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Torture -- It's time to resist

Later additions on torture >>

Comments on the US use of torture, and Bush’s new interrogation policy  [7-28-07]

A week ago, President Bush set broad legal boundaries for the CIA's harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects yesterday, allowing the intelligence agency to resume a program that was suspended last year after criticism that it violated U.S. and international law. (But he won’t tell us what those boundaries are.)

We offer here a variety of reports and comments on this important action, including a new report from the Washington Post; a faith-based reflection from the Rev. Carol Wickersham, of No2Torture; an analysis by Retired Gen. P. X. Kelley, who served as commandant of the Marine Corps from 1983 to 1987 under President Reagan; and a consideration of a "Declaration Against Torture" put forth some four months ago by 17 leading evangelicals, saying torture is always wrong – and the criticisms leveled at them by other evangelicals.

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 Common Dreams website.

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 out.)

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 become monsters."

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 resistance.

What else can we do?

Washington Office urges action to support McCain amendment against torture  [7-27-05]

 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 witnessed?

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 Washington Office
100 Maryland Ave. NE, Suite 410
Washington, DC 20002
Phone 202-543-1126

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 "Ask U.S. 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 note!

"A Resolution and Confession on the Torture and Abuse of Prisoners" adopted by the 2004 General Assembly.

The treatment of those incarcerated in the naval base in Guantánamo, Cuba, and in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (and perhaps elsewhere), has highlighted serious legal and moral issues that cannot be ignored and must not be allowed to pass unexamined. Violations of international law as well as serious moral malfeasance are involved.

Such treatment is contrary to the Geneva Convention Relative to Treatment of Prisoners of War (1949), particularly Articles 13, 14, 15, 17, and 18. Article 17, Fifth Paragraph, provides:

Neither physical or mental torture nor any other form of coercion may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.

Objections to such practices have been voiced by lawyers within the armed services as well as by human rights organizations. Such practices have been deplored by a great majority of the citizens of our country, quite irrespective of their views as to the legitimacy of taking military action against Iraq. These actions have undercut American claims to a moral high ground and opened the way for enemies to maltreat members of our own society that fall into their hands. Moreover, they constitute flagrant violations of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, to which the United States is a signatory.  [Read it on the website of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.]

As citizens of our country, members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have been urged to engage in repentance for these actions, even if their personal responsibility for them is indirect and minimal. That call for repentance is an indication of the extent to which these actions must be deplored.

But efforts must be made to ensure that such actions are eliminated from future practice. This can be done only if there is a complete and adequate understanding as to why they have arisen – a matter of present uncertainty and possible confusion.

[3. Further, efforts must be made to ensure that such torture and abuse do not occur in the future. To that end, the 216th General Assembly (2004) directs the Stated Clerk to take the following actions:

[a. Commend all who have brought this prison abuse to the attention of the public as well as all who have recognized the seriousness of the issues raised and the need to deal vigorously with the policy and administrative questions that are involved;

[b. Urge the U.S. Congress to direct an appropriate independent and formal inquiry to determine what led to these events. This body should have full investigative powers and issue its findings publicly.

[c. Urge government officials to develop safeguards that will serve to prevent such behavior from arising in the future.

[4. Write and send a pastoral letter to the churches, communicating the intent of this resolution.]

Today's thoughtful comment from an (anonymous) visitor:

You guys must be nuts! 

Torture's Part of the Territory

Naomi Klein, who reported from Iraq for Harper's, comments in the LA Times torture is an inevitable part of the kind of war we're fighting in Iraq.  She is the author of No Logo (Picador, 2002) and is writing a book on the ways capitalism exploits disaster.

Klein begins: "Brace yourself for a flood of gruesome new torture snapshots. Last week, a federal judge ordered the Defense Department to release dozens of additional photographs and videotapes depicting prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. The photographs will elicit what has become a predictable response: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will claim to be shocked and will assure us that action is already being taken to prevent such abuses from happening again."

She notes that the French learned during their occupation of Algeria that "there are only two ways to govern: with consent or with fear." And since most Iraqis do not consent to the American occupation of their land, fear seems to be the only way. And torture is the means to instill fear.

But it could be different ...

Read the full article >>

More resources on the problem of torture today

Reports and reflections on the atrocities at Abu Graib

Suggestions for action after Abu Graib

Volunteer for a prisoner exchange, to take the place of a detainee in Guantánamo

"Ask U.S. Officials to Say ‘No’ to Torture," by Catherine Gordon of the Presbyterian Washington Office

Amnesty International's 12-Point Program for the Prevention of Torture by Agents of the State

Is anything OK in post-9/11 America?   

An op-ed column in the New York Times relates the experience of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was picked up in the fall of 2002 by John Ashcroft's Justice Department and shipped off to Syria for a year of brutal treatment -- thanks to the US's pattern of outsourcing torture, now renamed "extraordinary rendition."

Are we surprised?  Less than 2 months after 9/11, a torture survivors' group warned of possible use of torture

On November 6, 2001, an organization of survivors of torture warns of hints that the US government might use torture to get information from people detained in connection with Sept. 11th attacks.  More >>

We welcome your suggestions of resources, or actions to take to resistance the US use of torture.
Just send a note, to be shared here!






An Invitation
to Global Discipleship

A Witherspoon conference
on global mission and justice

September 16 - 19, 2007
Louisville, Kentucky

For details >>

Updated on 5-22-07


July 30 - August 5, 2007
Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico

This summer the Witherspoon Society is joining with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Presbyterians for Restoring Creation and the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, along with Ghost Ranch, to provide Presbyterians with a rich selection of leaders and topics centering on just what the title says:  peace, global justice, and the creation.   
More >>

Updated on 5-21-07


If you like what you find here,
we hope you'll help us keep this website going ... and growing!

Please consider making a special contribution -- large or small -- to help us continue and improve this service.

Click here to send a gift online, using your credit card, through PayPal.

Or send your check, made out to "Witherspoon Society" and marked "web site," to our Witherspoon  Bookkeeper:
   Susan Robertson,    
   9650 Clover Circle
   Eden Prairie, MN  55347


GA actions ratified (or not) by  the presbyteries   

A number of the most important actions of the 219th General Assembly are now being sent to the presbyteries for their action, to confirm or reject them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book of Order.

We're providing resources to help inform the reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.

Our three areas of primary interest are:

bullet Amendment 10-A, which would remove the current ban on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.

bullet Amendment 10-2, which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

bullet Amendment 10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government that was approved by the Assembly.

If you like what you find here,
we hope you'll help us keep Voices for Justice going ... and growing!

Please consider making a special contribution -- large or small -- to help us continue and improve this service.

Click here to send a gift online, using your credit card, through PayPal.

Or send your check, made out to "Presbyterian Voices for Justice" and marked "web site," to our PVJ Treasurer:

Darcy Hawk
4007 Gibsonia Road
Gibsonia, PA  15044-8312


Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive

A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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