Monday, May 29, 2006

Torture is wrong

Banner in Austin, Texas

In the middle of June, the Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA), the fragment of Christianity to which my partner and I belong, will be holding its General Convention (the big national governing meeting) in Columbus, Ohio. The media story line is set: the press wants to know whether the denomination that consecrated an openly gay bishop and edged toward blessing gay unions three years ago will recant under pressure from its own conservatives and various Third World bishops.

But, darn it all, though the affirmation that gay people are fully human is vital, it cannot be the only focus of a meaningful church. Happily, my little home parish has proposed a resolution to the Convention to put the denomination on record that "torture is wrong." As citizens of this country, we need to take responsibility for what our government does and demand ethical conduct from those who rule in our name. We certainly hope the various deputies and bishops can carve out time and conscience to support such a measure.

My partner, Rebecca Gordon, a Ph.D. student In Ethics and Social Theory at Graduate Theological Union, has written a set of explanatory points for our deputies, aiming to answer any possible objections. Here's what she wrote:

What is torture?
There are many definitions, but perhaps the most relevant to U.S. policy on torture is the one contained in the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment. The United States is a signatory (with reservations) to this treaty. Here is how the Convention defines torture:

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

Note that effective torture does not require special equipment or techniques. For example, being kept standing or kneeling immobile for hours is no mild form of torture. It can produce as violent muscle and spine pain as can injury from elaborate equipment and apparatus, while leaving no marks on the tortured body. (For more on this, see Elaine Scarry's classic The Body in Pain.)

Is torture legal in the United States?
No. Signing an international treaty such as the Convention against Torture gives it the force of law in this country.

In addition, in 2005 Congress passed a bill including an amendment, championed by Senator John McCain, which specifically prohibits the torture of detainees taken prisoner by any U.S. forces or agencies anywhere in the world.

But aren't there exceptions -- say in time of war or other emergency?
No. President Bush signed the McCain bill. However, as the Boston Globe reported in January 2006, he simultaneously issued an official "signing statement" asserting "that he will view the interrogation limits in the context of his broader powers to protect national security." In other words, the president has asserted his legal right to order torture, should he deem it to be in the interests of "national security."

This is a direct violation of the U.N. convention. The framers of the convention recognized that governments will always use the existence of some dire threat or emergency to justify torture. So the convention states that "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

Is it legal to send detainees for interrogation in another country where torture is not against the law?
No. This is a practice the United States calls "extraordinary rendition." It is specifically prohibited under Article 3 of the Convention, which states, "No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture."

One of the best-known (but hardly the only) examples of extraordinary rendition is the story of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was born in Syria. In 2002, he and his family were returning to Canada from a vacation in Tunisia. When the plane stopped for refueling at JFK International Airport in New York, the FBI took him prisoner and sent him to Syria. There he was imprisoned in a tiny cell, beaten, tortured, and forced to sign a false confession. After 10 months the Canadian government finally secured his release.

Even though it is illegal, does the United States use torture in its "War on Terror?"

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. It is important to note that, in spite of treaties and laws, torture is still happening today. Here are a few examples from the recent past and the present moment:
  • Afghanistan: The CIA has acknowledged using what it calls "stress and duress" techniques on detainees held at Bagram air base. In fact, as the New York Times reported in 2005, that three years earlier two men detained by the U.S. Army at Bagram died after being chained to the ceiling and beaten. Other deaths have also been documented at Bagram.
  • Iraq: The whole world has seen the evidence of the tortures carried out at Abu Ghraib prison. Although the United States has sought to treat these outrages as the aberrant actions of a few low-ranking bad apples, responsibility actually hangs much higher up the tree -- at least with General Geoffrey Miller, who was brought in from the detention center at Guantánamo to jump-start interrogations at Abu Ghraib -- and likely as high as the White House. A complete set of photos and videos taken at Abu Ghraib is available at
  • Guantanamo: Many U.S. allies, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, along with the U.N. Committee on Torture have called on the United States to close its detention center at Guantanamo naval base in Cuba. Here people designated as "enemy combatants" are held indefinitely. They are incommunicado, and have no access to the International Red Cross, in violation of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. Those who have been released have spoken of beatings, exposure to extremes of hot and cold temperature, and a variety of sexual humiliations and other psychological tortures.
  • Other secret locations: As Dana Priest of the Washington Post documented in early 2006, the United States maintains secret detention centers in a variety of other locations, including the British-owned South Sea island of Diego Garcia -- as well as an undetermined number of unknown sites.
But isn't torture sometimes the only way to obtain crucial information?
Professional interrogators agree that torture usually does not produce useful information. It is much more effective to build a relationship with a detainee. Torture doesn't work as a means of gathering intelligence, because people will say anything to stop the pain.

The ordeal of Saddam Saleh Aboud at Abu Ghraib, described in the New York Times, is a good example. After days of torture, the elderly Aboud made a startling admission to his captors. "They asked me about Osama bin Laden," Aboud said. He told them, "I am Osama bin Laden but I am disguised." He said he meant every word. "I was only afraid that they would take me back to the torture room," he said. "I would prefer to be dead."

There are so many evils and injustices in the world. Why should the ECUSA choose to focus on torture?
Because the one we call Our Lord was tortured to death by agents of the most powerful empire of his day. Because every time we share the Eucharist, we remember this death -- a painful, tortured death -- even as we proclaim the resurrection. The celebrant breaks the bread we call the body of Christ, just as Christ's own body was broken on the cross. As we receive the communion, the body and blood, broken and spilled for us, we constitute ourselves as the body of Christ. With the dismissal, we are sent out to be Christ's body in the world. How can we truly incarnate that body, if we stand aside while our own government goes on breaking the minds and bodies of other daughters and sons of God?


Bonnie said...


My name is Bonnie Tamres-Moore and the photograph above is Trinity Methodist Church in Austin, Texas. This faith community is participating in the ‘torture is wrong” banner project.

In January of this year, after observing the Bush Administration's redefinition of, and perpetration of torture with equal parts horror and disgust, I decided to do something. I began a project opposing torture across all institutions of faith in the Austin area. This project is the essence of simplicity. I am asking faith communities to address torture simply and directly as a moral issue. I am asking faith communities to hang banners that say "torture is wrong." There is no financial commitment required. I provide the banners and the installation.

These banners are impossible to ignore. They are always hung outside, in public places with high visibility. Hanging the banners has provoked lively discussion and education in every participating community. My goal is to make it difficult to travel anywhere in Austin without encountering a banner that says "torture is wrong."

I invite other people to take up this project in other cities. It is simple, it is inexpensive and it is apolitical. While all of us as American citizens have responsibility for what our government does, most people do not think about this. Most people do not want to think about torture and most Americans do not want to believe that America is guilty of torture.

Elie Wiesel has said, "Who is guilty? Those who commit these crimes. But to the question, 'Who is responsible?,' we are compelled to say: Aren't we all?"

My ardent desire to ask people to think and act about this is the heart and soul of this project. If you have questions or if your faith community would like to participate, please feel free to contact me at bonnie at

Additional information can be found at

*Christopher said...


Thanks for providing a more in-depth answer to these questions. Because torture goes hand-in-hand with domination politics, I do not see how Christians can ignore it. To do so is to ignore the Body of Christ. This isn't the first time the U.S. has tortured folks, something you know more than I, but this is the first time that we've so publicly absolved ourselves and declared torture okay in the Name of Jesus. One might say that we're taking the Lord's Name in vain.

Related Posts with Thumbnails