In April 2004, when photographs hit the media showing the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by American military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison, Linda Gustitus was appalled.
"I kept thinking that President Bush was going to take dramatic action and hold people accountable," said Gustitus, a retired lawyer and member of the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, Md. "And it never happened. The stories just got worse."
As news began to trickle out about the abuse of prisoners, including the use of torture, Gustitus decided to do something. She organized a vigil outside Vice President Dick Cheney's house calling for an end to the American use of torture. (In 2005 Cheney had attempted to legalize torture by the CIA.) A group from her congregation at River Road agreed to go with her and, over the course of several vigils, they were joined by different D.C.–area religious groups. At one vigil they had close to 250 people.
Since then, Gustitus has continued to lobby for an end to U.S.–sponsored torture. In 2007 she became the president of the board of directors of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT).
NRCAT's mission is three-fold: to deepen and broaden the involvement of the religious community in anti-torture work; to provide programmatic opportunities to the religious community for addressing the issue; and to influence the U.S. Congress and President in proposing anti-torture public policy.
The organization objects to the interrogation techniques adopted by the CIA and U.S. military interrogators after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The New York Times reported in July 2008 that these techniques were adapted from a program developed by Chinese captors to elicit false confessions from American prisoners during the Korean War, including sleep deprivation, stress positions, exposure to cold, and waterboarding.
"The whole point was to make people say things that weren't true," Gustitus said. "We used them as interrogation techniques to get prisoners to tell us the facts. Inherent in the whole system was the opposite of its intended use."
Gustitus said that confessions obtained under torture are unreliable. "People will say anything. They may also say the truth, but they'll say more than the truth." She said there was a common thread running through many of the stories torture survivors told: "I would have done anything to stop the pain."
The laws on torture are very clear, Gustitus said. "There are three acts under international law that countries can never do. They are genocide, slavery, and torture. There are no exceptions, no excuses, no way around this prohibition." She said that the goal of NRCAT's campaign was not to change any laws, but to shut down the CIA interrogation program. This, she said, could be done through a presidential executive order.
NRCAT's current goal is to get President-elect Barack Obama to issue an executive order that would end the use of torture, abolish secret prisons, prohibit the sending of prisoners to countries where torture is practiced, and publicly account for all detainees. (Although the military renounced the use of torture in 2006, the Bush administration has argued that laws forbidding torture do not apply at Guantanamo Bay and has reserved the right of the CIA to use what it calls "enhanced interrogation techniques.")
In June 2008, more than 350 congregations in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., displayed NRCAT banners that said "Torture is wrong" or "Torture is a moral issue." Fifty-eight UU congregations took part in the action, the largest number from any denomination. "When we had a tough sell in Mississippi and Georgia getting congregations to display the banner because we wanted all 50 states to be represented," Gustitus said, "UU congregations stepped up and were willing to do it."
On November 12, NRCAT organized a national day of witness against torture. Fifty-two interfaith delegations, including some Unitarian Universalists, visited their legislators asking them to endorse a declaration of principles for an executive order banning torture.
NRCAT was founded in January 2006 at a national interfaith conference that Gustitus attended with 150 other religious leaders at Princeton University. Later that spring, Gustitus helped found a D.C.–area branch of the group called the Washington Region Religious Coalition Against Torture. There are currently five other regional groups representing the Metro New York area, Connecticut, Chester County, Pa., Washington State, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Gustitus helped the Washington, D.C. group organize its own conference on torture at River Road in June 2006. Speakers included journalist Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker (who had written a series of articles about Abu Ghraib); Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and activist-writer Jennifer Harbury, who addressed 250 participants from 62 congregations.
In 2007, Gustitus became the national organization's board president.
Gustitus is proud of being a Unitarian Universalist and thinks that UU tolerance and openness to other faiths has given her an edge in understanding those of other religious traditions. She has especially enjoyed working with the Muslim and Evangelical communities. "The Islamic Society of North America has been very supportive of our work," she said. "I've gotten to know the president of that organization, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, and Mohamed Elsanousi is on our board."
"The other big piece of our work is with the Evangelical community," she continued. "We helped create an organization called Evangelicals for Human Rights." NRCAT co-sponsored a conference on torture in September with Evangelicals for Human Rights at Mercer University, an evangelical Christian school in Atlanta.
A member of River Road UU Congregation for the past 23 years, Gustitus has found constant sustenance from Unitarian Universalism's First Principle affirming "the inherent worth and dignity of every person."
"What's wonderful is that so much of the language that we use in our interfaith work goes to the inherent worth and dignity of the individual," Gustitus said. "And all the other faiths around the table: Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, agree that that's the language we need to use."