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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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Torture

We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,
which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty,
provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.

Harsh words of confession are out of favor in progressive congregations eager to celebrate the inclusive, forgiving, friendly God. But after reading the summary of findings in the “Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program” it is hard to imagine more appropriate words than these from the Book of Common Prayer. While it comes as no real surprise, the clinically blunt language of the Report remains shocking: “The interrogations of CIA detainees were brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policy makers and others” as were the “conditions of confinement.” One finding is representative: “The CIA instructed personnel that the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah would ‘take precedence’ over his medical care.”

The Report goes on to document the patterns of deception which kept policy makers ignorant of the scope of the program, the CIA’s selective use of the media to shape public opinion, including leaking classified information, the withholding of information from the State Department, the impeding of Congressional oversight, the outsourcing of most of the program to contractors with little accountability and no relevant training, professional expertise or experience and, of course, the much reported headline that none of this actually enhanced the safety and security of Americans. That what the CIA was doing was wrong and likely illegal was known to the principal actors. An internal CIA email in 2003 noted that “. . . the White House is extremely concerned that Secretary [Colin] Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.”

It would be easy to name a few culprits – the President, the Vice President, the head of the CIA, etc. That we resolutely refuse to call them to account is reprehensible. But we should not forget, as Senator Feinstein noted in her Foreward, the climate of fear that had overtaken the nation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and the “do whatever is necessary” attitude that “we the people” communicated to the CIA and other political leaders. The willing suspension of our most cherished moral values has long historical precedent in times of mass fear and hysteria. That it occurred again in the first decade of the 21st century is as much our corporate responsibility as that of a few leaders and interrogators. Today is not for finger pointing. It is a day for mirror gazing.

We stood at a moral crossroad in the days following 9/11. The President had the opportunity to call us to claim our highest moral principles and cherished national values, leading the government in enhancing security, identifying and capturing perpetrators, utilizing our investigative and criminal justice systems to full effect, and engaging allies in addressing root causes of insecurity and terror in the world. Instead, another path was chosen. Fear was manipulated. Enemies were demonized and dehumanized. Nations were divided into “us and them.” The needed international policing devolved into a global and endless war on terror. Patriotism was twisted into xenophobia and license to disregard morality and law. Dungeon like secret prisons were opened around the world. Voices of protest were slow, muted, and often silenced; structures of oversight and accountability were circumvented. That it has taken well over a decade to prepare and release this account in the face of resistance and indifference is revealing.

Senator John McCain had this to say: "I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn't about our enemies; it's about us. It's about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It's about how we represent ourselves to the world.” The Report documents the mismanagement of the torture program, debunks the myth that it provided critical, life-saving information, and reveals how it damaged our relationships with foreign powers. As a strategy it didn’t work. But that is beside the point. It debased our national character, and for that we are all to blame. Some may bear more responsibility than others; all of us share the guilt for this moral catastrophe.

This week (December 10) we observe International Human Rights Day, initiated by the United Nations in 1950 to honor the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Preamble affirms “the inherent dignity and. . . the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. . . [as] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Article 5 reads, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” That we, the people, have been complicit in clear violation of this principle is, indeed, sin and wickedness grievously committed and for which repentance is due. While those who opposed the release of this report worry that it will endanger Americans abroad, it is God’s indignation and wrath before which we must ultimately tremble.

John H. Thomas
December 11, 2014

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