Editorial: The US government's use of torture is an indelible stain on the nation's conscience

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 release last week 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 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."

As E.J. Dionne noted in The Washington Post, "The pushback against Feinstein makes clear that many involved in 'the program,' as they so delicately call this departure from our own norms, would do it all over again."

Wars create moral quandaries all the time, which is one good reason they should be avoided. But, after World War II and especially after the unique crime that was the Holocaust, the United States led the effort to enact international laws protecting human rights and proscribing certain activities as war crimes. Even amid the moral confusion of war, some things are beyond the pale, too indecent to be allowed, an insult to our common humanity.

In 1948, the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed. The following year, the Geneva Conventions built on earlier treaties to ban certain inhumane practices. In 1984, the U.N. Convention against Torture was adopted. When President Ronald Reagan sent the Convention against Torture to the Senate for ratification, he said it "marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today."

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, that proud history was quickly forgotten. International norms were inconvenient. We understand the need to prevent such attacks in the future, but in the first few days, while the remains of the Twin Towers still smoldered, it was obvious that prevention was not the only goal of the Bush administration. They wanted payback and punishment.

What the administration forgot: One of the things that distinguishes terrorism from other forms of violence is precisely the terrorists' willingness to flout the rule of law, to ignore and willfully transgress standards of human decency. And lest we now comfort ourselves by turning the Bush administration into a kind of scapegoat, we feel compelled to wonder if a popular referendum on permitting torture would not have passed overwhelmingly in 2003 or 2004 or, sadly, even today.

We commend one prominent Republican for swimming against the tide: Sen. John McCain, who happens to be the only member of Congress with firsthand experience of torture:

"I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn't about our enemies; it's about us. It's about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It's about how we represent ourselves to the world. ... When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea ... that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights."

McCain correctly identifies the moral agent in the act of torture: It is the person committing the torture, not the person being tortured. And, insofar as the torture was done in our name, it is about us. We can all acknowledge that the terrorists in custody were bad people who did gravely evil things. That does not justify us lowering our own standards of decency.

As Christians, we have a special responsibility to combat torture. As Maryann Cusimano Love, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, noted in 2009, "Being disciples of a tortured God means that we must never be torturers, but must see in the image of Christ our solidarity with the powerless and marginalized, the victims of torture. We must see the fundamental dignity of human life, the face of God, even in suspected enemies, and treat them accordingly."

The Senate report demonstrates that we did not, in fact, respect the fundamental dignity of those in our custody. Respect for human dignity is the indispensable cornerstone for any and all peace-building efforts in the Middle East and beyond. In fact, it is strange that those who defended the war in Iraq do not see how badly torture harms their own stated goals. The struggle against Islamist extremism is primarily to be won not on the battlefield, but in the hearts and minds of Muslim communities. Only when people in at-risk communities are convinced that the rule of law is preferable to the law of violence will that struggle be won. Both the war in Iraq and the systematic use of torture make a mockery of the rule of law and, just so, provide recruiting tools for terrorists.

If Christians are in agreement that torture is wrong, there is less agreement about what justice demands of those who perpetrated it. The Convention against Torture included provisions for "universal jurisdiction" -- that is, every signatory country is bound to enforce its provisions and bring perpetrators to justice.

But who most deserves to be brought to the bar of justice? A CIA operative who was following orders? Certainly. But what about the lawyers at the Justice Department who gave that operative a green light? And what about White House officials who encouraged the lawyers to find whatever loopholes were needed to achieve that green light?

We live at a time when administrations try and provide "plausible deniability" to presidents, and it is not clear to what degree President George W. Bush knew the details of what the CIA was doing. But plausible deniability cannot be allowed to vitiate constitutional responsibility. It is hard to believe that senior officials at the White House were not winking at, at least, or encouraging, at worst, what was happening in prisons around the world.

(Let's not forget former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's comment: "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?" written in the margins of a memo in which he approved interrogations techniques such as forcing prisoners to stand for extended periods, stripping them nude, and threatening them with dogs.)

The use of torture by U.S. government personnel is an indelible stain upon the nation's conscience. It will not wash off. The release of the report is a first step in truth-telling, but reconciliation requires more. It requires justice. None of us should be naïve about the threat terrorists pose. But all of us should have the moral intelligence to recognize that our strongest weapons in the fight against religious extremism and terrorist violence are our ideals.  

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