Torture Eats the Soul

Anniversaries can be important. This Friday marks the 22nd anniversary of the U.N. Convention against Torture, ratified and signed under President Reagan. Last Friday marked the 150th day of the presidency of Barack Obama, who is trying to put a definitive end to the torture approved by the Bush-Cheney administration.

That Obama has not been able to do so is our collective shame. Worse still, the president has apparently concluded that he lacks the support to deter future abominations of this sort by launching a proper investigation and holding to account those responsible.

Something evil has seeped into the soul of our nation. Those many years when we looked the other way, choosing to ignore the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody, eroded our morality.

Americans who claim to believe in human dignity and the law do not seem scandalized by this inhumane and illegal activity. Many people of faith appear willing to tolerate unspeakable cruelty. Christians who follow one who himself was tortured by the powers of his time evidently are now ready to justify our own government’s use of torture.

It is reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s, when — with very few exceptions — neither Catholic nor Lutheran pastors found their voice. A more recent example: in April 2008 when the pope visited the U.S., the involvement of our most senior government leaders in approving torture dominated the headlines. He ignored the issue entirely.

Surely the deafening silence of the institutional church — again, with a few exceptions — accounts in part for the recent Pew survey showing that a majority of Americans who go to church regularly believe torture can be justified.

As faith leaders, we find this shocking and shameful. There is no counterweight to the demagoguery and politics of fear that hold sway, none to speak to the morality of the issue. None but us.

If you think the torture has stopped, you are wrong. Because of the sad state of our corporate media, it takes extra effort to find out what’s actually going on.

Check out, for example, international human rights attorney Scott Horton’s June 15 piece in Harpers. Horton describes as “residue of the Bush-era torture system” a “force-feeding” program of the kind formally banned by the World Medical Association in 1991. Guantánamo prisoner Abdullah Saleh al-Hanashi, one of the “force-fed” inmates, was pronounced dead June 1; an “apparent suicide,” according to the camp commander.

It will be interesting to see whether Obama administration officials will react in the callous way their predecessors did to the June 10, 2006, suicides of three Guantánamo prisoners. Then-prison commander Rear Adm. Harry Harris described the suicides as “an act of asymmetric warfare committed against us.” Colleen Graffy, a deputy assistant secretary of state, called the suicides “a good PR move.”

President Obama has apparently decided he has stuck his political neck out as far as he can. Against very strong opposition, he did release the “torture memos” — the most shameful prose ever printed under Department of Justice letterhead — but has been reluctant to move beyond that.

Perhaps he hoped that we would read those memos, be appropriately outraged and create countervailing pressure to help him face down the torture aficionados still in his entourage.

DIANA GIBSON is a Presbyterian minister, co-executive director of the Council of Churches of Santa Clara County and coordinator for Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice.

Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He is a contributor to Imperial Crusades: Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair (Verso). He can be reached at:

They wrote this article for the Mercury News.

Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). He can be reached at: A version of this article first appeared on