Where do American religious leaders stand on torture? Their deafening silence evokes memories of the unconscionable behavior of German church leaders in the 1930s and early 1940s.
Despite the hate whipped up by administration propagandists against those it brands "terrorists," most Americans agree that torture should not be permitted. Few seem aware, though, that although President George W. Bush says he is against torture, he has openly declared that our military and other interrogators may engage in torture "consistent with military necessity."
For far too long, we have been acting like "obedient Germans." Shall we continue to avert our eyes even as our mainstream media begin to expose the "routine" torture conducted by U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo?
Senate Armed Forces Committee Chairman John Warner took a strong rhetorical stand against torture early last year after seeing the photos from Abu Ghraib. Then he succumbed to strong political pressure to postpone Senate hearings on the subject until after the November 2004 election. Those of us who live in Virginia might probe our consciences on this. Shall we citizens of the once-proud Old Dominion simply acquiesce while Sen. Warner shirks his constitutional duty?
We have come a long way since Virginia patriot Patrick Henry loudly insisted that the rack and the screw were barbaric practices that must be left behind in the Old World, or we are "lost and undone." Can Americans from other states consult their own consciences with respect to what justice may require of them in denouncing torture as passionately as the patriots who founded our nation?
On Sept. 24, The New York Times ran a detailed report regarding the kinds of "routine" torture that U.S. servicemen and women have been ordered to carry out. This week’s Time also has an article on the use of torture by U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo.
Those two articles are based on a new report from Human Rights Watch, a report that relies heavily on the testimony of a West Point graduate, an Army captain who has had the courage to speak out. A Pentagon spokesman has dismissed the report as "another predictable report by an organization trying to advance an agenda through the use of distortion and errors of fact." Judge for yourselves; the report can be found here. Grim but required reading.
History, even recent history, demonstrates once again that absolute power corrupts absolutely. See if you can guess the author of the following:
"In this land that has inherited through our forebears the noblest understandings of the rule of law, our government has deliberately chosen the way of barbarism.
"There is a price to be paid for the right to be called a civilized nation. That price can be paid in only one currency the currency of human rights. When this currency is devalued, a nation chooses the company of the world’s dictatorships and banana republics. I indict this government for the crime of taking us into that shady fellowship.
"The rule of law says that cruel and inhuman punishment is beneath the dignity of a civilized state. But to prisoners we say, ‘We will hold you where no one can hear your screams.’ When I used the word ‘barbarism,’ this is what I meant. The entire policy stands condemned by the methods used to pursue it.
"We send a message to the jailers, interrogators, and those who make such practices possible and permissible: ‘Power is a fleeting thing. One day your souls will be required of you.’"
– Bishop Peter Storey, Central Methodist Mission, Johannesburg, June 1981
I asked a Muslim friend recently what the Koran says about torture. After consulting an imam, she reported that the Koran does not address the subject because the Koran deals only "with human behavior." Do not we of the Judeo-Christian tradition also reject torture as inhuman and never morally permissible?
The various rationalizations for torture do not bear close scrutiny. Intelligence specialists concede that the information acquired by torture cannot be considered reliable. Our own troops are brutalized when they follow orders to brutalize. And they are exposed to much greater risk when captured. Our country becomes a pariah among nations. Above all, torture is simply wrong. It falls into the same category of evil as slavery and rape. Torture is inhuman and immoral, whether or not our bishops and rabbis can summon the courage to name it so.
It Is Up to Us
By keeping their tongue-tied heads way down, our religious leaders have forfeited the moral authority with which they otherwise could speak. They end up playing the role of Hitler’s Reichsbishops, who supported or at least acquiesced in the policies and methods of the Third Reich.
Many American men and women Jews, Christians, Muslims of the Abrahamic tradition have learned not to depend on clergy leaders who bless the Empire. The inescapable conclusion is, as popular theologian Annie Dillard reminds us, "There is only us; there never has been any other."
The question is this: Are we are up to the challenge of confronting the evil of torture, or shall we prove Patrick Henry right? Is our country about to be "lost and undone?"