February 24, 2008
How far should a nation go to protect its people? Where should we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable measures of gaining information from suspects and sources? This isn't a hypothetical question. It's a question being debated at the highest levels of government, because we live in dangerous times.
When we discuss interrogation methods in this country, we don't like to use the word torture. Torture is something barbarous that others may engage in, but not us. On several occasions President Bush has declared that the United States doesn't condone torture, nor does it practice it. Instead, we use “enhanced methods of interrogation.” When put this way, U.S. practices don't sound as harsh and unseemly, and besides, the information gained from these interrogations is said to keep us safe. But is a practice such as waterboarding simply torture by another name?
It is waterboarding that has become the focus of the current debate. The White House recently admitted that the CIA has used this method of interrogation on three al-Qaida suspects, a method of interrogation that dates back to the Spanish Inquisition. In practice, waterboarding simulates drowning. It doesn't leave physical marks, but it is mentally and emotionally intense. The Geneva Conventions, of which we're a signatory, outlaw torture and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.” Does water boarding fit this description?
Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who knows something about torture, has given strong support to our adherence to these conventions and has said: “Anyone who knows what waterboarding is could not be unsure. It is a horrible torture technique used by Pol Pot and being used on Buddhist monks as we speak. ... People who have worn the uniform and had the experience know that this is a terrible and odious practice and should never be condoned in the U.S. We are a better nation than that.”
The sad truth is that we have made use of this practice, and the current Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, is unwilling to rule it illegal or inappropriate, even though he admitted in Congressional testimony that he personally would experience it as torture.
Recently legislation passed the House and Senate that would require the CIA to adhere to the methods stipulated in the Army Field Manual and would prohibit actions such as waterboarding. The president, unfortunately, has threatened to veto this legislation.
Whatever the name given to the practices, torture is immoral. It's because torture is a moral issue that I joined more than 18,000 other religious leaders and signed the National Religious Campaign against Torture (http://www.nrcat.org/ ). This is a statement of conscience declaring that “Torture is a moral issue.” It calls on the American people to oppose any use of torture, even in the protection of our national security:
“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.”
“There is a special dignity in every human being that comes from the fact that we are brothers and sisters in God's one human family. It is because of this that we all feel that torture is a dehumanizing and terrible attack against human nature and the respect we owe for each other.”