Editorial: Torture is a stain on US conscience

by NCR Editorial Staff

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Since 2003, when news reports of torture at Abu Ghraib first appeared, we have known that the CIA was involved in systematic human rights violations and torture -- in that instance, working with the U.S. military. Since then, more reports have surfaced, and the word "waterboarding" entered the national lexicon. The December release of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on torture demonstrated for all to see that the activities undertaken in our name, by our government, were even worse than we had previously thought.

The details of the torture the CIA committed are chilling and need not be repeated here. Equally chilling was the response to the report's release. All manner of justification for the use of torture was presented, insults were hurled at Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for releasing the report, and dark threats were made about new terrorist attacks on account of the report's release. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, arguably the most sinister public official since Richard Nixon, said, "The report's full of crap."

The pushback continues as Congress comes under new leadership, and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., tries, in the words of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to "erase history."

"Republicans who are in denial about this dark chapter in our history will stop at nothing to keep it under wraps," Leahy said. Burr said releasing the report was "a blatant attempt to smear the Bush administration."

But the cover-up is a bipartisan affair. Though he put a stop to the torture program, President Barack Obama has made it clear that he has no interest in investigating, let alone prosecuting, Bush administration officials. He wants to "look forward as opposed to looking backwards."

Sadly, as the report by Linda Cooper and Jim Hodge demonstrates, when it comes to torture, the United States has a long history of not looking back.

The use of torture and its promotion by U.S. government personnel is an indelible stain upon the nation's conscience. It will not wash off. The release of the CIA report could have been a first step in truth-telling, but that seems unlikely now. Without truth-telling, there can be no justice.

Is it irony or the work of the Holy Spirit that the Vatican's official recognition of Archbishop Oscar Romero as a martyr for the faith -- something the people of El Salvador long ago knew and proclaimed -- shares the front page of this issue with a report that the U.S. government continues a decades-long history of covering up its use of torture? The juxtaposition of the stories is a stark reminder of U.S. complicity in the horror that enveloped Central America and martyred Romero and so many others in the 1970s and 1980s. Remember, Romero wrote President Jimmy Carter pleading that he stop arming the Salvadoran military.

We are only learning now of the deep scars our foreign policy left in that region and how the trauma of that era plays out today through social instability; unprecedented levels of criminality and violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala; and last summer's surge in unaccompanied minors at our borders.

How have our extended wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, our drone strikes and our use of torture scarred that region, and what consequences will we see unfold over the next decades? Could the Islamic State in Syria be just the beginning of what our war-making has sown?

Speaking to The New York Times in El Salvador, Msgr. Ricardo Urioste, Romero's top aide, welcomed the Vatican's action. "He was accused of so many things -- of being a Marxist, a guerrilla, a subversive," Urioste said, "but now the church has recognized who he really was."

While the church of Latin America can rejoice that with the beatification the rest of the world will come to know Oscar Romero for what he really was -- a voice for the voiceless -- Christians in the United States can use this time for soul-searching and repentance. As a nation, we would do well to remember that Romero did not speak for us, he spoke to us: "In the name of God ... stop the repression."

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 13-26, 2015 print issue under the headline: Torture is a stain on US conscience.

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