Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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A Stain We Can’t Ignore
“U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture. American personnel conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved ‘cruel, inhuman, or degrading’ treatment. Both categories of actions violate U.S. laws and international treaties. Such conduct was directly counter to values of the Constitution and our nation.”
“The nation’s most senior officials, through some of their actions and failures to act in the months and years immediately following the September 11 attacks, bear ultimate responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of improper interrogation techniques. . . .”
“There is no firm or persuasive evidence that the widespread use of harsh interrogation techniques by U.S. forces produced significant information of value. There is substantial evidence that much of the information adduced from the use of such techniques was not useful or reliable.” (See the Report of the Task Force on Detainee Treatment - http://detaineetaskforce.org/.)
Lost in the tragic drama in Boston and the devastation of West, Texas last week was the publication of a report on Monday the 16th by a bipartisan panel of the Constitution Project on the treatment of detainees following 9/11. It concluded that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture.” An important and necessary opportunity for a national conversation about its behavior following 9/11 faded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and the rubble of a fertilizer plant as reactions to the findings got buried in the news if they even appeared at all. Meanwhile, President Bush inaugurated his library. Dick Cheney continues his book tour unapologetic for anything. And President Obama resolutely wants to “look forward, not backward,” avoiding potentially divisive debates about the past.
The Constitution Project’s review cannot be easily passed off as a liberal slam at the Bush administration. Co-chairing the review panel were two former Congressmen, one a Democrat from Oklahoma, the other a Republican from Arkansas. Joining them on the panel were retired diplomats and generals, legal scholars, a retired FBI director, and a leading evangelical ethicist. In only one instance regarding the continued detention of prisoners at Guantanamo was there any disagreement among the panel members, and that over the best strategy to end detention at the base.
As we saw again last week, terrorist attacks test our nation’s core democratic values as the decision to use our civilian judicial process to prosecute the surviving bomber was challenged by several senators. Clearly, in the aftermath of 9/11, some of those core values were abandoned as our highest officials embraced, authorized, and rationalized “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” behavior, lied to foreign governments about the true nature of the rendition and detention we asked them to be complicit in, and violated international norms of behavior during war that constitute crimes. Hidden behind all of this are victims whose lives were brutally disrupted and, in many cases, ruined.
The use of torture remains a stain that we can’t ignore. Yet all calls for accountability have been resisted and perpetrators have never been called to account. Treatment of American troops or citizens that would evoke outrage by our citizens and government has gone unchallenged when perpetrated against others in the context of the “war on terror.” Carried out in secret, most Americans have been able to ignore what was done “in our name.” Aside from the horrible pictures from Abu Ghraib, the ugly truth has largely been hidden. That’s why this report is so important and why it deserves widespread discussion. This is not just about military or intelligence strategy. This is about the moral character of our nation and the choices it makes. As the Task Force puts it, “Democracy and torture cannot peacefully coexist in the same body politic.”
It’s not about putting former high ranking officials in prison, as much as some might like to see that happen. Leaders acted in our name and, thus, we share moral responsibility for what happened. The beginning of the restoration of our moral stature means learning from the what, the why, and the how of decisions that were made which, in the words of one of the co-chairs, caused us “to lose our moral compass. . . , damaging the standing of our nation, reducing our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increasing the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.” The Task Force expressed the hope that “publicly acknowledging this grave error, however belatedly, may mitigate some of the consequences and help undo some of the damage to our reputation at home and abroad.”
We Americans do a better job proclaiming our resilience and courage in the face of adversity than we do acknowledging failure to live up to our highest values. We love to watch Neil Diamond and the Red Sox fans chest thumping at Fenway Park. We feel a certain solidarity there, but ignore our complicity in the moral shadows of our common life. Until we do, we risk repeating our sin. And the stain that tarnishes the fabric of our national life will remain.
John H. Thomas
April 25, 2013