In congregations and temples all over the United States, there may be some people squirming in their seats lately. The reason is that the subject of the day is torture, which most Americans prefer to avoid, leaving it for the "experts" to debate.
But during the month of June, torture is being discussed in light of religious teachings on the dignity of the person and human rights. Religious leaders are answering a call to action -- to publicly bear witness against torture and display "Banners Across America" in their places of worship.
Torture isn't a subject that will draw crowds. It's challenging in several ways. First, most people aren't really sure what torture is and certainly can't comprehend how it actually feels to be tortured. Most of us don't even know anyone who has been tortured. Physical assault is painful, but it doesn't strike fear in the same way as being targeted for attack with state support.
Second, we don't feel personally threatened by the fear of torture. Most of us haven't lived in places where you face that fear each morning when you awake and each night when you try to sleep. In Guatemala, for example, children's fingernails have been ripped out while the parents were forced to watch.
For most white Americans, torture is something that happens to others in remote, "uncivilized" places. Even American soldiers overseas who were held in POW camps could still rely on Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions to offer some protection against being tortured and treated cruelly.
Third, we avoid even talking about torture because we really don't want to know what's happening, much less admit that our government has been exporting torture around the world. We want individual deniability, even though our tax dollars are spent on training foreign militaries in torture, under American supervision. Instruction manuals for torture used by Americans in Vietnam were adapted for teaching in Latin America, used in classes at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. During the Cold War, torture and disappearance were common techniques for subduing dissent in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Much of this history has been hidden from general scrutiny, and recently a concerted effort has been made to desensitize Americans to the idea of torture. Even television shows like "24" accept the premise that torture is essential for protecting national security.
The legitimization of torture has come a long way, thanks to law professor John Yoo of the University of California at Berkeley. Now torture is openly discussed as a technique we can use to win the "war on terror." Professor Yoo's book, War By Other Means, has been very useful for U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others who advocate the use of torture both at home and abroad. Using "rendition flights," people suspected of terrorism are being flown out of the U.S. to other nations for interrogation without public scrutiny. It's another form of "outsourcing" that enables more deniability.
President Bush refused to sign the McCain Amendment Against Torture without including a "signing letter" asserting his administration's power to bypass democratic and international laws when determining how a prisoner can be treated and whether torture will be used (Savage, Boston Globe. Jan. 4, 2005). This means that U.S. citizens can be held without charges and denied access to an attorney.
In Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, lawyers, doctors and psychologists have been assisting in torture sessions with advice and direct participation. The social scientists who take part are called Behavioral Science Consultation Teams or "biscuits." Psychologists in particular, including board members of the American Psychological Association, have been profiting from this for decades by instructing on "Enhanced Interrogation Methods."
Outraged at how medicine and psychology are being misused, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Socially Responsible Psychologists have demanded that these professionals be held accountable for violating ethical codes, human rights, and the Hippocratic oath to do no harm.
For the June graduation ceremony at UC Berkeley, students are also organizing protests to challenge Professor Yoo's work in promoting government policy that encourages torture and denigrates human rights. Not only those who commit torture but the policy-makers who promote torture need to be held accountable.
Meanwhile, top CIA and military officials are protesting against the use of torture by the U.S. government, as well as the "rendition flights" that began under Reagan. Air Force Colonel Morris Davis is calling on us to pressure the federal government to outlaw waterboarding and rule out the use of evidence acquired during torture (Davis, New York Times, Feb. 17, 2008). He was the chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantánamo Bay from 2005-2007, when he resigned in protest against the treatment of the detainees.
Research has shown that information gathered during torture is unreliable. To end their suffering, victims of torture will say whatever they think their captors want to hear. How can we take seriously information gathered from prisoners who are delirious and near death?
Torture is a tool to inspire terror, never a "solution." The phrase "war on terror" is itself an Orwellian absurdity. Rather than uncovering the truth to safeguard our security, torture endangers us further by eroding civil liberties and democratic processes. Innocence is irrelevant, as the purpose of torture is to debase and humiliate in order to demonstrate absolute control over the individual and inspire fear in the whole community. "Terrorism" means the use of fear to intimidate people for political reasons. The word "terror" comes from the Latin, "to cause to tremble."
In the Graham Greene novel, Our Man in Havana, the Cuban police chief explains to the American salesman that there is the tortureable class and the untorturable class. His father was tortured, he explains, but Americans are not of the tortureable class. But in America the reality of torture has been different for Indians on reservations and Blacks who lived in fear of lynching, and increasingly the division that once separated the tortureable from those who could not be tortured is dissolving.
How can we pray to God for help, and then turn our backs on others? Are we becoming neo-Roman soldiers, known for our expertise in torture techniques? The ends do not justify the means because the means become the ends, as religious leaders from around the world have tried to teach us.
Rabbi Kahn-Troster of Rabbis for Human Rights North America notes that opposing torture is especially important for Jews because: "As a community who has historically been a victim of torture and oppression, we are compelled by our values to identify with the plight of the stranger and work to ensure k'vod habriot, the dignity of every human beingÃ…Â .Torture denies that every person is created b'tzelem elohim, in the image of God." The synagogues hanging up banners against torture "are sending a message to our government that Jews regard torture as an affront to their Jewish values" (Vu, 2008).
The goal of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture is to "stop the use of torture by the CIA, close the secret prisons, stop rendition for torture, and hold the U.S. government accountable for its torture activities" (Vu, 2008). They are calling for a Select Committee of Congress to investigate all aspects of torture that the U.S. government has sponsored since September 2006.
The National Council of Churches has declared: "We believe that any reluctance of this nation to publicly disavow torture under any circumstance not only erodes the peace of the world but even the possibility of peace, since it destroys the trust required for diplomacy and other non-violent means to seek peace."
In his letter from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent to the U.S. Senate on January 30, 2008, Bishop Thomas G. Wenski reminds us that following the Golden Rule will protect American troops overseas: we should not do to prisoners what we would not want done to any of our own soldiers.
In answer to all these concerns, June has been declared Torture Awareness Month, because the "United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment" took effect on June 26, 1987 (Kazak, 2008).
Through the "Banners Across America" initiative, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture is asking us to publicly bear witness against torture. In all 50 states, people are hanging up banners in hundreds of congregations, including Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim places of worship (Vu, 2008).
Let us call upon the U.S. government to reaffirm the U.N. Convention Against Torture, and demand that Congress stop funding the infamous School of the Americas/WHINSEC in Fort Benning, Georgia, whose graduates have been responsible for decades of torture, massacres, disappearances, and assassinations throughout Latin America (Hodge and Cooper, 1970).
We are being controlled by fear to the point of relinquishing our own civil rights while we deny the human rights of others. To distance ourselves from their suffering, we build psychic walls around us and harden our hearts to their cries of pain and anguish. But this denial comes at a great cost to our true selves, tearing at the fiber of our innermost being. To end the escalating cycle of fear we can stand with everyone speaking out against torture and other fear tactics, saying "not in my name!"
In Guantanamo the detainees are forced to wear uniforms that are orange, so the human rights movement that has organized to prohibit torture has chosen to wear orange ribbons. When I learned of this I thought -- imagine what happens when a drop of blood falls on a yellow ribbon -- it turns orange.
So in addition to hanging up banners in our communities, we can also wear orange ribbons in order to bear witness against torture and stand in solidarity with those who have been tortured or live in fear of torture. While handing out orange ribbons to others, we can encourage them to organize in their own communities.
By wearing orange ribbons and spreading "Banners Across America," we will embody our support for a future in which torture has no place and peace with justice is cherished. Although June is when we begin hanging banners and wearing ribbons, we can continue on in July, August, and the rest of the year, until torture and rendition flights are prohibited. Then all of us will rest better at night and rise each morning with more cheerful hearts.
Dr. Nicole Sault teaches anthropology at Santa Clara University in California.