The Tortured Truth

By David LaMotte

In recent days, the Internet has been abuzz with revelations brought to us by the latest “Wikileaks” disclosure. Thousands of leaked communiqués reveal various officials’ comments publicly, though they were originally intended to be private. Apologies, clarifications and denials buzz around the world like mosquitoes around a child’s head on a summer night in North Carolina.

The United States government is threatening legal action in response. According to Secretary of State Clinton, “It puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems.” She went on to say there would be “aggressive steps to hold [them] responsible,” and Press Secretary Gibbs said “This is a serious violation of the law.” Reading those words, however, I couldn’t help but have my attention drift from one headline to the next.

Touring to promote his new memoir, George W. Bush is unapologetic about authorizing the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. “Damn right,” he says enthusiastically. That is problematic for a number of reasons, legal, practical and moral. Those issues are perhaps best summarized by Hillary Clinton herself, though she was speaking on another topic: “It puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems.”

It is also unequivocally against the law. The United States is a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture, which, like all US treaties, has the force of US law. An excerpt from that document reads:

“Torture is prohibited by law throughout the United States. It is categorically denounced as a matter of policy and as a tool of state authority. Every act constituting torture under the Convention constitutes a criminal offence under the law of the United States. No official of the Government, federal, state or local, civilian or military, is authorized to commit or to instruct anyone else to commit torture. Nor may any official condone or tolerate torture in any form. No exceptional circumstances may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

As for whether waterboarding is torture or not, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture notes that “it is torture under the definition in the UN Convention Against Torture; it was torture under the terms by which we prosecuted our own soldiers in the war in Vietnam and Japanese soldiers after World War II.”

Beyond the legal question, there are practical objections regarding its ineffectiveness-torture clearly does not make us safer. It has inspired extremists to commit acts of terror against the United States, and reduced our standing and moral credibility in the eyes of millions around the world.

Most important to me, though, it is simply wrong. I am not willing to concede that the public discourse should be concerned only with what is expedient. As a citizen of a country which espouses high ideals, and one who wants that nation to live up to them; as a Christian who honors the value of human lives regardless of nationality, faith or other allegiance; as a father, a son, a husband-I care about what is right. Even if the lives, physical and psychological health of foreigners could be bargained to save American lives, as President Bush and Vice President Cheney have dubiously argued has happened, this would not dismiss my concerns regarding the immorality of torturing another human being.

And that is only examining the question of torturing someone who is guilty. Of the nearly 800 prisoners who have been brought to Guantanamo, the majority have been released without charges. How many of those were entirely innocent?

Which brings us back to Wikileaks. The New York Times reported that among the leaked documents is one that acknowledges “a bungled operation in which an innocent German citizen with the same name as a suspected militant was mistakenly kidnapped and held for months in Afghanistan.”

Guantanamo and Afghanistan may seem far away when we read about them in the news. Yet many of the men disappeared to offshore torture chambers were taken there about planes headquartered in Smithfield, NC. In spite of excellent documentation and the tireless efforts of North Carolina activists at NC Stop Torture Now, there has been no known official investigation at any level of government.

The release of classified communications by Wikileaks is a complicated issue-legally, ethically and diplomatically. Perhaps, then, we should start with an issue that is a bit clearer. President Bush proudly admits that he has broken the law. Mr. Gibbs, to use your own words, “this is a serious violation of the law.”  Secretary Clinton, will there be “aggressive steps to hold [him] responsible”?

David LaMotte is the Program Associate for Peace at the North Carolina Council of Churches, and is a Rotary World Peace Fellow.  This article originally appeared at NC Policy Watch, a Project of the North Carolina Justice Center.

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