Why Torture is a Moral Issue

June 26 was United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.  In the United States, both human rights and religious organizations had hoped to gain greater visibility for this crucial concern by tagging June as “Torture Awareness Month.”  Without doubt, it needs a far greater focus than thirty days.

Spearheading these activities is the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT).  They have been at the forefront in reaching out to religious congregations to demand answerability for the American sponsored torture that became normalized after the events of September 11.  They operate under the banner, “Torture is a Moral Issue.” Although NRCAT began as a short-term campaign, it moved into building a long-term organization.  Currently, they work to: engage faith-based groups to end torture of U.S. held detainees; terminate torture in American prisons; encourage United States policies that persuade other countries to halt their use of torture; work to end anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.

I contacted their Executive Director, Rev. Richard L. Killmer, with a list of questions via e-mail.

Was United States sponsored torture an issue before 9/11?

NRCAT was created in January 2006. The use of prolonged solitary confinement was—and still is—common in our prisons.  Rendition for torture occurred.  And there were other areas of concern as well, like The School of the Americas. After 9/11, however, techniques, like water boarding, which everyone had previously agreed were torture, became an acknowledged part of U.S. interrogation policy.

There are people who come out of the military who maintain that torture is neither a moral nor viable way to secure information.  However, the capture of Osama bin Laden once again ignited the debate as to whether torture brings results.  In addition, General Petraeus, in his recent confirmation hearings to be the head of the CIA — when asked about “enhanced interrogation techniques” replied, “I do think there is a need at the very least to address the possibility.”  Why do you think the leaders of the nation continue to be off track on this?

Torture is wrong.  This is an absolute moral principle.  Our leaders sometimes forget this.  Further, we know that torture has direct negative effects–both on our ability to obtain good information and on our efforts to defeat Al Qaeda recruiting.  In their efforts to address unrealistic hypotheticals, our leaders sometimes forget these facts as well.

In the beginning of the month, NRCAT co-hosted a panel featuring Juan Méndez, torture survivor and the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment for the United Nations, to discuss accountability under the law.  What were the takeaways?

The United States has a moral and legal obligation to address its past use of torture.  It is shocking that a former U.S. President has admitted to authorizing the use of torture, yet there has not been an independent, bipartisan investigation of our past use of torture.

Indefinite detention, solitary confinement, medical experiments involving torture, and closing down the Detention Center at Guantanamo Bay have been some of the malignancies NRCAT has been tackling.  How much traction do you feel has been achieved to date?

One of the high points of the Obama presidency came on his second day in office when he issued an Executive Order establishing the Army Field Manual as the standard for all interrogations and requiring that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) be granted access to all detainees.  Unfortunately, since then we have not made permanent the ban on the use of torture or the requirement that the ICRC be given access to all detainees.  Further, we have not yet achieved any measure of accountability for the use of torture.

The group has also taken a stand about prolonged solitary confinement in prison, underscored by the reports about Bradley Manning‘s treatment.  Is torture in American prisons limited to the use of solitary confinement?

No, although it is a major, and particularly dangerous way that prisoners are mistreated.  Overzealous use of restraints, beatings, sexual abuse, and other forms of mistreatment also occur in U.S. prisons.

Are you disappointed with the performance of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder on torture? How could they be doing things differently?

We are grateful that President Obama issued an Executive Order banning torture.  We wish he also would support accountability for torture, and would work more aggressively to pass legislation making permanent the steps he took to ban torture.

As a follow-up, I talked to Killmer by telephone.  Despite his packed schedule, he took the time to drill down deeper on his answers.  My first inquiry was to get more clarification on his thoughts about Obama’s efforts to create a different climate on torture.  Killmer reiterated his belief that Obama’s actions in 2009 had altered the landscape.  He said, “From everything that we can tell, the policy has changed.”  He continued, “We are disappointed that Guantánamo hasn’t been closed.  It’s an awful symbol to the world.” Killmer opined that Obama had tried, and that the fault was with Congress.

Killmer mentioned that NRCAT has repeatedly called for a commission of inquiry to bring back recommendations for safeguards, which he believes to be very important.  “How did a good nation go to the dark side?” he asked,  “How did it happen?”  He continued, “We want the President to give us leadership and laws.  An Executive Order can be changed.”  Despite his appreciation and acknowledgement of Obama’s efforts in 2009, when we discussed the President’s stated desire to “look forward, not back,” Killmer’s response was a flat out, “That’s naïve.  You have to look at past behavior.  He’s wrong.  Repairing the brokenness, redemption, healing—you need the accountability.”

In discussing Bradley Manning, who has been in solitary confinement for nine months, Killmer spoke about the work that NRCAT is doing in prisons across the country “where at any given time there are 32,000 prisoners in solitary confinement.”  They are engaged in changing this situation via legislation.  In Maine, their activist campaigns have reduced those institutional numbers by 50 percent.

The NRCAT site is set up with model e-mails for action steps.  On the home page there are calls for both a “Commission of Inquiry” and an investigation into the use of solitary confinement.  Five days after General Petraeus stated that enhanced techniques could be considered in a “ticking bomb” scenario—NRCAT sent out a letter asking people to write to the President, asking that he and General Petraeus immediately reaffirm their opposition to torture and abusive interrogation techniques.

With their nationwide network, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture has taken away the excuse for being silent in the face of injustice.

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