Torture Endangers the Soul of Our Nation
Published on Thursday, March 3, 2005 by
Torture Endangers the Soul of Our Nation
by Phillis Engelbert

On a recent, snowy afternoon I watched "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" with my son. Near the end of the film came a scene in which Harry learned that his godfather, wrongly accused of murder, had been captured by prison guards called "dementors." "Do you mean they're going to kill him?" Harry asked his friend Hermione. "No, it's worse, much worse," Hermione replied. "They're going to suck out his soul."

I pondered Hermione's conclusion and found myself in agreement - that losing one's soul would be a fate worse than death. After all, a person without a soul would be capable all sorts of heinous acts - for instance, torture. If one applies the same reasoning to a nation as to an individual, the implications are chilling. For in the 9-11 era, torture has been approved by the highest levels of government, employed by military and intelligence agencies, and accepted by the public. We have been told that the Geneva Conventions are a luxury we can no longer afford - that if we want to be safe, we must gather information by any means necessary. The question of whether torture produces reliable information notwithstanding, we must ask: in trying to safeguard our lives, are we, as Americans, losing our collective soul?

Torture, while long an unspoken element of the CIA's repertoire, came into favor after 9-11. Within one week of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Vice President Cheney stated on "Meet the Press" that the government was going to operate on "the dark side" and would "use any means at our achieve our objective." Cofer Black, then the CIA official in charge of counter-terrorism, told the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in September 2002, "All you need to know is that there was a 'before 9/11' and there was an 'after 9/11.' After 9/11, the gloves came off." According to top State Department officials, and reported by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker of February 14, the decision to suspend the Geneva Conventions - a decision based, in part, on the opinion of then White House counsel and now Attorney General Alberto Gonzales - was made by President Bush on January 8, 2002.

The disregard for human rights has had stark consequences for those caught in the "war on terror" web. Suspects and material witnesses have been rounded up and held for months or years without criminal charge, legal representation or family contact. Former detainees have described horrible treatment while in U.S. custody - or while being held by other nations (such as Egypt or Syria) after being transferred by U.S. authorities. Examples of mistreatment include stripping, blindfolding, suspending from doorframes by wrists, beatings with fists and objects, electrical shocks to genitals and other body parts, mock executions, sleep and sensory deprivation, sexual assault and humiliation, near-drowning, threatening with snarling dogs (or allowing dogs to bite), being forced to stand or kneel in painful positions, and being held in freezing conditions with light clothing. These allegations have been corroborated by international human rights organizations.

An important consideration in any discussion of torture is whether it produces the desired result: useful information. Veteran intelligence officials insist that torture doesn't work - that tortured detainees will say anything to stop the mistreatment. They assert that a detainee who is afforded due process and legal counsel is much more likely to cooperate and provide truthful information. "Have any of these guys [advocates of easing torture restrictions] ever tried to talk to someone who's been deprived of his clothes?" asked ex-FBI agent Dan Coleman in The New Yorker. "He's going to be ashamed, and humiliated, and cold. He'll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back. There's no value in it."

The United States, long the self-proclaimed global human-rights standard-bearer, is now regularly cited by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for gross violations. We subject people, many of whom have no connection to terrorists, to unimaginable pain. We claim to be fighting terror, but are terrorizing hundreds, if not thousands of people, in the process. The only way to stop it, and hence reclaim our soul, is to refuse to allow torture to be committed in our name.

This month marks one year since the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib. It also marks two years since the start of the Iraq War. On March 20 I'll be joining hundreds of other area residents in a march for peace and decency and to reclaim our national soul.

Phillis Engelbert is Executive Director of Michigan Peaceworks based in Ann Arbor, Michigan