No doubt can any longer exist that the United States has engaged in torture. Recently released chunks of a report by the International Commission of the Red Cross (ICRC) make it distressingly clear that our government has not only systematically tortured, but lied about it through barefaced denials: "We do not torture." As journalist Mark Danner, who leaked the report, points out: "The ICRC is the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, and when it uses those words"—words like torture or cruel and degrading—"they have the force of law." A strong prima facie case exists that war crimes of the worst order have been committed.
These crimes cannot be ignored without terrible consequences for our society. A Commission of Inquiry is now essential. The Commission, if it is to be effective, needs to be independent, nonpartisan and impartial. It needs to be composed of persons who are above the fray of politics and known for their ethical integrity. It needs the full cooperation of the executive branch. It probably also needs subpoena power. It should not grant blanket immunity, because its findings may well compel the Department of Justice to take action.
A Commission is no substitute for prosecution. The American people first deserve a full accounting of what has been done in their names. Yet without prosecution the future of the rule of law is in jeopardy. It would not be too much to say that the foundation of civilization is at stake, for torture is not just one issue among others. It is archetypal. It marks the clear bright line throughout history between civilization and barbarism, between dictatorship and constitutional government.
The time has come for our nation to engage in serious self-examination. The "secret" resort to torture has already corrupted our society. Once torture enters into a system, it is very hard to get it out. Torture always comes home. It does not remain confined to the remote corners of detention facilities in the war zone. It always returns to police stations, to state prisons, even to households. A young Presbyterian minister once told me that he had been trying to figure out all his life what had gone wrong with his father. Why was he always so violent and volatile at home? He eventually learned that in Vietnam his father had served in the Special Forces. After participating in the Phoenix Program involving CIA torture and assassinations, he was never the same.
Torture corrupts everything it touches. It corrupts the medical profession when, as Danner makes chillingly clear, torture doctors monitor the victim's vital signs so that pain can be inflicted to the breaking point without death. It corrupts the psychological profession when torture psychologists help "reverse engineer" techniques of abuse and recommend which ones will be effective. It corrupts the legal profession when torture lawyers draft government memos in torture's support and devise rationales for war crimes after the fact. It corrupts the media when craven journalists cannot call waterboarding by its proper name while consistently looking the other way. It corrupts the military by undermining the essentials of honor, professionalism and morale. It corrupts the "entertainment" industry by broadcasting forms of mass propaganda that glorify torturers, wonderfully transforming them from monsters into heroes. Not least, it corrupts our nation's religious communities, who by their silence and needless ignorance become torture's willing enablers.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel insisted, while few may be guilty, all are responsible. We must all must take responsibility for our nation's lapse from dignity into torture, from the rule of law into unspeakable crimes. At every level of our common life, we need a season of repentance and renewal. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln called our nation to repentance, to a confession of national sins. Now more than ever we need to do this again. The United States must never again allow itself to be driven by blinding fears and bitter resentments in responding to national tragedy. In a dangerous world torture only undermines our security, while also corrupting our souls.