By Bob Perkins
ATLANTA – Speakers on the first day of the inaugural National Summit on Torture at Mercer University’s Atlanta campus Thursday told the more than 200 participants that “this summit affirms our values as Americans.”
Organized by Dr. David P. Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer, the summit is titled “Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul.” The event is cosponsored by Evangelicals for Human Rights, Mercer and 13 other organizations represented by three major faith groups.
“This is an interfaith gathering,” said Gushee, who also serves as president of Evangelicals for Human Rights. “It began as a Baptist and evangelical event and I’m really happy to say it evolved. I think that’s profound. I think it’s terribly exciting. We do share this country. We need to learn each other’s name. I’m excited about the interfaith aspect of this gathering and I believe that only religious belief provides the grounding that we need to pull us out of our worst self.”
Dr. Karen Greenburg, executive director for the Center on Law and Security at New York University, told those attending the morning session that the seeds of the U.S. torture policy were planted in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, but public awareness wasn’t raised until photos of abuse surfaced from Abu Ghraib prison.
“Those photos alerted us to the fact that there was some sort of abuse and torture going on,” Greenberg said. “Those photographs raised the following questions: were the people conducting the acts rogue elements or was it policy? The answer is it was both.”
Greenberg said since the photos were released, at least 12 reports were commissioned by various government organizations that outlined in detail the methods used in secret prisons established after Sept. 11.
“Reading these reports was like being transported to Mars,” Greenberg said. “It was an unbelievable document, but it was what the government telling us what happened in these places.”
Greenberg reminded attendees that Sen. John McCain was himself a prisoner of war, and endured torture as best as he could.
“John McCain said he went to Viet Nam with a love of his family, a love of his church and a love of his country,” Greenberg said. “When he returned home, he said he learned under torture that he loved his country more, his family more and his religion more. When you’re talking about victims of torture who are not John McCain, do you really want them to become more impassioned about their universe?”
For this reason, Greenberg said, she does not believe that torture makes our country safer.
Dr. Ron Mahurin, vice president for academic affairs at Houghton College, said no one should doubt what happened at Abu Ghraib actually happened.
“What strained moral argument will we use to justify the use of torture?” Mahurin asked. “The facts are no longer in dispute. We should never equivocate. Torture is wrong. It is undeniably, morally wrong. If our nation is not haunted by the question, ‘is torture never wrong?,’ then we bear the same responsibility of those people who carried out those acts on behalf of our government.”
Steve Xenakis, retired U.S. Army brigadier general and adviser to Physicians for Human Rights, said nothing claimed in the name of defending our country can justify the cruel and degrading treatment of another man or woman.
“The indefinite incarceration of prisoners from Afghanistan barely drew the level of discontent from Americans,” Xenakis said. “Our country was paralyzed with fear from seeing the World Trade Center vaporize. Most Americans didn’t blink an eye when our officials argued ‘roughing up a few prisoners could save American lives.’”
Xenakis said sometimes decent people get caught up in indecent acts. “This summit affirms our values as Americans,” Xenakis said. “Much has improved since the dark days of 2002 in the minds of many. But our nation’s image around the world has diminished. I fear our image of the Statue of Liberty has been replaced by that poor prisoner in a hood with his arms out-stretched. It is time to right these wrongs, and we all have a collective duty to do so.”
Another perspective on the torture issue is its effects on survivors. Douglas Johnson, executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, said besides healing from the physical wounds of being tortured, victims often battle the rest of their lives with the mental wounds from torture.
“One survivor stated, ‘I didn’t mind the physical pain so much as I did listening to the cries of other prisoners being tortured,” Johnson said. “Some forms of torture include forcing a parent to watch a child being tortured. This not only brings about the feeling of the pain of the child for the parent, but the feeling the pain of failing as a parent.”
Johnson said the body is merely a weapon against the mind, because the ultimate goal of torture is to break the soul. “Just because we don’t see our actions through those lenses, doesn’t mean the rest of the world doesn’t view us that way.”
Johnson said the death of Jesus has been so sanitized that people don’t always remember that he was tortured until death.
In an afternoon session titled “What the Torture Debate Reveals About American Christianity,” Gushee said white evangelicals have proven susceptible to being blinded on the matter of torture because of a strict interpretation of Romans 13:1-7, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established (NIV).”
“This is related to a broader evangelical authoritarianism, especially in our most conservative quarters, that elevates the role of the man over his family, the male pastor over his church, the president over his nation and our nation over the rest of the world,” Gushee said. “The kinds of checks and balances provided by democratic constitutionalism, the wisdom of other nations, and international law are devalued.”
Gushee said because the George W. Bush administration has altered longstanding American policies on torture, there is reluctance among white evangelical to criticize a Republican administration, especially when Bush himself is a white evangelical.
“Government has incredible power and must be watched vigilantly and resisted forcefully when it strays, and evangelicals are not very good at that,” Gushee said. “We must recognize that the gracious Savior whose forgiveness we claim is also the sovereign Lord who demands our entire lives, our setting aside of all ideologies, loyalties and fears that hinder our faithfulness to his will, and our embodied love for the enemy, the alien and the abandoned of the earth.”
At the evening session, Gita Gutierrez, an attorney with the Centre for Constitutional Rights, shared stories about the abuse and ill treatment for detainees being held by the U.S. in Guantanamo prison. Gutierrez was one of the first lawyers to meet with prisoners there, and she said it is important for people to know the stories of detainees.
“The system in Guantanamo has been set up for us to fail,” Gutierrez said. “Professionally, we have to recognize as lawyers that we play a very small role. But it’s time that more people learn about what is going on down there.”
Gutierrez represents detainee Mohammed Al-Qatani, who has been featured in TIME magazine and by other news organizations as one of the first detainees to undergo the “first special interrogation plan,” a regime of torture and inhumane treatment authorized by the Secretary of Defense.
“Everyone is someone’s child,” Gutierrez said. “Mohammed’s elderly, sick father went to meet with lawyers from the Centre for Constitutional Rights and filled out papers so his son could get legal representation.”
Gutierrez said Al-Qatani has been imprisoned at Guantanamo since 2002 and his torture so extreme that he wouldn’t even agree to meet with her on her first visit. She went back to her hotel that night and called her home church to ask for prayers for her and Al-Qatani that he might open up and allow her to meet him.
“The next day, he was tricked into meeting me in a very tiny cell,” Gutierrez said. “He was curled up in a corner and he was so terrified that the interpreter in the room kept having to ask him to pull his arms away from his mouth so they could understand what he was saying.”
Gutierrez said in many ways, she’d have the same meeting over and over for years with Al-Qatani until she finally gained his trust.
Gutierrez said in her view, we have moved backwards has a nation. “We have two threats. One is the threat of our democracy and lost freedom,” she said. “The other is we have learned to dehumanize people based on race, religion or beliefs. We have developed the capacity to see other human beings as less than human.”
Mark Denbeaux, professor of law at Seton Hall Law School, compiled profiles on all of the detainees housed at Guantanamo and discovered some fascinating statistics.
“We found that 55 percent of all of those detained at Guantanamo are never alleged to committed a hostile act,” Denbeaux said. “My students call them enemy civilians. One student found that the only reason one detainee was there was he was listed as an assistant cook for al-Qaida.
“How could this happen,” Denbeaux said. “Guantanamo is the equivalent of the perp walk. It’s a public relations gesture. If you don’t believe me, look at the evidence that the government has collected.”
Earlier in the day, Rich Killmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture said he hopes this historic meeting will have a positive outcome. He hopes one day to be able to tell his grandson good news. “Our task moving forward is to be able to say that, yes, we once used torture techniques, but we don’t do that anymore.”