by Charles Busch
Our nation is presently involved in a debate about the sanctioned use of torture by the United States since 9/11. Is it enough to denounce torture and focus on the future, or do we need to investigate the past and seek accountability? This question takes in considerable territory, including the security of the state and the insistence of justice. But for me, ultimately, it is a question of conscience, collective and individual.
On June 11 this year, in solidarity with religious leaders from five major religions standing in front of the White House, it was my privilege to stand with Rev. Bonnie Tarwater, minister of the Congregational United Church of Christ in Lincoln City and Rev. Carl Reynolds, a member of that congregation. The purpose of our witness along Highway 101 in downtown was to add our voices to the call for a Commission of Inquiry into U.S. torture practices.
Torture is Not Only Immoral, It is Criminal
As a Christian, I am heartened by this public witness because, during the Nazi reign in Germany, almost all the leaders of Christian churches held their tongues and ignored Nazi crimes in exchange for being left alone to worship and pursue personal piety. Among the few heroic leaders who risked dissention, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor and theologian. Marilynne Robinson writes that Bonheoffer “chastised those who accommodated their religion to the prevailing culture so thoroughly as to have made the prevailing culture their religion.”
Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and hanged in 1945 as a traitor.
As a child in Sunday school, I learned that intentional cruelty to another person is immoral, and as a Marine Corps recruit, I learned that torture is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. These early instructions confirmed what my conscience already knew, that the nightmare stuff of torture is evil.
Humans throughout the world hate and fear torture. This is evidenced by more than a century of Geneva Conventions. Specifically, the Third Geneva Conventions were enacted in 1949 to govern the treatment of prisoners of war. Articles 13 to 16 state that prisoners of war must be treated humanely and their medical needs met. Articles 17 to 20 state what information a prisoner must give and the limits of interrogation: “No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion.” Nearly all 200 countries of the world are signatory nations.
In addition, the 1985 U.N. Convention against Torture was ratified by the United States and 64 other nations. Nationally, our Constitution has guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment, the Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibits torture, and the War Crimes Act of 1996 limits interrogation practices. We are a nation of laws.
Evidence that these codes against torture had been violated by U.S. personnel emerged when photographs were published in April 2004 of prisoners being abused in Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Then came allegations of excessive interrogation practices of “enemy combatants” at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In 2005, the secretary-general of Amnesty International called Guantanamo ”the gulag of our times.”
Then, word of secret “black site” prisons emerged. In April 2009, the Washington Post published a leaked confidential inspection report by the International Red Cross (which is charged with monitoring war crimes). This report provided detailed evidence of the torture of prisoners at “black sites” by CIA and other government-paid personnel. The evidence is persuasive and mounting that crimes against humanity have been committed and were sanctioned (i.e., practiced in multiple prisons over a period of years).
The details are horrific. They include: the water-boarding of a single prisoner 183 times, men chained by their wrists from the ceiling for days, toes barely touching the floor, men deprived of sleep for more than a week straight, forced feeding, slamming prisoners into walls up to 30 times in a row, brain washing, and men sitting in cells with music blasting their ears for days on end. Many men were jailed without evidence or any legal charge for years. A child would know these acts are monstrous.
How Will our Nation
Respond to its Own Crimes?
How will we, as a nation, respond to evidence of our own crimes against humanity? In this, I am guided by my Christian understanding that the life of each person is sacred, and that we are all part of one intricate, indivisible whole. I am also guided by two principles.
First: However politically inconvenient, when a crime has been committed, it may not be ignored.
Second: To create a just future, we must first be honest about our past.
To date, only a few low-level soldiers have been held accountable and served jail sentences. But with the recent release of the “Torture Memos,” written in August 2002 and March 2003 by five Justice Department lawyers, it is obvious that torture was policy approved at the highest levels of government. The purpose of these memos, which attempt a legal rationale for torture, was to provide immunity from future prosecution.
As I stood in Lincoln City, the leaders of five major religious faiths also stood, with other clergy and lay leaders, on Pennsylvania Ave in front of the White House to deliver a collective message to our President. Participants included the president of my church denomination, Rev. John Thomas (United Church of Christ), Archbishop Vicken Aykazian (Armenian Church in America), Rabbi Steve Gutow (Executive Director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs), Ingrid Mattson (President of the Islamic Society of North America), and the Rev. Michael Cinnamon (General Secretary of the National Council of Churches).
They came as a united part of The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). The message they delivered: President Obama, we look to you and the Department of Justice to authorize a Commission of Inquiry into recent U.S. torture practices. This Commission must be independent and nonpartisan. If it is found that crimes have been committed, then the responsible individuals must be indicted and held accountable.
In this call for accountability, there is no place for self-righteousness. Since May 2004, it has been public information that torture was being committed by the United States, and we citizens did not do what was needed to stop it. We are all complicit.
At the heart of torture is an ancient, recurring lie: That the pain inflicted on just one more person will save us. Every Christian knows and ought to abhor this lie; it’s the very lie that led to Jesus’ torture and political execution.
Will we as a nation investigate and be accountable? As we consider our answer, we do well to listen to these words from Stanley Kunitz’s poem, “Bonhoeffer.”
Slime, in the grains of the State,
like smut in the corn,
from the top infected
Hatred made law,
wolves bred out of maggots
rolling in blood,
and the seal of the church ravished
to receive the crooked sign.
All the steeples were burning.
In the chapel of his ear
he had heard the midnight bells
jangling: if you permit
this evil, what is the good
of the good of your life?
And he forsook the last things,
the dear inviolable mysteries—
Plato’s lamp, passed from the hand
of saint to saint—
that he might risk his soul in the streets, where the things given
are only next to last.Φ
Charles Busch, the founder and President of Peace Village, Inc. and a United Church of Christ minister, lives on the Oregon Coast.
Photo courtesy of : Ken McCormack