Donna Minkowitz responds to letters about an American nun tortured in Guatemala, and readers respond to "Oriana Fallaci Declares War on Radical Islam."

By Salon Staff
Published November 23, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)
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[Read Donna Minkowitz's review of "The Blindfold's Eyes."]

I was so moved by Donna Minkowitz's article on Dianna Ortiz and her book, "The Blindfold's Eyes." Minkowitz treats the author and the topic in such a compassionate manner that I am compelled to seek out the book. It takes such courage to write about horrific acts with compassion and admit, at the same time, to the difficulty of the task.

Where Minkowitz says, "Americans find torture jazzy and titillating," I nod my head. I recognize the scenes on TV, in advertising, etc. And, I remembered that as a teenager, I once heard a man from Russia talk about his experience of being tortured. He spoke at a leadership conference for exchange students. I had been selected to live in Japan. As this man spoke, I built a visual image of his experience in my head that is still with me. But I don't recall any discussion of his experience -- it was just a different tale from a different nation. And no exchange students were going into Russia from our group in 1985. So, there too, we treated his experience as a point-in-time event, built the image, and then let the depth of human experience fade away, to be left with only a visual effect of sorts -- a story to punctuate our conversation.

It is a wonderful thing to read a review like this. I'll check back for more from Donna Minkowitz.

-- J. Carlson

Although I am glad that Salon reviewed the new book by Dianna Ortiz, "The Blindfold's Eyes," you could have chosen a much more serious writer than Donna Minkowitz to do so, or at least you could have edited her prose. Perhaps she is just young and thus is somewhat ignorant, not truly self-aware at this point, but her devoting so much time to America's fascination with and immunity to torture rather than to Ortiz's sufferings just reveals the very fact she is lamenting: Americans like herself are so unbelievably self-absorbed they can rarely move out of themselves to completely understand the sufferings of others in even the most extreme situations.

Though I understand Minkowitz's intent in relating torture/violence to pornography, the fact that she feels the need to tell us that she has S&M books on her own bookshelf is ridiculously unimportant in relation to such a serious story as that of Dianna Ortiz. What happened to Ms. Ortiz, and what has happened to so many in this world, can be directly connected to U.S. military support and training: That is, we, as Americans, are indirectly (and directly) responsible for what happened to Ortiz, and to this fact Minkowitz devotes all of two or three sentences at the end of her piece. In the end, Minkowitz indeed succumbs to her fears of mere lurid detail over substantial content by not weighing the, yes, absolutely necessary particulars of Ortiz's torture with as much information on how and why that torture was allowed to occur. Unfortunately, it is still allowed to take place under the guise of stability, security and the like. Perhaps Minkowitz should shove a few history books onto her shelves next to the S/M ones ...

-- J.R. Helton

Read Dianna's book, and it's impossible not to feel sympathetic for her. Twenty-four hours of torture by the Guatemalan D-2 is probably more that most people could survive -- physically or emotionally.

Unfortunately, it's "bullshit." This was the opinion of U.S. Ambassador Tom Stroock's wife -- after interviewing Dianna the afternoon after her "ordeal." Although they were Republican political appointees, Ambassador and Mrs. Stroock were fanatically anti-Guatemalan military and had an enormous amount of Latin American experience between them. Ambassador Stroock worked as a literacy volunteer in rural Cuba in the '50s -- where he met his wife. Ambassador Stroock had already at that time cut the Guatemalans completely off from all military aid because of the [1990] DeVine affair [in which American citizen Michael DeVine was murdered]; he had nothing to gain from a coverup. Any hint that he would try to attack Dianna Ortiz to defend the Guatemalan security services is slanderous.

The truth of how Dianna wound up wandering around Zona 1 (with no wounds -- especially ones that a penis could be inserted into -- in evidence) in Guatemala City that morning is only known by Dianna. The rumor going around Antigua (and not being spread by some mysterious disinformation campaign) was that she'd had a falling out with her girlfriend at the convent, either left out a window or was thrown out, and took a collective [taxi bus] up to the capital that night.

All Guatemala suffered a hideous civil war. I knew people from both sides, and atrocities committed by the government by far outweighed and outnumbered those committed by the five groups comprising the URNG. But at the time of the Ortiz's "incident," everyone was desperately trying to seek an end to the war and reconcile. An act of torture as dramatic as Dianna claims would have been pointless and counterproductive in the context of that specific time in Guatemalan history. Like the Rigoberta Menchú hoax, perhaps Diane Ortiz's "event" reflects a dramatized historical reality, but it would never stand up to a serious investigation of the facts.

-- Steve Koebrich

Donna Minkowitz replies:

How nice of Koebrich to cite the rumors, promulgated by then-Guatemalan defense minister Hector Gramajo, that Ortiz made up her entire torture to cover up being hit by a lesbian lover. (He euphemizes the rumors when he says it was a mere "falling out.") But there is no evidence Ortiz has ever had a lover of either sex, and the story is a particularly disgusting slander because it forces a listener to choose between supporting lesbians and supporting torture victims. Real lesbians (like me) don't deserve to be tortured, and non-lesbians like Dianna Ortiz don't deserve to be tortured, either. Torture victims of any orientation shouldn't have to suffer smears about their sex lives. Incidentally, Ortiz's wounds --scores of burns all over her back -- were documented by three doctors shortly after she received them.

(Gramajo, readers should know, was found guilty by a U.S. federal judge of launching "an indiscriminate terror campaign against civilians, including Ortiz, to whom he was ordered to pay $5 million.)

Koebrich's assertion that Guatemala was no longer receiving U.S. military aid at the time of Ortiz's imprisonment is also pure fabrication. Aid was suspended (for a time) in 1990. Ortiz's abduction and torture took place in 1989. Koebrich offers no sources for his assertions about Ambassador Stroock, but some alleged literacy volunteering in '50s Cuba (pre-revolutionary, apparently) does not an opponent of the Guatemalan military make. The U.S. made 74 arms deals with Guatemala under Stroock's tenure, and Stroock admitted to the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune in 1995 that he had known that "covert American payments continued to the Guatemalan military" after the 1990 official cutoff.

[Read "Oriana Fallaci Declares War on Radical Islam."]

Never mind that there are dozens of excellent books critical of reactionary Islam by writers including Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul that would cause fuzzy-headed liberal relativists to scratch their heads in confusion. Instead Charles Taylor recommends "The Rage and the Pride" -- a book he describes as "bigoted" -- in a review that devolves into a dreary rehashing of stale arguments about sophomoric relativism.

First Taylor tells us "The Rage and the Pride" is clouded by "bigotry and paranoia" and "ill-informed dismissal of Islamic history and culture." Then he recommends it as a refreshing antidote to liberal relativists who aren't sufficiently worried about Islamo-fascism. Huh?

What's next? A closer look at the 700 Club? Sure, Taylor might say, viewers will have to put up with a lot of sickening bigotry and gay bashing. But Pat Robertson and special guests like Jerry Falwell also provide a welcome slap at liberal mushiness?

Try putting down the Nation and the Village Voice (unless you're looking for a movie): No army of multicultural appeasers threatens to sap our collective will to fight. Among the opinion-makers who matter, the war on multi-culti-relativism has already been fought and won.

On Fox News or "Hardball" it's considered obscene to compare Mullah Omar with Mullah Ashcroft (even in jest) or to wonder out loud whether a dead civilian cares about ideology. Such views only surface when, for a change of pace, a right-wing talk-show host needs an example of anti-Americanism or Christopher Hitchens needs some new material.

Just to be clear, I happen to agree with Taylor that there are worse despots in the Islamic world than our own John Ashcroft. And I happen to agree with him that objectivism is preferable to sophomoric relativism. As a matter of fact, I'm not a leftist.

But I'm worried about the American political landscape going into 2003, where liberals no longer have any elbow room to their left. Isn't this in part because liberals spend so much time marginalizing the left rather than taking on the right?

In the new political consensus, dissent of any type is largely defined as anti-American. As such, post-Nov. 5, Trent Lott claims to occupy the center of American politics, and disabled war veteran Max Cleland is deemed a threat to national security.

As such, doesn't a little hyperbole from the left sound a lot more refreshing than the words of an Italian bigot like Fallaci?

-- David Hyde

The call to arms against radical Islam seems, on the surface, a reasonable goal. Whether that war should be waged with bullets or rhetoric is beside the point. Islam as practiced by bin Laden and his followers poses a direct threat to the ideals that the vast majority of Westerners, from the liberal left to the moderate right, hold sacred, and should be countered with as much force as it applies against us. It is easy to agree with Charles Taylor that the left has abandoned the clearly rational argument for confronting this evil in favor of muddled multiculturalism and in doing so has abandoned the very ideals that gave rise to the left in the first place. The "new" left is no longer the guardian of secular rationality; instead, it is simply self-loathing and confused.

For the moment, let's agree with Taylor and say that it is our moral imperative to stamp out, by whatever means possible, radical Islam. Let's further suppose, unlikely as it seems, that the West succeeds in this task. And by success, we'll include the overthrow of the current regimes in Bangladesh, Iran and Saudi Arabia. What then? Imagining a "best-case scenario," those governments are replaced by ones sympathetic to Western democracy, secularism and capitalism. Those same governments somehow manage to achieve stability within their countries and throughout the Islamic world, and their populations are "re-educated" to understand, embrace and actively practice these newfound ideals. New markets are opened, oil flows freely, and all is well.

The net result: These countries are put on the same silently pathological trajectory that has led to what is one of the largest extinction events in geological history. What Taylor and his ilk seem to forget, time and again, is that our "progressive" systems of belief are quickly depleting the resources on which all life -- not just "reasonable, Western, secularists" -- depend.

It may sound like typical leftist self-loathing to point out the flaws in our system at a time when we are trying to confront the immediate and tangible enemy that is radical Islam. But make no mistake: Once we've defeated that enemy, we'll still have ourselves to confront. The Bush administration, with its incredibly irresponsible and reckless environmental, social and economic policies, is clearly not in any position to lead the world into a positive, post-bin-Laden world.

Salon's contributors have made much lately of the supposed weakness of the "self-loathing" left, but this is a convenient mischaracterization. The left is not self-loathing. It does, however, loathe the stunning lack of self-criticism and long-term thinking of the West's current leadership. The left is aware that at this moment in history, every decision that we make has the potential to preserve or destroy our culture, our species and our planet. If we seem hesitant to engage in war, it is not because we are to blind to the immediate threat, but because we recognize that a short-term victory against a single enemy does not secure our future as a species. Only a radical reassessment of the ways in which all of us -- Muslim, Christian, secularist, Westerner -- conduct our lives, will.

So, if it's a war we need to defeat radical Islam, then let's have one. Like Fallaci, let's all become "holy warriors" for our right to preserve "every reasonable conception of what life is for, every ambition of the mind or delight of the senses." But once the dust clears, we'd better be prepared to defend ourselves against those same "ambitions," because when left unexamined, they are as dangerous as anything bin Laden can throw at us.

-- Michael Patti

Fifty years ago Iran was on the verge of a truly progressive dawn. It might have turned into a model for the Islamic world -- moving beyond the imposed secular fascism of Reza Shah, and Ataturk in Turkey. Those dreams were dashed by the United States. Islamic fundamentalism provided the children of those revolutionaries with a new chance to emerge from everyday humiliation. The result is that the fundamentalist government of Iran, not al-Qaida, has done its bit for world terrorism in the last 20-odd years. And today, even the hostage takers of 1979 half regret what they did, but at the time it must have felt like there was no other option. This is the source of the "but." Democracy, tolerant secularism and the chance to sunbathe naked if you want to are wonderful things, but how are the people of the Islamic world supposed to appreciate those values when they have been denied them because of U.S. policy? We don't justify the attacks when we look at root causes. We just wonder if stepping into the cycle of violence -- beyond reasonable defense -- will make things better.

-- Shahryar Sheibani

If I see this term bandied about one more time on Salon, I'm going to scream so loud you editors will all turn deaf. The leftists so described are obvious straw-people, products of intellectual masturbation, flights of fantasy of right-wing wet dreams. In the real world that most of us inhabit, to be on the left means to support compassion and human dignity, to stand against the tide of hate. Compassion for others does not negate compassion for one's own tribe. It does negate justifying hate or violence of any group against any group, certainly one's own.

The crux of Taylor's argument however, is not so much that the left revels in the death of their fellow Americans, but that its just too stupid to be gung-ho about the "war on terrorism." Perhaps Charles Taylor is too dense or too cynical to admit that, for example, [National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski's cry of "Allahu Akhbar" to the Afghan mujahedin when he visited them at the Khyber Pass in 1980 echoed all the way to the falling Twin Towers. Taylor's blindness doesn't mean that the rest of us have to follow like lemmings behind yet another arrogant, stupid and brutal American foreign policy adventure (and by this I mean the whole "war on terrorism," not just the war on Iraq). Refusing to do so is the opposite of self-hatred. It's intelligent self-preservation.

-- Aron Trauring

The difference between us and the people who were responsible for Sept. 11 is not that they are Muslims and we are not. It is that they are fascist fundamentalists and we are not. To obscure this difference and couch it, not in terms of philosophy and practice but in terms of faith, is prejudicial, inaccurate, and exactly what they want us to do. Osama bin Laden and his ilk want a great war between Islam and the West. This is the line they have chosen to draw between themselves and us. To accept that line is to accept the enemy's definition of what we fight to protect and what we fight to defeat. We are Christians and Jews and Muslims, atheists and agnostics, monotheists and polytheists who believe in religious pluralism as a fundamental building block of free society. We do not fight religious wars, nor should we: There is no winning a religious war except by becoming the kind of state Osama bin Laden would most love to see: hateful, vengeful and utterly intolerant of religious difference.

Labeling what we oppose as Islam is far worse than religious intolerance: It is an acceptance of defeat.

-- Holly Loth

Thank you, Mr. Taylor! Thank you, Salon! You know, a short time ago I attended a war protest (the organizers called it a "peace rally"). I think my sign said "War Is Terrorism" -- I forget. Anyway, I was wondering, "Why am I here?" At the time I thought it was because the U.S. deserved Sept. 11. But that wasn't it. I got to thinking that in fact it was because I hated myself! Confused, I left right away and logged on to Salon. Mr. Taylor's article (proudly featured this weekend) was truly a gift!

Thanks to Mr. Taylor, I now know that I was one of those "self-hating" liberals, unable to face harsh realities with the clarity of an Oriana Fallaci. Well, no more! Taylor and Fallaci have convinced me that those seeking peaceful solutions to conflict, and those who feel the U.S. bears some responsibility for the rise of terrorism and the state of the Middle East -- these people are just as bad as the terrorists, not to mention wishy-washy and multi-culti. (I love that one!! Did Taylor newly mint that locution?) So, a few clicks later I had ordered Fallaci's book.

Until it arrives, I need to feed my newfound moral clarity, so I checked out a copy of Marx's "A World Without Jews." To tell the truth, with my new clarity, I don't know how much more I really need to read. Perhaps I should cancel my Salon subscription.

-- A. Anesko

Do we never separate the government from the individual? To suggest that attacks from the left against the bombing of Afghanistan are without justification assumes all leftist whining is from Taliban apologists, smug in their protection of the rights of foreign cultures. In truth, the average lefty is extremely sensitive to persecution, wary as he is of the Christian right's efforts to minimize his own freedoms, and is therefore focused on those who were victims of Islam's aggressions long before Sept. 11. If we cannot remember that those indifferent to political and religious causes stand beneath every bomb launched in the name of "freedom," then we can expect war eternal. But to the right, justifiably outraged by bin Laden's crusade, such consideration is inconvenient hair-splitting. Black is black, white is white, and the destruction of thousands in pursuit of one man seems just and fair if we can truly believe that every man, woman and child killed was the product of an insane, fundamentalist culture and irredeemably evil at heart.

Personally, I can't imagine the personal hell of one who truly believes the world is such a simple place.

-- Ashley Holt

If Charles Taylor is so sure that objections to the war on terror all boil down to the multi-culti political correctness of a handful of pundits, shouldn't he have also concluded, based on the rhetoric of Ann Coulter and her ilk, that the pro-war faction is merely motivated by cultural imperialism?

To assume that the antiwar left is somehow pro-Taliban is to echo the simplistic "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." Taylor's case against the perceived moral equivalence and political correctness of the antiwar left mistakes pretext for motivation. Opposition to a war waged in order to free oppressed peoples and make the world safe for freedom would indeed be kooky and misguided if any such war were going on. But it is perfectly moral to oppose a war that exploits sympathy for the oppressed and the fear of terrorism for political and strategic aims that address neither.

In fact, "Islamo-fascism" has as little to do with the opposition to the war on terror as it does with the war itself. Does Taylor really believe that the right-wing hawks in Washington care a whit for the plight of women in the Islamic world? He might ask himself who was speaking out against the Taliban before 9/11 and who was negotiating oil-pipeline contracts with them.

Giving Taylor the benefit of the doubt, let us suppose that he agrees with those who believe that even if elements of the war on terror are cynical and politically motivated, the end of liberating women in Afghanistan or Kurds in Iraq, or making America safe from terrorism, is justified. But what if, as has been the case in Afghanistan so far, all that collateral damage is for next to naught? What if Ashcroft has his way with the Constitution and Bush has his way with the U.N., yet Americans are left less free, oppressed Muslims are left more deprived, and terrorists are left as much a threat to the world as they ever were? The current administration's agenda is potentially as much a threat as the terrorists' because it does nothing to stop terrorism, adds its own perils to the package, and wraps the whole thing in a false sense of security. Taylor rattles off a short list of domestic bumblings that have marred the war on terror so far. Add allowing Osama bin Laden to escape and abandoning Afghanistan to anarchy, and what do you have left to counter the critics? It's obvious that the only victory in the war on terror has been in the battle for public opinion.

-- Jason Lloyd

Salon Staff

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