Editor’s Note: This guest viewpoint is a response to Earl H. Tilford Jr. (printed this issue) and Dean Waldt, who had written a critique of stories and an editorial in the Outlook relating to torture. These materials were written before two meetings on torture in mid-January. This story originally appeared on Presbynet and is used by permission.
Outlook Article Links:
“Americans have tortured prisoners in several locations around the world, the U.S. government has moved prisoners to countries where torture is practiced by American allies, the Bush administration has at times sought to justify torture, and all of this is the tragic fruit from a war that violates traditional Christian “Just War” doctrine. Presbyterians and all people of faith need to be concerned and actively working to change our governmental policies.”
The recent Presbyweb writings of Earl H. Tilford Jr. and Dean Waldt, and the notes by their supporters, have been very critical of some church leaders who are concerned about torture being done by Americans. The thoughtful leaders being attacked include the popular PC(USA) General Assembly moderator, the new evangelical editor of the independent The Presbyterian Outlook magazine, and a professor of theology at Princeton Seminary.
Dean Waldt is critical of the GA moderator’s concern about torture and asks, “Where is this clear and compelling evidence? I’ve been reading the newspapers and watching cable news along with everyone else. How did I miss this?”
Today’s news (December 30) is that “the number of GuantÃ¡namo Bay prisoners taking part in a hunger strike that began nearly five months ago has surged to 84 since Christmas Day, the U.S. military said on Thursday. … The detainees began the strike in early August after the military reneged on promises to bring the prison into compliance with the Geneva Conventions, their lawyers said. Detainees are willing to starve to death to demand humane treatment and a fair hearing on whether they must stay, the lawyers said.”
The New York Times had previously reported that “The International Committee of the Red Cross has charged in confidential reports to the United States government that the American military has intentionally used psychological and sometimes physical coercion ”tantamount to torture” on prisoners at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, Cuba.”
In 2004, the U.S. Department of Defense denied a written request from the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA for permission to send a small interfaith delegation to visit detainees at GuantÃ¡namo Bay. This request was in keeping with the NCCCUSA policy statement on human rights (December 6, 1963), “Christians believe that man is made in the image of God, that every person is of intrinsic worth before God, and that every individual has a right to the fullest possible opportunity for the development of life abundant and eternal. Denials of rights and freedoms that inhere in man’s worth before God are not simply a crime against humanity; they are a sin against God.” In 2005, United Nations human rights monitors were not allowed to visit the detainees even though other countries with poor human rights records would allow such visits.
The Nobel Peace Prize winning organization for human rights, Amnesty International, has an international campaign against torture with a helpful Web site that includes a section on “Torture and ill-treatment: the arguments.” Here is their answer to “Hasn’t the US government explicitly rejected torture? So what’s the problem?”
It is important that states and leaders denounce torture and ill-treatment. However, words alone are not sufficient — it is actions that count. While President Bush has consistently condemned torture, legal officers of the US government have issued memorandums seeking to adjust the definition of torture by interpreting it in the narrowest way possible. For example, President Bush proclaimed to the world in June 2003 that the USA was committed to the worldwide elimination of torture and was leading that fight by example. But at that time the US administration’s policy was based on a secret August 2002 Justice Department legal memorandum, albeit repudiated by the administration almost two years later following the Abu Ghraib revelations, which advised on how US interrogators could escape criminal liability for torture, on how to narrow the definition of torture, on how officials could get away with using cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that purportedly fell short of torture, and on how the President could override international or national prohibitions on torture. In the struggle against torture and ill-treatment we do need words. But words not accompanied by resolute action, or condemnation by governments which are at the same time seeking to find ways to circumvent the international legal ban on torture and ill-treatment, amount to little more than ritual denunciations.”
As early as 2002, the Bush administration was considering how to legally rationalize torture. In 2005 when President Bush’s counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, was nominated to be the attorney general, 225 religious leaders called upon him to do the following:
“”¢ To denounce the use of torture under any circumstances;
“¢ To affirm, with the Supreme Court, that it is unconstitutional to imprison anyone designated as an “enemy combatant” for months without access to lawyers or the right to challenge their detentions in court;
“¢ To affirm the binding legality of the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war;
“¢ And to reject the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” at home and abroad, by which terrorist suspects are sent to countries that practice torture for interrogation.”
Attorney General Gonzales, the national official responsible for law enforcement, has refused religious leaders’ request that he take a clear stand against torture and for international law.
The Washington Post in an October 26, 2005 editorial titled “Vice President for Torture” wrote that “Vice President Cheney is aggressively pursuing an initiative that may be unprecedented for an elected official of the executive branch: He is proposing that Congress legally authorize human rights abuses by Americans. “Cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment of prisoners is banned by an international treaty negotiated by the Reagan administration and ratified by the United States. The State Department annually issues a report criticizing other governments for violating it. Now Mr. Cheney is asking Congress to approve legal language that would allow the CIA to commit such abuses against foreign prisoners it is holding abroad. In other words, this vice president has become an open advocate of torture.”
Another highly-respected organization, Human Rights Watch, has special sections of its Web site Torture and Abuse of U.S. Detainees and Detainees in GuantÃ¡namo and Secret Prisons with a great deal of information that is updated often for those who want to be informed.
Dr. Tilford asks “Does Haberer think the United States was doing something naughty in gathering intelligence on a regime that used chemical weapons on its neighbors, its own Kurdish populations, and which also had been engaged in nuclear weapons development endeavors since the 1970s?”
I do not know what Dr. Haberer thinks, but I do think it was “naughty” that the United States was supporting Iraq when it was using chemical weapons on its neighbors and its own Kurdish civilians. I suggest Dr. Tilford and his supporters check out the online documentation from the National Security Archives at George Washington University. Beyond lots of documents, a reader will find a photo of Saddam Hussein shaking hands with Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Ronald Reagan, in Baghdad on December 20, 1983. The use of chemical weapons should be condemned — in 1983 as well as in 2005 when American forces used illegal chemical weapons in Iraq resulting in countless civilian casualties, violating international law (UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons of 1980) and traditional Christian “Just War” doctrine relating to civilians.
Dr. Tilford goes on to write “all indications were (and remain) that Saddam Hussein had an active weapons of mass destruction program. Given the information at hand, not taking aggressive action against Iraq would have constituted an impeachable offense.” President Bush’s appointed Iraq Survey Group’s findings must have been a disappointment to Dr. Tilford: “Contradicting the main argument for a war that has cost more than 1,000 US lives, the top US arms inspector reported Wednesday that he had found no evidence that Iraq produced weapons of mass destruction after 1991. He also concluded that Saddam Hussein’s weapons capability weakened, not grew, during a dozen years of U.N. sanctions before the US invasion last year. Contrary to prewar statements by President Bush and top administration officials, Saddam did not have chemical and biological stockpiles when the war began and his nuclear capabilities were deteriorating, not advancing, said Charles Duelfer, head of the Iraq Survey Group.” (MSNBC October 6, 2004 report) Would Hussein have wanted WMD in the future? Sure, but the UN sanctions were working. The winners of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, knew there were not WMD’s in Iraq before the war because of their inspections, but President Bush refused to listen because he wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein. The vision underlying the IAEA stems from President Dwight D. Eisenhower (an American Presbyterian) in his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations in December 1953.
What Dr. Tilford ignores is that the U.S. preemptive attack on Iraq was a violation of traditional Christian “Just War” doctrine. President Bush’s rush to war was condemned by many denominations and national church leaders — Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Congregationalists, American Baptists and Presbyterian leaders. In November 2005, 96 United Methodist bishops issued a “Statement of Conscience” repenting their complicity in what they “believe to be the unjust and immoral invasion and occupation of Iraq.” The most recent PC(USA) General Assembly adopted a comprehensive study that found the war to be “unwise, immoral and illegal.” “Iraq: Our Responsibility and the Future” was written by noted “Just War” expert Dr. Edward LeRoy Long Jr. of Drew Seminary. The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program has since published and posted online a study guide for congregations to this GA document.
The facts are that Americans have tortured prisoners in several locations around the world, the US government has moved prisoners to countries where torture is practiced by American allies, the Bush administration has at times sought to justify torture, and all of this is the tragic fruit from a war that violates traditional Christian “Just War” doctrine. Presbyterians and all people of faith need to be concerned and actively working to change our governmental policies.
Jack Haberer is to be commended for taking on a controversial topic like torture so early on as the editor of The Presbyterian Outlook. George Hunsinger is one of those rare seminary professors who encourages the church to speak truth to power and proclaim God’s love for everyone, even prisoners. Let’s hope the January 13-15 conference on “Theology, International Law, and Torture: A Conference on Human Rights and Religious Commitment” at Princeton Seminary is well attended. General Assembly Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase is a blessing to our church for many reasons, including his leadership against torture. I plan to join him and others at No2Torture meeting in the Miami on January 5-6.
Bruce Gillette is co-pastor of Limestone Church in Wilmington, Del.