Shining a Light on U.S. Torture: Rev. Hannah Petrie

Rev. Hannah Petrie is the Associate Minister at the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church of Pasadena. She was one of our interfaith participants at our June 21st Shining a Light on U.S. Torture event. Below is her speech. 

Torture Awareness Month

June 21, 2014

I hope the only completely predictable thing I’ll say this afternoon is that Unitarian Universalism does not condone torture.  Here’s what we say on our national web site,

“Unfortunately, torture is a very common practice around the world. As we saw at Abu Ghraib, and continue to see at Guantanamo, the United States of America has policies that condone and even promote the use of torture. In addition to torturing prisoners, the USA has stripped them of their rights to petition their imprisonment. Without this right, Habeas Corpus, those deemed to be enemies can be imprisoned indefinitely, without a trial, without oversight, and without hope – this is a form of emotional and spiritual torture. As a religion that affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person, torture presents a serious challenge. Can we see the worth and dignity within one who tortures? What is clear is that our vision of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, is an envisioning of a world without torture. Please follow our links and join the UUA and our partners as we work towards such a world.”

Visit National Religious Campaign Against Torture ( NRCAT) website to endorse this Statement of Conscience:

Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved—policy-makers, perpetrators, and victims. It contradicts our nation's most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable. 

Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now—without exceptions.

The Unitarian Universalist Association is a proud partner of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and former UUA President Bill Sinkford was a founding member of NRCAT, along with Charlie Clements, former UUSC President.   

Unitarian Universalists Service Committete (UUSC)'s STOP Campaign 
The UUSC initiated its Stop Torture Permanently (STOP) Campaign with a formal statement in the New York Times on June 25, 2004. The STOP Campaign primarily focuses on the official authorization and use of torture, whether mental or physical, direct or "by proxy," by United States officials, agents, military personnel, and contractors abroad. The UUSC is also a member of NRCAT.

So, all of that is on the macro-level of what the religion of Unitarian Universalism has done.  But I’m pleased to give you a micro-snapshot of what we’ve been working on at the church I serve in Pasadena, at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church. 

We began working with the UU Service Committee and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC), both based in Boston, in 2010, when we had our first Building Bridges workshop at the local Muslim private school just down the street from us, New Horizon.  The purpose of the workshop was to educate people about the civil liberties infringements of American Muslims and people who “look Muslim” since 9/11.  What we learned was shocking and disheartening enough to continue the work with the Building Bridges Task Force, whose mission is to build friendships with local Muslims, facilitate interfaith connections, provide educational opportunities about Islam and the challenges facing American Muslims in particular, and advocate for civil liberties protections. 

Through this work we continued our work with BORDC who taught us something important – which is that activists need to awaken the American consciousness and conscience, by connecting the dots.  We must make the case that these three wars are intricately connected:  The war on drugs, the war on terror, and the war on immigrants.  I will be making a bridge back to torture here, so bear with me.

These three wars have several things in common, but a few of the most obvious ones are that: 1)  They all target people of color 2) They are an effective means of control, by controlling people of color through incarceration, and by controlling everyone else to approve this system via fear, and 3) they make a lot of money for corporations, for the war profiteers, but I would emphasize that the primary function of these wars is control, to make sure we are all predictable consumers, and that white people stay on top, to speak crudely and paint with a broad stroke.

Unitarian Universalists hold seven principles sacred, the first one, that we affirm and promote “The inherent worth and dignity of every person,” but also the second one, “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations,” and the 6th one, “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”  So, inferred in there is that ethnic and racial injustice is of particular concern to us, and that we intuit a moral obligation to correct it.  So that it is the elemental impetus for Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals to connect the wars on drugs, terror, and immigrants.

Now, returning to what is written on our website - that to be imprisoned indefinitely without trial is a form of emotional and spiritual torture – I want the world community, and particularly our nation, to more fully recognize and acknowledge that prolonged solitary confinement is another form of torture, and perhaps the most widespread and active form of torture, especially in this nation.  With the private incarceration industry expanding to accommodate the three wars, the use of this form of torture is also expanding. 

It’s imperative that religious voices of conscience lead the campaign to abolish prolonged solitary confinement.  There is historical precedent for this.  Early in the 19th century, it was the Quakers who believed that solitary confinement would be an effective corrective for society, and they soon acknowledged they had completely gotten that wrong because the results were disastrous, as prisoners quickly became severely mentally disturbed – again, it’s a form of spiritual and emotional torture – and religious leaders are the appropriate leaders in society to point this out.   

However, in our increasingly unreligious world, moral consciousness-raising may not be the most effective way to abolish prolonged solitary confinement.  Unitarian Universalists have no qualms about admitting that.  How do we get people to care about an issue that is literally out of sight, out of mind: the ware-housing of the forgotten masses?  Our citizen underclass, and more recently, the new immigrant internment at our 200 plus immigrant detention centers across the country? 

My church is working especially hard on raising awareness about the latter.  If people knew the extent to which we are torturing masses of people who have committed little or no crime, they might begin to care, and if that doesn’t work, then they might begin to care when they understand how their tax-dollars are underwriting that torture, at the tune of up to 5 billion dollars per year. 

So I’m citing the June 10th ACLU report that came out of Texas a few weeks ago, titled, Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison Industry.  In it is highlighted the widespread use of solitary confinement in our privately run immigrant detention system that answers to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  Who answers to ICE?  Supposedly, our congress, our government. 

You know, my religion is post-Christian – we have Christian roots – but  Unitarian Universalism will always value the tactics of activist Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus complained to and about the politicians, and that’s what we’re doing, too.  About a month ago, another Task Force we started a year ago, The Detainee Friends Project, including a former Adelanto Detention Center detainee turned activist, Carlos Hidalgo, lobbied US Representative Judy Chu.  She was so disturbed by Carlos’ story and the facts we presented she promised to visit Adelanto Detention Center and “bring lots of press.”  She’s consulted with the Washington D.C. based advocacy group, Detention Watch Network, and we are confident she will make that visit sometime in the next couple weeks. 

We are also having a public forum in the fall, please mark your calendars for Sunday, November 2nd.  Anti-Solitary Confinement crusader Sarah Shourd will be speaking – she was one of the American hikers detained in Iran a few years ago, one of the co-directors of CIVIC (Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement), Christina Fiahlo will also be speaking, along with Carlos Hidalgo who will share his story, and we hope, Judy Chu will want to talk about her visit. 

So that is the heart of my message today – that Unitarian Universalists are responding to torture by speaking out, by doing all we can to raise awareness and educate the public.  Ideally, there would be an organized and integrated interfaith response – in the coming months, I’ll be doing all I can to build coalitions and invite co-sponsors.  We want 300 people at this forum – even though there’s no bill up in the November 4th election, dealing with immigrants, detainees, prison reform, or abolishing torture.  

It’s up to us to create a grassroots, groundswell of concern, working with our partners of faith and all partners of equity and justice.  It is the people who have to end the wars on drugs, terror, and immigrants, and the use of torture as a weapon in these wars.  Right now we acquiesce to these wars, and we have to indicate our unwillingness to continue paying for them.  Thank you.