Of all the inhumane acts people commit toward each other, none is as abhorrent as what's done with government approval.
In invading Iraq, the Bush White House used Saddam Hussein's torture of his own nationals as justification. But then President Bush gave U.S. troops license to torture and humiliate detainees with practices illegal under our U.S. and international laws. Our Justice Department rewrote the rules to permit them.
Now a growing chorus of military, diplomatic and religious voices is calling on President-elect Barack Obama to end them.
Techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, induced hypothermia, prolonged stress positions and degradation of religious beliefs are not just morally reprehensible. They've helped perpetuate a view of a U.S. war on Islam. So argues a coalition of more than 240 religious organizations and denominations, mainline and Evangelical, known as the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It dispatched more than 50 delegations to congressional offices Wednesday, seeking signatures on a declaration of principles that says "the use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment against prisoners is immoral, unwise, and un-American." It doesn't work, endangers U.S. military personnel, discourages cooperation from allies and leaves us less secure, it notes.
The declaration has been endorsed by former secretaries of state and defense and top military and intelligence officers.
Sen. Tom Harkin's spokeswoman, Jennifer Mullin, said Harkin will sign it. Sen. Charles Grassley's spokeswoman, Beth Levine, said the senator is against torture but doesn't sign any pledges.
Since much information remains classified, such as the existence of secret CIA prisons in Europe, the group is also calling for an investigation by Congress.
"We know that we tortured people, but we need a full accounting," said Linda Gustitus, president of the national campaign. "The country needs to come to terms with this."
Religious leaders spoke at a telephone press conference this week. Stephen Colecchi of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said, "Torture is intrinsically evil and can never be justified." Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, said by practicing it, the United States forgoes its role as a moral exemplar to countries such as Syria, China or Egypt.
The executive order would demand:
- The United States won't use or authorize interrogation methods it finds unacceptable for use against its own citizens.
- A single national standard be used for interrogation and prisoner treatment for all U.S. personnel and agencies.
- All prisoners be accounted for to the courts or the International Red Cross. No secret prisons be permitted, and prisoners be allowed to defend themselves.
- No transfer of prisoners to countries that torture.
- Congress and the courts be fully informed about detention and interrogation policies.
- All U.S. officials who authorize, implement, or fail to prevent torture be held accountable.
The Rev. Kirsten Klepfer, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Grinnell, took part in Wednesday's action. When she talks about torture in sermons, or to civic groups, everyone shares the outrage, she said: "It is rare to find such universal agreement about the morality of something."
Torture, Guantanamo Bay and the Geneva Conventions will also be discussed by former President Jimmy Carter, the U.N. human-rights commissioner and global human-rights leaders at a Dec. 2 and 3 forum to craft human-rights recommendations for Obama.
U.S. citizens have been denied a say in these policies, which compromise and reflect back on all of us. It's time for this ugly chapter of our history to be over, so no one is forced to make excuses for what can never be justified.