07/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

America Can Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time: Why the U.S. Should Form an Accountability Commission

Hillel, the great sage, said, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow." Torture - prohibited by our values, by our laws, and by international treaties and conventions - is an issue that transcends the politics of the moment. Our nation's hopefully aberrational actions implementing torture during the past several years are a stain not only on our reputation in the world, not only on those who were tortured, but even more so on the very dignity of the United States and her people.

A large group of us, as individuals and as organizations, working with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, are asking for a non-partisan commission to look into what actually occurred, how it happened, and under what authority. If we do not ask these difficult and probing questions now, how can we make certain that it never occurs again?

President Obama and his administration are, no doubt, deeply aggrieved by the acts of torture that were perpetrated by our country since 9-11. Unfortunately, the president appears unwilling to establish the commission we feel is necessary. That would pass the buck to congressional committees to find the answers. Congressional committees can be effective investigative tools. But they can also be highly partisan. They are often not heard or listened to in the same way that a full-scale non-partisan administration effort would be.

Avoiding a commission might keep the political waters calmer. No doubt, the stones that may be uncovered could tear at the fabric of the country -- and jeopardize political success in other important matters like healthcare, the environment, and education.

I empathize with these concerns. But I also trust both the administration and America's political ability to walk and chew gum at the same time -- to address the past and prepare us for the future.

If our concern were not about torture but rather about abuse of power or even graft, I could more easily hear those who want to hold off, at least for a time, finding these answers. However, torture is one of those sins that needs a different lens. Like genocide or mass murder, torture must be confronted with great force and right now.

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 Gharib and other sister acts will live until we show that we have addressed the problem. Water boarding, extraordinary rendition, and mass abuses 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 create an opening for those who have and do justify the use of torture. This makes it even more essential that we create this commission now.

All of our religious traditions place human dignity at the top wrung of the ladder of moral decency in the world. All of the Abrahamic faiths state clearly that human beings were made in the divine image. The rabbis of the Talmud insisted that their decrees could be superseded by matters of human dignity. Surely, the political considerations of the moment, as important as they may be, should give way to discovering the truth about what America's responsibilities are regarding torture in the years just ended.

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.