The SOPA Protest: An Unintended Internet Sabbath?

Wikipedia’s recently blackout in protest to the SOPA bill presented before Congress, and its possible threat to the free exchange of ideas over the web for the common man.  According to the Wiki SOPA article, “On January 18, the English WikipediaReddit, and several other websites coordinated a service blackout to protest SOPA and its sister bill, the Protect IP Act, or PIPA. Other companies, including Google, posted links and images in an effort to raise awareness. An estimated 7,000 smaller websites either blacked out their sites or posted a protest message. A number of other protest actions were organized, including petition drives, boycotts of companies that support the legislation, and a rally held in New York City.”

My friend Julie-Rae educated me on this matter, to which I attended to but a cursory look, my mind occupied with the immediate concerns of school and family.  However, I did have an opportunity during the protest to go to Wikipedia’s site and do a “test search” to see what the blackout actually looked like.  I can’t remember what search term I put in, but the article showed up briefly, but half a second, followed by a blacked-out screen with a questions of whether or not the viewer wanted to see the act pass, and its possible consequences (re: the black screen).

First and foremost, I agree with the protestors, although not in the hyperbolic sense as some of my friends online.  Interestingly, in my own personal research for an upcoming discussion on Frankenstein with my AP classes,  I came across John Milton’s Areopagitica (Milton’s Paradise Lost is heavily alluded to in Shelley’s Frankenstein) which, all the way back in 1644, protested a similar move by the English government, and includes the wonderful credo“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” as stated by its introduction in the Norton Anthology of English Literature.  Mine is the brief nod and “of course it’s crap,” agreement to the SOPA bill, then on to changing my 8 month old son’s diaper.

But my initial reaction to the blacked-out screen was not one of activist outrage.

It was relief.

I am one of those people who, due to a lack of discipline and the temptation to indulge in every discussion, film, Youtube post, or blog which comes my way, will willingly stayed glued to the screen until my eyes water, and jump from blue hyperlink to blue hyperlink.  Wikipedia’s blacked-out screen suddenly put an end to this, albeit for a moment.  A moment of a minor epiphany.  I was given a brief Sabbath from the Internet.

Let’s take ourselves back to the core, essential definition of Sabbath.  It comes from the Hebrew shābath, “to rest.”  In more religious contexts, it is the day set aside by Christians and Jews to focus on God, which means a reprieve from work, errands, duties, and other activities which draw our attention away from Him.

Using more technological terms, a Sabbath is a means to “switch off,” from the distractions of the world.

We’ve all gotten to this point, perhaps, of wanting to turn off our cell phones, our laptops, shut off the iPod,  leave our cars and tramp off into the woods for a few hours and communicate, perhaps with a friend or Nature, face to face, sans all technological applications.  In our 24-7 nonstop society, this has turned into a real need, one that, for me anyway, often goes unfulfilled.  There is too much to do, to see, to learn!  And, O Happy and Accommodating Internet, look what thou hast provided!  Unlimited information and discussion, and always at my fingertips.

I’m not saying this is inherently a bad thing.  It would be the height of hypocrisy, given that this will soon be posted on my blog which I enjoy others reading online, to make such an absolutist statement.  Yet Wikipedia’s blackout offered me a meditation on the dynamics between humanity and technology, and that need to periodically, perhaps more than we realize, to “switch off.”

I don’t think it is a mistake that the authors I most enjoy chose to forego or criticize  technology.  Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, wrote “My chief delight and satisfaction is annually to desert the world of modern technology.  When winter fades and spring blossoms into summer, I feel an overwhelming urge to travel back once more.  Mouse Warriors and Badger Lords come striding through the realms of my imagination.”  JRR Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings, once wrote that the LOTR epic was essentially about the struggle of Man, the Fall, and the Machine.  Sauruman’s downfall, in part, is due to his interest in the mechanical over his interest with things that grow.  CS Lewis, in a more balanced view, stated in his essay “Is Progress Possible,” that with technology, “We can become neither more beneficent or more mischievous. My guess is we shall do both; mending one thing and marring another, removing old miseries and producing new ones, safeguarding ourselves here and endangering ourselves there.”  GK Chesterton insisted that science, and thereby technology, should be used and viewed as “a tool or a toy.”  Each author, in other words, put technology in its proper place.

And I think Wikipedia, unbeknownst to them, showed that to me as well a few nights ago.  That night, the black screen and white lettering glowing faintly from my monitor, reminded me that it was well past time to switch off.  I walked outside, the twilight air cool, and gazed up, drinking in the vesper air.  I remembered Kerouac in his book Lonesome Traveler, on watch as a fire lookout on Mt. Desolation: “Sometimes I’d yell questions at the rocks and trees, and across gorges, or yodel ‘What is the meaning of the void?’ The answer was perfect silence, so I knew.”  Or Thomas Merton, who most likely would have brought the Psalms to mind: “Be still, and know that I am Lord.”  This idea of man alone, with the One, or himself, or just the lone nightingale in the tree beyond.  A blacked out screen, beckoning to this, a single breath alone, before bed and rest.



History will honor your actions

Came across this letter written by a Franciscan priest in the latest issue of SojournersLouis Vitale, OFM was inspired to his actions by the story of Alyssa Peterson, a language specialist in Iraq who committed suicide on Sept 15, 2003 due in large part to her objection to interrogation techniques (torture) used by the military at the time.  Alyssa’s full story can be found here.

‘History Will Honor Your Actions’ by Louis Vitale, OFM

It was the evening of October 16, 2007, and Stephen Kelly, SJ, and I were due in court the next day for our nonviolent witness against torture nearly a year earlier. That night we received a call from retired Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, the man who wrote the U.S. Army’s report on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq. He told us, “History will honor your actions.” The next day a magistrate in a Tucson, Arizona, courtroom reached a different conclusion, and sent us to prison for five months.

And so I write from the Imperial County jail in El Centro, California, behind bars for challenging the training of interrogators at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. In November 2006, Father Kelly and I had gone to Fort Huachuca to deliver a letter opposing the teaching of torture. We hoped to speak with enlisted personnel about the illegality and immorality of torture, but were arrested as we knelt in prayer halfway up the driveway at the Army base.

Mohandas Gandhi said that the cell door is the door to freedom. In freely entering the Imperial prison in India—and the Imperial County jail in California—there is nothing more to fear. Here we achieve a transformation, a turning, a teshvua (the Hebrew term for repentance). Here we discover the path of resistance: a vocation that we must follow in the midst of empire to overcome the oppression of our brothers and sisters.

I realize this stance in my solitary cell in Imperial County jail. As the steel doors clang shut, there is freedom to surrender to God and this universe. There is freedom to be open to the creative call of compassion toward our global community.

I HAVE COME TO this prison cell because I was moved to challenge a terrible frontier that my country has entered in its ill-conceived and ill-fated war in Iraq: torture.

Each of us has had to absorb the reality that ours is a nation that tortures. By its policies and practices, the United States has retracted the binding commitment it made when it signed the 1975 U.N. declaration on torture. The declaration prohibited torture, defined in Article 1 as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he has committed … or intimidating him or other persons.”

As stunning as turning on our televisions on Sept. 11, 2001, to see the World Trade Towers collapse was seeing, in 2004, photos of raw torture perpetrated by the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

We have since learned the extent of these so-called “enhanced interrogation methods”—hangings, electric shock, beatings, waterboarding, and other extreme physical and psychological procedures—spelled out in memos emanating from the White House. They have been used in other prisons in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and in renditions to other countries such as Syria (listed by the U.S. as part of the Axis of Evil). We outsource our enemy combatant captives for torture so that we can disclaim any responsibility.

While in Jordan and Syria in summer 2006, I spoke with Iraqis who had been imprisoned by the U.S. in Abu Ghraib. (They were dumbfounded that some of us had gone to prison to protest their detainment and treatment.) Meeting them convinced me that this policy and practice of torture has diminished our standing in the worldwide community.

Many say torture is worse than killing in war. It destroys not only the body but also the spirit—for the victims, but also the torturer. By extension, this is surely true for the countries involved. Major religious bodies attest that torture is immoral, sinful, evil, and always wrong.

Alyssa Peterson, a young U.S. Army interpreter, was trained with interrogators of the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Fort Huachuca. She was on an interrogation team sent to one of the U.S. prisons in Iraq. After just two sessions in the cages, she objected and refused to participate in the harsh interrogation techniques being used—techniques the Army now refuses to describe and records of which have been destroyed. She became distraught and was sent to suicide prevention training, only to commit suicide shortly thereafter.

This story stunned me and Father Kelly. It induced us to join the protest at Fort Huachuca.

THE COMMANDER at Fort Huachuca, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, had been chief of military intelligence in Iraq. Though stationed at Abu Ghraib during the height of the abuses, she has never been reprimanded nor prosecuted for her command failure to prevent it. We wanted to ask about the training of interrogators, because we understood that in summer 2002, Brig. Gen. John Custer, then second in command of Fort Huachuca (in 2007 he succeeded Fast as Commander), went to Guantanamo on special assignment. Upon his return, he integrated the techniques he learned there into standard practices.  Fort Huachuca is already notorious as the source of the torture manuals used at the School of the Americas—we wondered what other secrets were still untold?

So we brought a letter requesting a meeting with Fast, the trainers, and the trainees, but were stopped before reaching the gate. We knelt. Prayed. Were arrested. (Three more activists were arrested at the base on Nov. 18, 2007, and were later sentenced to supervised probation and a $5,000 fine or 500 hours of community service. Two of the three spent two months in jail without bail while awaiting trial.)

As a nation, we have crossed a line we had pledged we would never cross.

Jesus boldly challenged every barrier to the well-being of all, fearlessly breaking the innumerable taboos, customs, and laws that dehumanize, destroy, or diminish human beings, especially the rejected, the feared, the despised. His life and vision has illumined for me the obligation to say “no” to injustice and “yes” to love in action.

As a Franciscan, I have in turn been deeply influenced by Francis of Assisi, who brought Jesus’ vision alive in concrete and powerful ways in his own time.

Originally attracted to the valor and heroism of the Crusades, Francis realized that we could only approach our fellow creatures with gestures of openness and love to all. He rejected the Crusaders’ violence and passed through their lines to embrace the Sultan. Aware that God’s goodness is revealed in all creation, they shared their common experiences and saw that goodness resists those who branded all followers of Islam as violent jihadists. Francis challenged the Franciscan brothers to live among Muslims and be subject to them in order to learn their truth. We must follow these insights if we wish to realize our deepest yearnings for peace.sss

THE CELL DOOR clangs shut. Now I am alone. But instead of trying to escape this solitude, I enter it deeply: This is where I am. Here in this empty cell I have begun to experience prison in the way James W. Douglass in Resistance and Contem­plation describes it, not as “an interlude in a white middle-class existence, but as a stage of the Way redefining the nature of my life.” I have sensed this, little by little. These days are a journey into new freedom and a slow transformation of being and identity: an invitation to enter one’s truest self, and to follow the road of prayer and nonviolent witness wherever it will lead.

I am in this little hermitage in the presence of God, in the presence of the Christ who gave his life for the healing and well-being of all. I am also in the presence of the vast cloud of witnesses, some represented in the icons that have multiplied in this cell, gifts sent to me from people everywhere: Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Steve Biko, the martyrs of El Salvador, Pope John XXIII—those who have given their lives to fashion a more human world. I also experience a deep connection with my fellow prisoners and with those outside these prison walls.

In my small cell, I have a growing awareness of the communion of saints—and the possibility of a world where the vast chasm of violence and injustice enforced by torture and war is bridged and transformed.

Louis Vitale, OFM, a founder of the Nevada Desert Experience and a former Franciscan provincial, was released from prison on March 14, 2008. Vitale serves as the “action advocate” for Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service ( in Las Vegas and is currently speaking throughout the U.S. about his prison experience and the call to end torture.