. But to the friend I had brought to this performance I heard myself ask, "What did Camus tell us? We march in the streets, protesting and expressing our indignation, not because we believe it will make any difference but because we know that it diminishes our humanity to remain silent."