Last week nearly 500 religious communities around the country screened the movie Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, a film that raises such questions as: how did torture become an accepted practice at Abu Ghraib and what governmental policies allowed it to happen? Here on the Island, it was shown at the Hebrew Center on Oct. 24 in a jointly sponsored, interfaith program by local religious communities. Why screen a film about the torture of political prisoners perpetrated three years ago, in prisons halfway around the globe, and for which several of the perpetrators have already been tried? Because torture is still happening. Prisoners in American custody today are being tortured, and with even less accountability required by their tormentors than when the acts at Abu Ghraib were committed.
And this torture is made legitimate by the American government. How is it possible that the United States of America, which at one time was the advocate of human rights for all, everywhere on this planet, is now not only perpetrating torture but making it legitimate as well?
Here is a capsulated review of our government’s actions since Abu Ghraib. The passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 allows our government to forego the globally agreed upon rules of the Geneva Conventions. It allows for the retroactive application of more narrow criminal sanctions than those in place before 2001, thus allowing crimes committed between September 2001 and September 2006 to go unpunished. It disallows the hearing of detainees’ claims of Geneva Conventions violations in our federal courts. Perhaps most grievously, it allows the President to identify detainees as enemy combatants, thereby denying them their right to habeas corpus or the right to challenge the legality of their detention in an impartial court. In the summer of 2007, the President issued an executive order reaffirming the CIA’s right to use undefined alternative interrogation techniques.
Indeed, secret memos leaked to the press two weeks ago revealed that the CIA continues to operate secret prisons where “tough interrogation methods,” quoting President Bush, are authorized for use. The administration continues to deny that waterboarding, which is simulated drowning, is torture, and it is clear that the CIA uses a variety of techniques, which, when applied together, can drive a prisoner insane. Causing severe psychological or physical pain for the purpose of information extraction is considered, by international law to which the United States is a signatory, to be torture. Yet when asked last week whether he thought waterboarding was torture, Michael Mukasey, nominee for attorney general, said he wasn’t sure what waterboarding was.
How is it that those at the highest levels of our government are able to issue executive orders that authorize “tough interrogation methods”? And why should we care? We should care because we are human beings and because torture is one of the most universally accepted moral “nevers,” as abhorrent as slavery and racism, that human beings do to each other. It’s really that simple.
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), which spearheaded last week’s showing of Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, is made up of over 130 religious organizations including representatives from the Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox Christian, Evangelical Christian, Quaker, Unitarian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities. Religious groups care about torture because torture violates the humanity of victims, perpetrators, and policy makers. What is common among these groups is the belief in our common humanity. For many of us, the belief that we were all created in God’s image, even those whom we identify as enemies, has made us speak out and join together to end torture. Torture contradicts our deepest religious beliefs and it violates our nation’s most cherished values. Nearly 20,000 Americans have signed NRCAT’s statement of conscience, which concludes with the following statement: “Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. Let America abolish torture now — without exception.”
Rabbi Brian Walt is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, an education an advocacy organization of rabbis, located in West Tisbury.