American scar


WHEN THE Senate confirms Alberto R. Gonzales as U.S. attorney general, the vote will be the beginning, not the end, of public debate about our government's policy on torture.

The Abu Ghraib scandal is only the most visible sign that this policy is inconsistent. Officially, our government opposes torture and advocates a universal standard for human rights. Yet, at the same time, it has allowed ingenious new interrogation methods to be developed that clearly violate these standards. They include stress positions, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and desecration of religious objects. These practices, which should never be used, are no less traumatic than the infliction of excruciating pain.

For religious people, torture is especially deplorable because it sins against God and against humanity created in God's image. It degrades everyone involved - planners, perpetrators and victims.

More than 225 Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh religious leaders signed an open letter to Mr. Gonzales. They objected to his role in developing a narrow definition of torture and to his equally troubling assertion that some people are not subject to the protections of international law. They registered deep concern about our government's moral foundations, urging support - in practice, not just in words - for fundamental human rights.

Four steps must now be taken to clarify that our government has truly abolished torture.

First, Congress must remove the false partition placed between the military and intelligence services governing extreme interrogation techniques tantamount to torture. The Senate was right to pass, nearly unanimously, new restrictions for the Pentagon, CIA and other intelligence services. But congressional leaders in both houses later buckled under White House pressure and scrapped the language governing intelligence services.

Whether the military or intelligence services are conducting practices tantamount to torture is of absolutely no significance. Trying to differentiate between the two perhaps eases the conscience of decision-makers, but it is a distinction without a difference. It fails to insulate us from the absolute evil that is torture.

Second, Congress must outlaw "extraordinary rendition," a euphemism for torture by proxy. It means that detainees are secretly transferred to countries where torture is practiced as a means of interrogation. Although made public only through shocking cases, such as those of Maher Arar, who was deported to Syria by the United States, and Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen who was sent to Egypt before being held at Guantanamo, it has become a mainstay counterterrorism tool.

Does it really need to be said that "disappearing" people without any kind of due process is contrary to everything America stands for, not to mention our laws and treaties? The reasons for a detainee's arrest and his guilt or innocence are irrelevant. No sound moral argument can be made that enabling torture through rendition is permissible.

Third, Mr. Bush should make a clear statement that torture is wrong in any form and under any circumstances. He should state beyond a shadow of doubt that America will not be complicit in its commission. Leadership from the president would go a long way toward resolving the torture crisis.

Finally, America needs a special prosecutor. Our reputation has been so badly damaged by Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib that no other remedy will do. The existing investigations are not enough because they have not been truly independent. Organizations such as the American Bar Association, Amnesty International and the highly respected International Commission of Jurists in Geneva have all insisted that an independent investigation is imperative.

Nothing less is at stake in the torture crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it profit us if we proclaim high moral values but fail to reject torture? What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? A nation that rewards those who permitted and promoted torture is approaching spiritual death.

George Hunsinger is McCord professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and coordinator of Church Folks for a Better America.

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