TORTURE IS MORALLY WRONG
I am in awe of Ann Richardson and Mike Rapkin, of what they have done to provide legal assistance to those so fiercely hated, of their commitment to justice and equality even in a place as awful as Guantanamo. Thank you both so much for sharing your stories today.
My task today is not to talk about Guantanamo itself but to look at the larger picture of torture from a faith perspective. At ICUJP – where a collection of very diverse religious communities are represented, we see all forms of torture as morally reprehensible. That means the torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, torture in secret CIA interrogation centers like those in Bagram and Kandahar, Afghanistan. And it means torture in hidden places all over the world where others carry out torture on our behalf. It includes the torture of solitary confinement in our nation’s prisons and the torture that is the death penalty.
Torture is nothing new for Americans. The Phoenix Program implemented in the 1960’s by the US military and CIA resulted in the torture and deaths of thousands of Vietnamese citizens. The United States has provided covert training and support to torture regimes in other countries around the world – from Greece to Uruguay, Chile to El Salvador, Indonesia to Vietnam.
But when the Cold War ended, our nation showed a new concern for human rights and in 1994 we ratified the United Nations Convention against torture.
But then came the events of September 11, 2001. Right after his public address to a shaken nation, President George W. Bush gave the White House staff secret orders saying, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” White House attorneys created three central doctrines to underlie their response to 9/11: (1)- the president is above the law; (2)- torture is legally acceptable, and (3)- the US navy base at Guantanamo Bay is not US territory.
In the days of Saddam Hussein’s reign in Iraq, torture was routine in Baghdad’s central prison, Abu Ghraib. And so in his 2003 State of the Union Address, just months before we invaded Iraq, President Bush condemned what he called the “torture chambers of Iraq” saying, “If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.” Incredible hypocrisy! If Hussein’s torture was evil, then what about the Bush administration’s?
So we were back in the business of torture; not denying it; not needing for it to be covert. Dick Chaney warned less than a week after 9/11 that the United States would now need to work the “dark side.” Thus Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan, CIA black sites and Guantanamo.
If you haven’t done so, go to the Constitution Project website and read the report on Detainee Treatment. It is not easy reading; it describes the most awful forms of torture being done in our name: Water boarding, extremes of heat and cold, sleep deprivation, long-term isolation, sensory deprivation and stress positions – just to name a few.
But sadly, a vast number of Americans support this use of torture. A 2012 poll by a Stanford researcher replicated a series of questions asked in a 2005 Gallup poll. She discovered people are even more comfortable with torture now.
So what about our faith communities? What do communities on an inter-religious spectrum say about torture?
Well, I think there are three principles common to those traditions – principles that say torture is always, in any form, morally wrong.
The three principles.
FIRST, VIRTUALLY EVERY RELIGIOUS TRADITION AFFIRMS THE SANCTITY OF EVERY SINGLE HUMAN LIFE.
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster has written that, “One of the shared values that bind the Abrahamic faiths together is that God has created all human beings, bestowing each of them with dignity and worth, sacred in God’s sight.” She says, “Being created in God’s image is not an ideal reserved for a specific subset of people, for your neighbors or those you agree with. Every human being is created in the image of God, friend and enemy.”
Some religious traditions might express that notion in different language, but all affirm the sanctity of every life. When we torture someone, we deny that sanctity.
SECOND, ALL RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS, IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, CALL FOR THE PROTECTION OF DIGNITY FOR EVERY HUMAN BEING.
Torture humiliates the detainee, stripping that person of his or her dignity – making a young Muslim crawl on the floor and bark like a dog, making a Muslim man who is deeply concerned about propriety stand naked before a female interrogator, making a Muslim concerned about cleanliness prior to prayer wear a diaper and move about covered with filth.
And I think the solitary confinement units in American prisons are equally about stripping people of basic human dignity.
And torture not only humiliates and demeans those who are tortured but it also degrades those who carry out the torture. Young Americans have been ordered to do outrageous things to other human beings, and that will undoubtedly haunt many of them for the rest of their lives.
In the Hadeeth, the prophet Muhammad declares that God has invested the children of Adam with dignity, thus prohibiting any treatment that would strip another person of that dignity.
AND THE THIRD PRINCIPLE IS THAT OF COMPASSION. Karen Armstrong, the brilliant British interfaith scholar has said that the principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions. That principle simply calls us in every situation to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Who among us would wish to be tortured? Compassion, treating everybody without exception with absolute justice, equity and respect.
In the Christian scriptures, the Book of Hebrews says, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”
Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge rightly said “a captive who is powerless is our ethical responsibility no matter what that person has done.” Torture can never be part of the exercise of ethical responsibility.
Torture destroys the sanctity of life, it strips its victims of their dignity, and it makes mockery of compassion.
IN ADDITION TO ITS MORAL DEPRAVITY, TORTURE IS STRATEGICALLY INEFFECTIVE AS WELL. It does not make us safer, but rather increases our vulnerability and serves as a recruiting tool for terrorists.
So, the law says that torture is illegal; the military says it doesn’t work; and our religious traditions tell us it’s wrong. Pope John Paul II, in Veritas Splendor, called torture “an intrinsic evil.” Using torture, we become the evil we deplore.
Let me end with a wonderful JEWISH MIDRASH – a story created out of another story – a story about Nachshon ben Aminadav.
As the pursuing Egyptian chariots draw closer and closer to the fleeing Hebrew slaves, Moses stood over the Red Sea with his hands up waiting for God to part the waters. One slave trying to escape, Nachshon, didn’t wait for Moses. He walked right into the sea. He kept walking as the water rose above his ankles, then above his knees, above his waist, above his shoulders and his mouth. Only then did the Red Sea part for the Hebrews to pass through. Moses was the talker – talking to God, to Pharaoh and to the Hebrews. Nachshon was the doer who actually walked into the water.
Torture violates the core values affirmed by almost every religious faith. It is always morally wrong. And like Nachshon we need to wade into the water, to talk less and do more, to close Guantanamo, end all US uses of torture, end the death penalty and close the solitary confinement units at Pelican Bay and every other prison.