In our various communities of faith we most often think about the soul in singular terms, residing within each one of us and beloved of God. But what about the idea that a nation, too, might have a soul, the place from which our basic decency arises?
If we think of the soul only as an individual matter, then questions of moral choice become focused only on the personal level. We tend to forget that we can go astray not only in our small and solitary ways, but in large and collective ones as well. We do not live in isolation but in community. As a whole people, we are capable of immoral decisions and grievous acts. In a democracy, where we as citizens have the privilege of choosing our own leaders, this truth is particularly relevant. The grave errors of which we are capable as a whole nation are the ones that must urgently compel our attention today.
Why? Because none of us personally has ever tortured another human being. None of us has kidnapped a person and sent him to another country to be tormented. Individually we have never locked men and women into nameless and unidentified prisons around the world, nor held foreign prisoners as "unlawful enemy combatants" without charges or legal recourse. Alone, we have never lobbied for the right to ignore or rewrite the Geneva Conventions.
But our government has done all of these things in our names. On Oct. 17, President Bush signed the Military Commissions Act, which was rushed through Congress just in time for the campaign season. By undermining the moral values and legal traditions on which America was founded, this shameful law threatens the soul of our nation.
Three Connecticut Representatives and one of our Senators voted for this law: Chris Shays, Nancy Johnson, Rob Simmons and Joe Lieberman. The new law will allow torture to continue to be carried out in our names. When challenged, these legislators argue that the law explicitly forbids the practice of torture. And indeed, there is language in the law that provides this political cover. But taken in its entirety, the Military Commissions Act allows prisoner abuse to continue. It grants impunity to the civilians who authorized, tolerated and perpetrated torture since 9/11, and makes it much less likely that future torturers will be held accountable for their actions.
The law is riddled with loopholes, three of which are particularly glaring. First, the law denies due process to current and future detainees imprisoned as "unlawful enemy combatants." Non-citizens can be imprisoned without charges or fair representation, and without the chance to challenge their imprisonment - or their treatment - in a court of law. This silences the prisoners and renders abuse of all kinds, including torture, even more invisible and therefore more likely.
Second, the law authorizes President Bush to "interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions." It allows him to decide which "aggressive interrogation techniques" are torture and which are not. So American interrogation methods will be guided, not by the Geneva Conventions honored by every other democracy on earth, but by President Bush, who has repeatedly circumvented the laws meant to prevent prisoner abuse.
And third, the law retroactively grants immunity to civilian interrogators who violated the Geneva Conventions after 9/11, and it allows the information they acquired using abusive techniques to be presented as evidence. Our own military leaders, arguing against passage of this law, have declared that such evidence is notoriously unreliable, and that our use of coercive practices will put our own soldiers at greater risk of similar abuse.
As religious leaders in Connecticut we grieve and condemn the passage of the Military Commissions Act. We represent a variety of spiritual traditions, but across all our differences we are united in the belief that all human beings are sacred. Torture is an act of desecration that degrades all of those involved - policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. And even those of us who only cast a vote.
Those politicians who voted for the Military Commissions Act, along with President Bush, have made torture more imaginable and more likely: torture at American hands, in the name of the American people. As American citizens and people of religious conviction, we must hold our elected officials accountable for their lack of moral leadership on this issue. Nothing less than the soul of our nation is at stake.
The Rev. Kathleen McTigue and Rabbi Donna Berman are members of the steering committee of Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice. They wrote this piece on behalf of other clergy affiliated with the group, which is an interfaith network of religious leaders and people of faith in Connecticut.
Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant