Torture and the Danger of Going Back to the Dark Side

11/28/2011 06:04 pm ET | Updated Jan 28, 2012
  • Rev. Richard L. Killmer Special representative on environmental issues to the Office of Social Justice of the Christian Reformed Church in North America

For thousands of years, there have been rules of war. As much as a nation wants to win an armed conflict, there are certain steps that should never be taken -- steps that take us to the dark side. In ancient times, there were prohibitions against cutting down olive trees. More recently, deliberately attacking civilians is another and using torture a third.

Religions have developed lists of behaviors that are never acceptable in war, and many of these have been codified by the Geneva Conventions, which are accepted by most countries and which prohibit particular acts of war including torture.

The United States sadly left that path of righteousness after Sept. 11, 2001, and engaged in torture. It was a departure from morality and legality and practicality. Torture did not diminish the strength of our adversaries, but instead served as a recruiting tool. More people joined al Qaeda after hearing about U.S.-sponsored torture.

Now, a United States senator wants to undo the executive order that President Obama issued -- a 2009 order that restored morality and legality to the practices of the United States government. The president halted torture, ended the sending of detainees to other countries to be tortured and gave the International Committee of the Red Cross access to all detainees.

On Nov. 18, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire offered an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, SA 1068, that would create a list of secret interrogation techniques which breach the boundaries of the Army Field Manual.

The U.S. Army Field Manual includes a list of approved interrogation methods and excludes those that are considered torture. What Sen. Ayotte intends to do is to establish a secret list of additional interrogation techniques. These techniques could be harsh or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment -- or even torture. Worst of all, they would be secret. You and I would not know if our government had authorized our interrogators to use them.

If the bill passes, such techniques could become common practice for U.S. interrogators. Unless United States senators stand up and vote no on this amendment, our country is at risk of returning to the dark days of government-sponsored torture.

The practice of torture is a clear violation of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, signed by the United States. That treaty carries the weight of U.S. law, prohibiting the use of torture as well as that of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment.

Little is gained by the use of torture, but much is lost. Each revelation of U.S.-sponsored torture or enhanced interrogation, such as the secret and often illegal CIA interrogation sites and procedures exposed by Wikileaks, gravely harms our country's international standing and reduces our legitimacy and influence in the world. We cannot expect other nations to heed our views of human rights if we violate human rights standards ourselves.

For these reasons, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a coalition of more than 300 diverse faith-based and religious organizations, is working to defeat this amendment that could return the U.S. to the dark side. As people of faith, we know that torture is always and unequivocally wrong. God created all people with dignity and worth, and we grieve knowing that inflicting harm and cruelty on another human being scars and diminishes us all.

As people of faith, we call on our representatives in the Senate to stop this measure that would abandon the standard established by the Army Field Manual -- a respected standard that put an end to torture as an interrogation practice. Torture is a moral evil, and it was not acceptable when it was U.S. policy, is not acceptable now and should never again be allowed under any circumstances.

The author is executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in Washington, D.C.