End this tortured debate: Americans must understand, as they used to, that torture is always wrong

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

An ancient story tells of a poor peasant named Gordius arriving in his ox-cart in the city of Phrygia. Legend had it that an oracle had predicted the future king would come into town riding in a wagon. So upon seeing Gordius, the people made him their king. In gratitude to the gods, Gordius dedicated his ox-cart to Zeus and tied it up in the temple with a highly elaborate knot.

A later oracle predicted that whoever could untie this "Gordian Knot" would rule over all of Asia. None mastered this feat until Alexander the Great visited Phrygia in 333 B.C. Alexander, upon seeing the knot, drew his sword and simply cut it in half.

Was this cheating? Given that the ends of the rope had been spliced back together, there was actually no way to untie the knot. Alexander's solution was the best available.

Complex moral issues these days often feel as unsolvable as Gordius' famed knot. People line up on opposite sides of issues, futilely tugging at the tangled cords, demonizing those who disagree with them and end up feeling discouraged as the knot remains tightly bound year after year. There are times, though, when Alexander's solution is the only way forward. Cutting through the confusion with a clear moral position allows everyone to move forward -- toward our shared goals of liberty, equality and justice for all.

The issue of torture is a case in point. It is time to state our opposition without equivocation -- to cut through the political rhetoric and condemn all use of torture as immoral and antithetical to the values we espouse as individuals and a nation.

The bipartisan Task Force on Detainee Treatment, convened by the Constitution Project two years ago, recently released a 500-page investigation into the U.S. government's treatment of 9/11 detainees. The distinguished panel concluded indisputably that we engaged in acts of illegal torture, including several cases where individuals were literally tortured to death.

This document reports how the United States used interrogation techniques on detainees that had been previously condemned by the United States as illegal when used by others. It tells how prisoners were mistreated in capriciously cruel ways and how government lawyers turned the law on its head in order to claim as legal what everyone knew was illegal.

Individuals in our armed forces and civilian agencies repeatedly tried to stand up for U.S. law and common standards of morality, but political leaders and their handpicked lawyers consistently found ways to circumvent their whistle-blowing efforts. The task force went on to conclude that there was "no firm or persuasive evidence that the [use of torture] produced significant information of value."

Unfortunately, a larger investigation recently concluded by the Senate Intelligence Committee remains classified, thereby withholding its findings from the public. It is important that this second report be released as well, so that we can cut through the knot of existing policies and practices related to torture and adopt a clear, moral position: Torture is always wrong in all circumstances.

I join the diverse members of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture who have been working through an interfaith effort to encourage the release of the Senate report. The American people have the right to know the facts about the CIA torture program so they will not be misled by fictional accounts, such as conveyed in the recent film "Zero Dark Thirty" or mistaken in considering acts of torture ever to be justified or effective.

Torture is illegal without exception. In 1994, the United States signed the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which binds our country to the following stipulation: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

Allowing ourselves to get tied up in moral knots trying to avoid such clear directives weakens us as a democracy and undermines our efforts to encourage democratic legal and constitutional change in emerging nation-states.

The immorality of torture is a shared tenet of all faith traditions. In our desire to seek vengeance on others, including those who have done us harm, global religious beliefs speak with one voice that it is important to curtail all impulses that would lower ourselves to the level of those who would do indiscriminate harm to others. There is no honor when the deeds of the accused and the accuser are equally dark and violent.

It is time to speak clearly against torture. It is important that the findings of both the Task Force on Detainee Treatment and the Senate Intelligence Committee be fully available to the American public. It is time to cut through the Gordian knot and unbind ourselves from torture once and for all.


Rev. Randall Bush, senior pastor for East Liberty Presbyterian Church since 2006, has served congregations in both the United States and Zimbabwe.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?