Torture, Again

The first time I ever addressed the issue of torture from the pulpit was February 29, 2004 (www.usnh.org, click on sermons and scroll to the date). This was actually a month or two before torture at American hands became front-page news because of Abu Ghraib. But those awful photos and the brief uproar they caused were only the loudest part of the story. There was plenty to go on before that, if any of us wanted to pay attention. It was clear that with at least a wink and a nod, and often through direct orders, torture had become an accepted part of the American way of war.

Now here we are more than four years later, and I still don’t understand why there has never been a real public reaction. Is it pure fantasy to think that at some point in our history, Americans would have been shocked and furious to learn that our government tortured in our name? Is it beyond us to envision an America in which a government would actually be brought down by such a thing?

Not that I believe that we were ever a nation – or had a government – composed of saints. Our track record on human rights has been at odds with our self-image ever since our ancestors landed on soil that was inconveniently occupied by others. But there was surely a time in the not-so-distant past when a government that defended its right to torture prisoners would have been met by loud and sustained public outrage.

Now it seems the outrage has been replaced by mere uneasiness, and even this is not universal. A year ago, the Pew Research Center reported that when asked if torture can be justified “to gain key information”, only 29% of Americans said “never”. 12% actually said “often” (who are these people??), and the rest were in between. These figures are disheartening, to say the least. I can only make sense of them by believing that they reflect not an endorsement of torture but our own collective fearfulness. Fear causes people to do some pretty terrible things. Fear causes people to look the other way even when they know something unspeakable is being done in their name.

People of faith should not be looking the other way. If fear and the yearning to feel safe lead the public at large to accept the unacceptable, maybe we respond by challenging and expanding the notion of what it means to be “safe”. The old biblical question put it this way: What does it profit you if you gain everything, but lose your own soul?

There are lots of arguments against torture: that it is not effective and results most of the time in bad information; that it will always include the innocent as well as the guilty, simply because of human fallibility; and that its use loses America much credibility in the world’s eyes. But religious people should also be wiling to argue that it is morally wrong, and that it damages our own selves, our own souls. Because torture is morally wrong – like rape, murder and genocide – it should never be accepted as “necessary”.

NRCAT (the National Religious Campaign Against Torture) has declared June “Torture Awareness Month”, and congregations of every faith all across the country will display banners that simply say, “Torture is Wrong” or “Torture is a Moral Issue”. I am glad my own congregation will be among them. It is such a strange thing to find ourselves doing — can you imagine having to proclaim “rape is wrong”, or “child abuse is wrong”? But in these strange times, it falls to religious people to do what we can to spread the word. Torture is wrong. Period. Get your congregation to put up a banner.

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