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Mr. President, only knowledge and truth
can relieve us from a shameful history

     A call for a Commission of Inquiry on torture

Editor's Note: The following op-ed was released in conjunction with the June 11 demonstration of religious leaders in front of the White House to urge the President to appoint a commission of inquiry on torture. The gathering was organized by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. (See story.)

By the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches; and
          Rabbi Steve Gutow, President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs 

“One who compresses the lips brings evil to pass.” -- Proverbs 16:30b 

There are many forms of evil. One is to commit acts that are clearly forbidden. Another is to compress the lips and be silent about the evil that has taken place. 

Torture, regardless of circumstance, humiliates and debases torturer and tortured alike. Torture turns its face against the biblical truth that all humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26, 27). It denies the preciousness of human life and the dignity of every human being by reducing its victims to the status of despised objects, no matter how noble the cause for which it is employed.  

Our great nation is compressing its lips about the full nature of acts of torture that have been committed in its name. We know some of the details – that waterboarding was employed dozens of times, that physical and emotional abuse was rampant, that some detainees may have died as the result of torture-- but there is much we still don’t know. The silence of our government is thundering around the world. Until we have the answers to these questions, there will be a festering sore on the soul of our nation. Only the whole truth can relieve the agony of not knowing our full complicity.  

President Obama issued an executive order on his second day in office banning torture, demonstrating that he values the rule of law in our government and is committed to restoring our nation’s moral stature in the global community.  But it is not enough. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and other politicians defend the past use of torture as a legitimate means of obtaining information necessary to protect the American people from terrorist attacks. If this nation does not reveal the full extent of the torture that has already taken place, and if we do not enact effective legislation to prohibit it, a future president may employ it again. 

President Obama has expressed a preference for concealing many of the details of past practices, citing the threats to American prestige and the dangers to women and men in uniform if the full story is told. But the greater danger is to be silent. History has shown us that truth is an essential step toward ridding ourselves of past evils. Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained why Truth in South Africa was the key to reconciliation: “We must not allow ourselves to become like the system we oppose,” he said, referring to the evils of apartheid. “(We) must … walk with heads held high. We will say, 'We used methods that can stand the harsh scrutiny of history.'” 

How can we tell the world that American acts of torture have ended if we do not look at the full measure of what we did, who did it, why, and how we can prevent it from happening again? Abu Ghraib and acts such as water boarding, extraordinary rendition, and other mass abuses will live until we show that we have addressed the problem. This stain on our dignity will not end in the minds of Americans or the world until we have a thorough airing of the matter. Right now and until we close this book we yield the debate to those who have and do justify the use of torture.  This makes it even more essential that we create this commission now. 

George Santayana famously said “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”   While our nation’s public policy must be forward looking, we cannot chart a future course if we do not grasp what we have done. 

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture has brought religious leaders together to call for an independent, non-partisan Commission of Inquiry to investigate torture by agents of the United States.  Such a Commission is necessary to: (1) uncover the whole truth about U.S. torture policies and practices; (2) mobilize a national consensus, and (3) build support for the requisite safeguards to ensure that U.S.-sponsored torture never happens again. 

In a letter to President Obama on June 11, more than two dozen prominent religious leaders explained why it makes political, psychological and spiritual sense to look backwards so we can move forward. 

“The reality is that our nation is now shackled to a shameful history of torture,” the religious leaders wrote.  “As people of faith we know that only the truth can set us free.  We must therefore, as a nation, be mature and honest enough to examine fully and disclose completely the wrong doing that has been committed.  The transparency and openness of a Commission of Inquiry will help to hold us all accountable for the policies and acts of torture carried out in our name.  Accountability is essential in a nation of laws.”  

So let us commit to establishing a Commission of Inquiry free of partisan wrangling, committed to generating more light than heat. Perhaps King Solomon’s biblical wisdom suggests a difficult but necessary path: “Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever follows perverse ways will be found out.” (Proverbs 10:9)


NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228 (office), 646-853-4212 (cell) , pjenks@ncccusa.org

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