Monday, October 09, 2006

Sermon: "Citizens of a Nation that Tortures" (Delivered 10-8-06)

I am outraged and I am ashamed that the government of the nation in which you and I live commits torture. And I am outraged and I am ashamed that the government of the nation in which you and I live would legalize torture through legislation.

Let me back up just a minute. This morning we are going to talk about the gross violations of both human rights and human decency perpetrated by our government in the “War on Terror.” We’re going to talk about extraordinary renditions, secret detentions, Abu Ghraib, Konduz, and Guantanamo Bay. We’re going to talk about habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions. At the same time, it is important to remember that the current administration is not the first in our country’s history to deal in torture. So, we’re also going to talk about the history of torture in our country. We’re going to talk not only about torture abroad; we are also going to talk about the immense danger posed by the present day legal wrangling surrounding human rights and civil liberties, and about how the erosion of civil liberties endangers us. We’re going to talk about the effect that torture has on our society and our community. And we will finish up by talking about what we can do about it.

I speak today as a minister. I am not a military strategist or historian. Nor am I a legal expert. I am also not a shrill pundit, a cable news talking head, a shouting demagogue, or a partisan shill. As a minister, I try to deal in timeless truths. I try to deal in the realm of higher principles, morality, conscience, and ideals as I deal out to you a life passed through the fire of thought. I try to appeal to what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature,” our best-selves. Which is to say that I, like many ministers, am less concerned with what is practical, what’s effective, and more concerned with what is right, what is moral, and what should be. My model for this approach is the Hebrew Prophets.

As one commentator has suggested, when torture is discussed in utilitarian terms or as a matter of legalities, that itself is a sign of profound moral failure. But fortunately, to set up the debate about torture as a debate between practical realities and airy ideals is a false debate. Torture is not only ethically indefensible and morally reprehensible, it does not work!

The literature supports this. The world’s best scholars agree on this. Which only means that the political powers that be ignore more than just the findings of scientists working in the fields of evolution, global climate change, and medicine. They also ignore the historians and political scientists, and those who have studied the history of torture.

Torture does not work. According to leading scholar Darius Rejali, torture represents not a means of gathering intelligence but signals a failure of the intelligence community. Rejali says that practicing torture undermines the intelligence community and results in systemic dysfunction and organizational breakdown. (This should raise red flags to those of us concerned with security who have seen too many signs of systemic dysfunction in recent years.) Some scholars insist that there is not a case in recorded human history where torture has produced even one piece of helpful information that was not as easily available elsewhere. No, instead what torture does achieve is suspect information. This can come in the form of torture which our country oversaw in Central America in the 1980’s in which torture victims implicated innocent neighbors who were then tortured, or the case of an individual in Iraq who under torture admitted to being Osama bin Laden.

It is no surprise that, lacking any historical evidence supporting the use of torture, its advocates turn to a hypothetical case, the proverbial “ticking bomb” scenario. No such case has ever existed. It is an intellectual red herring. The world doesn’t work that way. As Bill Schulz writes, “What the ticking bomb case asks us to believe is that the authorities know that a bomb has been planted somewhere, know that it is about to go off, know that the suspect in their custody has the information they need to stop it, know that the suspect will yield the information accurately, and know that there is no other way to obtain [the information.] The scenario asks us to believe, in other words, that the authorities have all the information that [they never have.]” [Schulz, Tainted Legacy: p. 163-164]

Since the first days of the war on terror, we have often heard the phrase, “winning the hearts and minds of the Arab world.” (Whose hearts and minds we are trying to win is a bit interchangeable.) The phrase has become even a little bit trite and stale – but it is true that good intelligence information is best procured through trust. You need trusted informants. You need to appear worthy of confiding in. Torture undermines the capacity to gather intelligence and drives regular people towards the insurgency. Torture causes far more damage than any good it could ever do “hypothetically.” [Harbury, p. 166]

Abu Ghraib, Konduz, and Guantanamo Bay are but three contemporary examples of US involvement in torture. The history of US torture, though, goes back more than a century, at least, to the US war with the Philippines in which both sides tortured their prisoners of war. As for the law of unintended consequences, consider that after September 11, 2001, the United States sought world-wide cooperation in defeating terrorist groups. The Philippines was highly resistant towards cooperating because of the torture we inflicted a century ago. [Schulz, Tainted Legacy, p. 161-162]

The use of torture was wide-spread in Vietnam, and in the 1980’s the CIA trained governments and guerillas in Central American nations such as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in the use of torture and terror. These “Dirty Wars” were sponsored by the Government of the United States, and Central American torture squads were flown to our soil to train and learn torture techniques at the School of the Americas in Georgia. Besides torture, what do the Philippines, Vietnam, and the “Dirty Wars” have in common? They are all low points of US international policy. Several prominent figures have suggested that we can now add Iraq to the list. Torture never plays well in the history books.

I do want to make a few points about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. First of all, it is common to hear the excuse that those who are responsible for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were, quote, “just a few bad apples” or, quote, “acting out irrationally under stress.” This excuse, by the way, is absolutely bogus. The techniques used by the captors were not spontaneous or random – they were learned. These were the exact same techniques – such as the infamous picture of the hooded man standing on a box with wires attached to his fingers and genitals – that were used in Vietnam and repeated in Guatemala. That posture is actually known as “The Vietnam.” [Harbury, 13] The captors had learned this technique from their superiors.

Furthermore, not only did ranking superiors know that the abuses were going on, they knew about it and knew that it was wrong. So they took precautions to avoid having their own neck out on the line. Jennifer Harbury, director of the STOP Torture Permanently campaign of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, points out that senior officers signed into their posts at Abu Ghraib under assumed names. Who was supervising the Abu Ghraib prison, you ask: the records say it was, quote, John Doe and James Bond. [Harbury, 13] Why would they do this? Because they knew it was wrong. The equivalent to this would be if Ken Lay and Andrew Fastow ran Enron under the names John Doe and James Bond and the receptionist, besides losing her job and her retirement, also went to jail. Someone like Lynndie England, one of the soldiers implicated in prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, is a difficult case. Clearly she violated the human rights of others. But it occurs to me that her superiors and their superiors never had to account for the actions that she and others were most certainly ordered to do. She was left twisting in the wind. She was hung out to dry. She was deserted.

While bullies like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh saw it fit to joke about Abu Ghraib, we might consider that we were allowed to see only a handful of pictures. Members of Congress were shown “eighteen hundred additional photographs and videos not made available to the public, depicting yet worse abuses.” [Harbury, p. 12]

Of course, it is not as if the United States is the only nation to practice torture. Amnesty International suggests over 130 violate the human rights of prisoners. [Schulz, Tainted Legacy, p. 156] But, should we aspire to be in the bottom sixty-sixth percentile? Should we aspire to keep company with The Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Burma? And should the leaders of the free world wish to be held in the same bad company as a group of warlords, thugs, and two-bit dictators?

If we can look past the fear-mongering and security-baiting, torture turns out to be a kind of cowardice. If it were not, then why sign in under assumed names? Then why the legal-wrangling to protect the architects and designers of torture, and those giving the orders? If torture was heroic then shouldn’t its designers be taking credit? And why the secret detention centers? And why the “ghost prisoners”? And why the extraordinary renditions? In this practice, a person is taken into custody and transported to a place like Syria, where the torture and interrogation are outsourced, but overseen by a member of the CIA. [Harbury, p. 6-9] Torture has always been a dirty secret, so ugly that, when seen in the light of day, it is always denounced. Torture has no place in a transparent democracy.

If this morning inspires you to learn more, I have listed all of my resources and references on my blog. One of the links is to a wonderful essay by Bill Schulz. Rev. Schulz was President of the UUA during the 1980’s and they went on to direct Amnesty International for over a decade. Schulz’s essay, which I heard delivered in person last June, deals with the theological issues of human nature and evil which torture raises. I want to talk about a different set of issues that torture raises. How am I, how are you, affected by being a citizen of a nation that tortures?

It is a mistake to think that torture only involves the application of pain, suffering, and anguish to another human being over a discreet period time. The effects are felt through networks of contact and for years and lifetimes later. Torture victims, according to the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, Minnesota, suffer, often permanently, from insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, chronic anxiety, inability to trust, deliberate self-injury, violent behavior, substance abuse, depression, and paranoia. [Harbury, p. 145-149] Families of torture victims suffer extensive emotional pain, not knowing anything about their family member. [Harbury, p. 149-152] Torture also destroys communities. It breeds mistrust and paranoia. Obviously torture also destroys goodwill. Torture does so much to turn popular opinion against our country and our servicemen and -women who are in the line of fire. Defenders of torture say that the torture of one may save one hundred lives. But this math is incomplete, short-sighted. Torture of one may, conceivably, save the lives of one hundred but in so doing cost the lives of one thousand. [Schulz, Tainted Legacy, p. 162]

Through sinister logic, torture on one side excuses torture on the other, though it does not legitimate it. Torture destroys any claim to the moral high ground. Our refusal to practice torture is our only ground for condemning it. Mistreatment of enemy combatants on our side endangers our soldiers and civilians who may be taken captive. You may say that al-Qaeda or the Taliban would certainly not live by international law, and it is true that they don’t. But it because they don’t and we do that we are justified in condemning them!

That is not the end of it. Torture actually hurts the torturer as well. By following orders, they face a life that too will never be whole again. [Harbury, p. 152-157] And finally, torture hurts communities back home. Those who committed or witnessed torture abroad do come home. They are left to find a way to reintegrate into this society. Often, the price that is paid is substance abuse and domestic abuse; sometimes it is other kinds of unthinkable, anti-social violence. Darius Rejali writes, "Those who authorize torture need to remember that it isn't something that simply happens in some other country. Soldiers trained in stealthy techniques of torture take these techniques back into civilian life as policemen and private security guards. It takes years to discover the effects of having tortured. Americans' use of electric torture in Vietnam appeared in Arkansas prisons in the 1960s and in Chicago squad rooms in the 1970s and 1980s."

Of course, it would be one thing if one branch of our government practiced torture outside the bounds of law. In such a situation, it would be incumbent on the other branches to hold accountable the renegade branch. But, our current situation is something different. Under the recent bill passed by the House and Senate in the last week of September, 2006, torture is legalized and the rules of evidence and habeas corpus are deemed irrelevant. Let me spell this out for you: the Bill authorizes the government to use interrogation techniques that inflict “serious pain.” The Bill also authorizes the government to suspend Habeas Corpus, to avoid American legal standards on warrants, and to deny the accused the right to examine evidence presented against them. This is not only a violation of the Constitution. It is a violation of the Western legal tradition dating back to the Magna Carta!

I see no good check or balance, no legal or moral restraint, other than the sheer whim and fancy of whoever is giving the orders. I do not trust any President with that kind of authority. It is frightening and it is outrageous and it is shameful.

This legislation has another purpose as well. It is called cover your own tail. As a justification for the Iraq War, President Bush spoke during a State of the Union Address about Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers and rape rooms. But I dare you to go read a depiction of US torture practices. I dare you to read about Konduz, Afghanistan, or Abu Ghraib. I dare you to read the autopsy report of those who died at the hands of American torture. I’ve spared you the gory details and the vivid imagery this morning out of a desire to build my case out of reason and not sensationalism. However, if you can read those depictions without physical revulsion, without faintness, without sleeplessness then you are a colder person than I. There is a word for what these reports describe: crimes against humanity.

What can we do? First of all, learn all you can. On my blog I have a bibliography with lots of resources. Second of all, join the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and participate in their STOP Torture Permanently campaign. Or join Amnesty International. Third, become politically involved. And by the way, the vote on the Torture Bill was not a strictly partisan vote. There are politicians on both sides of the aisle who need to be told how shameful our nation’s involvement in torture is. And finally, act locally. Talk with those in the armed forces about their experiences; talk with those with families in Afghanistan and Iraq. Find out stories. Keep memories alive. Help to uncover the truth in this day when so much truth is hidden.

I want to end with this quote from the conclusion of a legal decision in Israel as that nation decided to officially ban torture:

“The decision opens with a description of the difficult realities in which Israel finds herself security-wise. We shall conclude this judgment by readdressing that harsh reality. We are aware that this decision does not ease dealing with that reality. This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand. Preserving the Rule of Law and recognition of an individual’s liberty constitutes an important component in its understanding of security. At the end of the day, they strengthen its spirit and its strength and allow it to overcome its difficulties.” [quoted in Harbury, p.169]


Our country may not always be free. But it is best when it is. Not all churches are free. Our church is and the freedom of the pulpit that you have entrusted to me ensures that you are free to hear sermons like these, delivered without fear of censor.

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