American human rights abuses

We’ve just passed the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s landmark encyclical, Pacem in Terris. Though the title (“Peace on Earth”) suggests that it’s on the topic of peace-making (and it is), the primary subject of that encyclical is human rights. John’s document set the stage for the Roman Catholic Church to become, in the generation that followed him and primarily in the person of Pope John Paul II, the premiere defender of human rights on the planet. Human rights are, without question, a Catholic concern.

And so every Catholic should be troubled by this week’s release of a report (noted here by the New York Times) of a major new investigation that confirms that the United States government has in recent years engaged in torture of detainees in custody. The techniques in question, the report notes, are similar to acts that have also been “prosecuted in the United States or denounced as torture by American officials when used by other countries.”

A few snippets:

A nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks concludes that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” and that the nation’s highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it.

The sweeping, 577-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”

The use of torture, the report concludes, has “no justification” and “damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.” The task force found “no firm or persuasive evidence” that these interrogation methods produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means. While “a person subjected to torture might well divulge useful information,” much of the information obtained by force was not reliable, the report says.

The core of the report, however, may be an appendix: a detailed 22-page legal and historical analysis that explains why the task force concluded that what the United States did was torture. It offers dozens of legal cases in which similar treatment was prosecuted in the United States or denounced as torture by American officials when used by other countries.

This is not just history we’re talking about here. It seems remarkable that there are still prisoners at Guantánamo, some there for more than a decade without ever having been charged with a crime or receiving a trial! Many of them are currently engaged in a long and dangerous hunger strike for the sole purpose of reminding us that they’re there.

Kudos to the organizations and individuals who participated in last week’s National Day of Action against the detention and to call for Guantanamo to be closed. The Tikkun blog offers some helpful advice on ways we can continue to speak up about it. My emails to President Obama, our two Minnesota Senators, and the House Representative for the district in which I live all went out this morning.

I mention each of these issues in chapter 6 of Faith Meets World, as human rights problems that demand attention here in the United States.  How can we presume to preach to the world about human rights and human dignity when we’re guilty ourselves of these actions?


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