Tuesday (June 26) was the U.N. International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the focal point of Torture Awareness Month, which is observed throughout the month of June. On Tuesday, groups in at least 23 states and the District of Columbia organized vigils and other events to honor the courage and witness of those who have suffered torture at the hands of governments around the world, including our own.
On Sunday afternoon, as a part of a national week of action against torture, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture gathered at the U.S. Capitol Reflecting Pool in Washington, joined by a coalition of more than two dozen groups, including Amnesty International USA and Witness Against Torture, for a march to the White House. Approximately 150 people marched, calling for President Obama to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and put an end to indefinite detention; 60 of those who marched wore orange jumpsuits with black hoods, symbolic of those detained at Guantanamo. The dramatic event was captured in powerful photos and video.
I was proud to come together with people of all faiths to bring attention to the need for making sure that U.S.-sponsored torture never happens again. The reality is that the U.S. engaged in torture at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, secret sites in third-party countries and at other places around the world, and still today, through the use of solitary confinement in prisons across the United States. NRCAT has consistently called for the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, recognizing it as a powerful symbol of a dark period in our nation's history. Sunday's silent and solemn marchers, in their symbolic orange jumpsuits and hoods en route to the White House, attracted the attention of many onlookers.
At the end of the march, the "detainees" lined up in front of the White House, and keynote speaker Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Army and former NRCAT board member, addressed the crowd. Dr. Xenakis thanked the marchers, saying, "I want to salute you all ... as someone who is proud to stand with you today in front of the White House to affirm what we all believe in and we know is the foundation of our democracy, and that is the principles of human rights." A video of Dr. Xenakis' full speech is available here.
We have seen the power of Guantanamo as a negative symbol that inspires those who would seek to harm us, but we also know that positive symbols can inspire people of faith to do good and courageous acts. As a national coalition of more than 300 diverse religious organizations, NRCAT can serve as a symbol of the commitment of people of faith to uphold the values that our nation and all faiths hold dear. We hope that our commitment will help to inspire President Obama to do the right thing and uphold the absolute ban on torture by closing Guantanamo, ending indefinite detention, and seeking the repeal of Sections 1021 and 1022 of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
NRCAT's observance of Torture Awareness Month continued on Tuesday with support of dozens of vigils and other events across the country. A rush hour vigil at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., preceded a screening of the new documentary, "Doctors of the Dark Side," co-sponsored by Physicians for Human Rights. A list of events held across the country is available here.
As a Presbyterian minister and as a leader in the interfaith effort to end torture forever, I look forward to the day when observances of Torture Awareness Month can speak of U.S.-sponsored torture as a relic of the past, a dark stain that we as a nation took bold steps to address. We ask the Obama administration to create a formal commission of inquiry to investigate the use of torture from 9/11 to the time that President Obama halted torture on Jan. 22, 2009. We cannot move forward as a country until we have looked within ourselves, fully investigated the harsh realities and come to terms with what we've done wrong to other human beings.
As a grandfather, I look forward to the day that I can say to my grandchildren with confidence, "There was a time when your country let its fears undermine its values, leading to the use of torture, but that time has long since passed."
Follow Rev. Richard L. Killmer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nrcattweets