The Common Good

Torture and the Currency of Human Rights

In this land that has inherited through our forebears the noblest understandings of the rule of law, our government has deliberately chosen the way of barbarism ...

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There is a price to be paid for the right to be called a civilized nation. That price can be paid in only one currency -- the currency of human rights .... When this currency is devalued a nation chooses the company of the world's dictatorships and banana republics. I indict this government for the crime of taking us into that shady fellowship.

The rule of law says that cruel and inhuman punishment is beneath the dignity of a civilized state. But to prisoners we say, 'We will hold you where no one can hear your screams.' When I used the word 'barbarism,' this is what I meant. The entire policy stands condemned by the methods used to pursue it.

We send a message to the jailers, interrogators, and those who make such practices possible and permissible: 'Power is a fleeting thing. One day your souls will be required of you.'

--Bishop Peter Storey, Central Methodist Mission, Johannesburg, June 1981.

When reflecting on the willing use of torture by the previous administration, under the euphemism of "enhanced interrogation techniques," these are the words that most frequently come to my mind. I no longer recall the point at which it first occurred to me that barbarians always have an advantage over those who choose to walk the moral high ground -- simply put, the barbarians are willing to engage in practices that the moral are not. At the end of the day, one wonders how appeal to torture can ever be warranted. Experts tell us that torture is notoriously unreliable as a means of gathering information, and our use of it only "justifies" its use by our enemies. It is, after all, self-defeating.

The surreal nature of the whole attempt to justify torture was probably never clearer than when a Supreme Court justice appealed to Hollywood's 24 as an example of how folks have been saved through the use of torture. Think about that for a moment: One of our Supreme Court justices thinks we can use fiction created for television as a legitimate argument for torturing enemy combatants. Can there be any clearer indication of how we had lost our way morally on this issue?

For many of us in the faith community, the last few years have marked a frightening descent into the abyss as we have watched some of our leaders lead us onto these dangerous and unwise paths. It is most encouraging to us, then, to see this president so quickly correct what we hope, historically, will turn out to be only a temporary aberration from our normal willingness to bear the cost to be respected as a "civilized nation."

Fear is a terrible motivator if the desired outcome is wise and civilized practices. While I am sure some of us will have principled disagreement with President Obama over the next years of his service, we are buoyed by his consistent call to us to be motivated by the better angels of our nature -- by hope, rather than fear. Undoubtedly, much is yet to be done, but we are encouraged by this rapid correction of what has to be one of the more egregious moral errors of the last few years.

Chuck Gutenson is the chief operating officer for Sojourners.

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