|It's time to say No to Torture
by Doug King
Back in December, during an earlier round
of revelations about the US use of torture at Guantánamo and various other
places of detention, the Rev. Bruce Gillette sent this note:
In the name of Jesus Christ Almighty, why are people
representing our government, paid by us, writing filth on the
Korans of helpless prisoners? Is this American? Is it Christian? What are
our moral values? Where are the [clergy] on this?
He referred to a column by Molly Ivins, published on
December 5, 2004, which you can read on the
A member of the church I attend, St. Luke Presbyterian in
Wayzata, MN, is able to speak about this from first-hand experience. Born in
El Salvador in 1958, René
joined the Salvadoran military as a paratrooper in 1974, and two years later
joined the Treasury Police. This was in the beginning of the political
unrest in which the US military became heavily involved in El Salvador,
working with the Salvadoran military and para-military groups to resist the
efforts of the people who were engaged in a fight for greater political
freedom and economic justice in their land.
René explained how he witnessed the use of torture to get information
from detainees. Choking back tears, he recalls talking with one prisoner, a
former professor, who was locked away and ignored, left with almost no food
or water, reduced to nothing but skin covering his bones.
The torturers had been trained by U S agents in psychological
interrogation techniques. He and his fellow soldiers had been convinced that
Marxists were the enemy, and that any action to defeat them was justified.
Through this experience he learned that "torture is a weapon of mass
terror," aimed at subduing people, not at gaining information. Under torture
a person will say anything to satisfy the torturer – but then, getting
information isn’t the only goal. He learned too that once people have been
subjected to torture they are rarely released, for they will tell what has
happened to them. And that cannot be allowed to happen. (Though as we are
witnessing again today, it does happen. The truth sometimes does get
René says he can’t sleep these days, because "a lot of the things that
are happening now are the things that were happening then" in El Salvador,
against the Marxists, "the enemy."
What makes it worse, he says, is that the American people know what’s
going on, and they apparently won’t protest. "Beware when you fight
with monsters," he warns, "not to become a monster yourself. And we have
We know that torture is happening, he says, "but nothing happens" in
protest. "This," he adds, "is what happened in Germany."
And just a week ago a woman in our church was reflecting on what she heard a
few months ago from a Holocaust survivor who spoke to the youth in the
church. He described, she said, how the Jews saw their neighbors and friends
simply stand by, silent, as the Jews were removed from their homes to face
unknown fates of which we now know too much. And the churches, said the
speaker, were silent. The pastors and priests said nothing.
And now, she said tearfully, "I see it right here." Our
nation is doing terrible things, and we’re standing by, silent, doing
nothing. And where’s our church?
So why this echoing silence? Why aren’t all of us in the streets demanding
an end to our government’s betrayal of our nation’s heritage, our
affirmations of human dignity?
There seem to be a number of reasons for our silence. Perhaps the most
important one is President Bush’s success in legitimating torture as a
legitimate tool in "the war against terror." So many of our fellow citizens
(and fellow Christians!) are convinced that "torture is OK," that we argue
against it at the risk of being called unpatriotic or worse.
[Just a small example of that from an e-mail comment to
our web site: "It is sad that you seem to spend your time hating your own
country and everything that it does. It is even sadder (not to mention a
bit alarming) that folks who call themselves ‘Christians’ should seem to
take such positive delight in any problems US policy might seem to be
having under George Bush. Shame on you all!"]
Perhaps another reason for our silence is that the acts of
torture are well removed from where we might witness them, or even stand in
protest at the sites where they’re happening. Guantánamo is off limits in
Cuba. It’s hard to visit Iraq or Afghanistan, and we’re outsourcing a lot of
the torture work now to places even harder to get to – and harder to find.
And there’s the perennial question: What can we do?
Obviously no words or actions so far have made a dent in the
administration’s policy of torture. The denials continue, as do the
justifications. (So the argument seems to be "We’re not doing it, but if we
were it would be OK.")
Well, what can we do?
First, we need to offer clear answers to the question,
"What’s wrong with torture?" Many of us who oppose war might still
acknowledge that in some situations (such as genocide) the use of military
force seems (tragically) necessary. Just war? Well, maybe. Sometimes. But
"just torture"? It’s hard to imagine any moral argument that could justify
the intentional, systematic destruction of a human being – physically and
psychologically – for no clear reason other than to cause pain.
Jonathan Schell wrote in The Nation last January,
commenting on Alberto Gonzales as the President’s nominee for Attorney
General. He said it brilliantly:
Torture is not wrong because someone else thinks it is
wrong or because others, in retaliation for torture by Americans, may
torture Americans. It is the torture that is wrong. Torture is
wrong because it inflicts unspeakable pain upon the body of a fellow human
being who is entirely at our mercy. The tortured person is bound and
helpless. The torturer stands over him with his instruments. ... [T]he
victim bears no arms, lacking even the use of the two arms he was born
with. The inequality is total. To abuse or kill a person in such a
circumstance is as radical a denial of common humanity as is possible. ...
Torture destroys the soul of the torturer even as it destroys the body of
his victim. The boundary between humane treatment of prisoners and torture
is perhaps the clearest boundary in existence between civilization and
barbarism. Whether the elected representatives of the people of the United
States are now ready to cross that line is the deepest question before the
Senate as it votes on the nomination of Alberto Gonzales.
Well, they crossed that line. As René
put it, "Torture is a weapon of terror." So who are the terrorists?
And what can we do to resist our nation’s imperial designs, and the abuse of
human beings that seems to go with those designs?
We must begin by making clear in every way we can, that
torture is wrong, and no words can justify it. When President Bush says (as
he did in Brussels last February about what he was going to tell Vladimir
Putin of Russia) that democracies are based on "the rule of law and the
respect for human rights and human dignity," we must agree with him, and
demand that he try it.
Certainly truth-telling can be an act of resistance, and
we must do all we can to help people see what is being done in our name. We
must help people recognize how deeply those actions betray our heritage as
Americans and as people of faith.
But I am becoming convinced – reluctantly – that it is
time to go beyond arguments to action, and specifically action of
What else can we do?
How about finding ways to stand with the victims of
torture? Can we do more to support legal defense for them? Can we help get
their stories out when they are able to speak? As some of them are finally
released, can we help them find help from organizations like the Center for
Victims of Torture?
And as René
reminded us, the torturers too are often victims of the system they have
fallen into. Can we provide support for them as they return to their homes
and families – medical and emotional and spiritual support for them and
their loved ones? Can we help them find ways to speak of what they have
We can certainly support the growing movement of parents
and young people who are resisting the use of our public schools to help
military recruiters in their work. Under the No Child Left Behind laws,
school are now required to provide personal data on their students for the
use of recruiters. Parents can demand that their children be left out of
that process, but efforts are now being made to require that parents "opt
in," so that their children will be left out of the process unless the
parents explicitly ask to have them included.
We can join with groups that are focused on non-violent
resistance and conflict resolution, to shape better ways to deal with the
threats of terrorism, and to find creative ways to resist our own practice
of terrorism through torture.
We can help organize vigils to pray for those imprisoned,
and for those few who have been freed – and for those who have been guilty
of abusing them. And for those in places of power who have condoned
or even encouraged the torture of human beings.
And how about the Presbyterian Church (USA)?
The 216th General Assembly (2004) passed a
Resolution and Confession on the Torture and Abuse of Prisoners, which
is worth reading.
But a staff person in the Presbyterian Washington Office
recently noted that the Washington Office has so far received only two
inquiries or expressions of concern from Presbyterians about the whole issue
of torture. The Washington Office is paying attention to this issue, but
can’t do much until people across the church speak up.
You can speak up by contacting the Presbyterian
100 Maryland Ave. NE, Suite 410
Washington, DC 20002
You might also contact Sara P. Lisherness, Coordinator of
the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program
100 Witherspoon Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Phone 888-728-7228, ext. 5779
There are many good resources on the PC(USA) web site. For starters, you
might look at
Officials to Say ‘No’ to Torture," by Catherine Gordon.
We would welcome your thoughts, and especially your
suggestions for what we – as Witherspooners, as Presbyterians, as
Christians – might say or do to resist the torture.
Just send a