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Rev. Richard L. Killmer Headshot
Suzanne Nossel Headshot

An Apology the United States Must Make

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"It was so painful, that I forgot every enjoyable moment in my life," said Maher Arar, of the beatings he suffered while held captive in Syria.

Arar, a Canadian citizen, was arrested at New York City's JFK Airport on September 26, 2002. U.S. authorities held him for 12 days before sending him to Syria. He was detained for 12 months -- ten of which were spent confined to a small, underground cell -- and tortured.

While past administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have opposed torture, the Bush administration embraced the use of torture by adopting an array of policies and practices in the guise of national security. Upon taking office, President Obama issued an executive order halting the use of torture.

And in May 2009, President Obama once again stated his opposition to torture in a national security speech at the National Archives. Each year, on June 26, the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, he has reiterated that message.

Torture is counterproductive. Professional interrogators -- like Ali Soufan of the FBI, Matthew Alexander of the U.S. Air Force, and Glenn Carle of the CIA -- have said this clearly.

Torture is illegal -- without exception -- and a moral abomination. It runs contrary to the teachings of all religions and dishonors all faiths. It is an egregious violation of the human rights and dignity of each and every person and results in the degradation of all involved -- the victim, perpetrator and policymakers.

Sadly, the United States did engage in torture during the Bush administration. Some victims were tortured at the hands of U.S. personnel. Others -- like Maher Arar -- were sent to other countries to be tortured.

Arar was eventually released -- without charge -- by the Syrian authorities and allowed to return home to Canada. As a result of its investigation into this incident, the Canadian government formally apologized and paid remedy to Arar for providing inaccurate information to the U.S. government that led to his being tortured.

In sharp contrast to its northern neighbor, the United States not only has failed to apologize to Arar, it has actively blocked his attempts to secure such remedy. In 2009, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit, filed by Arar and the Center for Constitutional Rights. The Supreme Court later declined to consider their appeal.

As we recently marked the anniversary of President Obama's speech at the National Archives, tens of thousands of petition signatures were delivered to President Obama, urging him to apologize to Maher Arar and other survivors of torture at the hands of the United States. President Obama can take a meaningful step toward ridding the United States' torture stain by recognizing Arar's case in this year's statement marking the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture and apologizing for the U.S. government's role in Arar's abduction and torture.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, "Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."

The American people -- not just the U.S. government -- are responsible for the torture inflicted upon Maher Arar. President Obama, as a representative of the American people, needs to issue an apology for this grave injustice.

Suzanne Nossel is the Executive Director of Amnesty International, USA, and Rev. Richard L. Killmer is the Executive Director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

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