Everyone Should Know The Story Of Alyssa Peterson

I was moved to tears this week when I learned about Alyssa Peterson, a devout 27 year-old Mormon woman from Flagstaff, Arizona, who killed herself on September 15, 2003, just 25 days after arriving in Tal Afar, Iraq, to serve as a counter-intelligence interrogator.  

(Alyssa is featured in a campaign by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, covered here at RD last week.)  

Peterson, who grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona and served a Mormon mission in the Netherlands, joined the Army as an Arabic language specialist.  

Two days after she arrived at the Tal Afar air base prison, Peterson’s unit was ordered to apply “enhanced interrogation techniques” she considered inhumane and torturous.  

Alyssa said she couldn’t do it.  She couldn’t be two people.  She couldn’t be herself—a devout Mormon, a person of faith—while implementing torture.  

She was officially reprimanded for showing “empathy” to Iraqi detainees and reassigned to another unit.  Days later, she shot herself with her service rifle. 

Every Mormon should know the story of Alyssa Peterson because her story affirms that our tradition has the power to inspire its members to “dare to be different,” as the familiar Mormon slogan goes:  to hold to our principles even when it is difficult or unpopular.    

And every Mormon should know the story of Alyssa Peterson because she exemplifies a powerful departure from the familiar Mormon take on human rights, nationalism, and morality.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stresses to members the importance of respecting established governments and laws of the nations where they live.  American Mormons have traditionally been an especially nationalistic group, stressing our loyalty to the United States government even at times in our history when that government has failed to protect our lives and our interests.  

Some observers have suggested that these emphases on nationalism, unquestioning obedience, and respect for hierarchy have made Mormons an ideal fit for government agencies like the CIA.  

(Indeed, in some Latin American countries, the Church has been perceived as a CIA front, a perception that has brought harm to the Church and ended the lives of Mormon missionaries.  From 1984 to 1990, leftist guerillas attacked 193 Mormon chapels in Chile.  A total of five Mormon missionaries—two American, three Peruvian—were killed by leftist guerillas in South America in 1989, 1990, and 1991.)  

The globalization of the Church brings new pressures to our concept of who we Mormons are and what constitutes moral and humane behavior in the contemporary world.  

We are now a religious tradition that is home not only to Russell Pearce, the author of Arizona’s immigration law SB 1070, but also to Anglo and Latino Mormon activists opposing the law on human rights grounds.  

Our Mormon tradition has produced Jay Bybee—a lifelong Mormon and returned Mormon missionary who served in Chile during the Pinochet coup—who supervised and signed the 2002 “Torture Memos” effectively authorizing the United States’s shameful use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in Iraq. 

It has also produced Alyssa Peterson—a lifelong Mormon and returned Mormon missionary—who refused on principle to administer these very “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  

Who will Mormons be in our global 21st century?  Will we identify more strongly with institutional power and national identity or with individual conscience?  And could it be that a robust internal discussion about human rights is on the Mormon horizon?  I hope so.

12 Comments

  • jtprince@gmail.com' bwv549 says:

    Bybee’s actions should be interpreted in light of the recent admission (from the latest CIA torture report) that he was misled when being asked to write the memo:
    http://www.sltrib.com/news/1927608-155/senate-torture-report-says-cia-mislead

  • michele.bendall@gmail.com' Michele says:

    We must not forget about John Bruce Jessen, Air Force retiree, psychologist, and former Mormon bishop who designed the program of enhanced interrogation techniques (torture) to be used on CIA detainees and was paid $81 million.

  • tamradawnhyde@gmail.com' Tamra Dawn Hyde says:

    you and i have had a very different interpretation of the teachings and a very different sampling of the culture. I can’t think of who these government loving conformist mormons you’re referring to are. i mean, certainly there are all types but if i were going to generalize, my assessment would be almost polar.

  • doug@gmail.com' Doug says:

    So, don’t lower your principles, kill yourself instead. Hold to the moral standards of the church and commit suicide. Follow the brethren. Trying to remember the church’s stance on suicide….it surely must rank up there with temple marriage and tithing. Horrible article!

  • dallingreenhalgh@gmail.com' Dallin says:

    Often times I wonder, to myself, ” Why do I comment on these things?” But here I am, again, commenting:

    Joanna, I read your book, and I thought it was pretty good. This article, however, is better than pretty good. I enjoyed it, a lot.

    So, Thanks.

  • aacga9199@gmail.com' aacga says:

    I am horrified by this article, are you suggesting that suicide is the honorable end to following your religion????

  • kwdowdle@gmail.com' Kurt Dowdle says:

    How blithely we accept “official reports.” Did she really kill herself? Or was it a housecleaning among the ranks made to look like suicide? I don’t know. Does anybody?

  • buillgates@hotmail.com' Paul C says:

    She didn’t kill herself because her religion conflicted with the immoral acts she was mandated to do. She killed herself because she couldn’t face the reality that her religion might also want her to torture for her country.

  • markcustomersupport@gmail.com' Molly says:

    I agree with you Doug, suicide is not something to commend, it is something that should be prevented and this article saddens my soul.

  • lexerot@hotmail.com' Lexe says:

    “President David O. McKay has pleaded:
    Your virtue is worth more than your life. Please, young folk, preserve your virtue even if you lose your lives.”

    – Prophet Spencer W. Kimball, LDS Prophet, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 63
    “I know what my mother expects. I know what she’s saying in her prayers. She’d rather have me come home dead than unclean.”

    The whole idea of “death before dishonor” is not a new one in the church. There is a ridiculously high rate of suicide among conflicted LDS youth struggling with a variety of issues that don’t jive with the faith…and it doesn’t seem to be slowing. I don’t get it.

  • taunya@hotmail.com' Taunya says:

    I
    think the fact that this article is lauding her suicide rather than
    speaking about other ways she could have remained true to her faith and
    stayed alive is heinous and wrong. She’s already said no to doing the
    torture. She’d already taken the reprimand. How to live with the consequences
    of your choice is a much much more important topic than saying it’s
    good she chose to die as the (unnecessary) consequence. By this measurement, if every Mormon committed suicide every time they were confronted with the consequence of a choice they made for their religion, we’d soon run out of Mormons.

  • taunya@hotmail.com' Taunya says:

    Well, with viewpoints like the one in this article, I think we’re beginning to get an idea.

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