Commentary

Who is the victim of torture?

The United Nations charter was signed June 26, 1945, obliging U.N. members to promote human rights. On June 26, 1987, the U.N. Convention Against Torture came into effect, acknowledging that no circumstance — not war, threat of war, or public emergency — could be invoked as a justification of torture.

June 26, 2011, is designated as U.N. International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. A few years ago, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) and other human rights groups started designating June as Torture Awareness Month. This is a time to stress education, calling for accountability, and raising the moral issue of torture.

The idea of torture is loathsome for most people. It is hard to hear about shackling people in stress positions, sleep deprivation, banging heads into walls 30 times, and mock executions — activities that were documented at U.S.-connected “black sites.” If one googles “torture and accountability,” the results will likely be overwhelming. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website also has a myriad of governmental documents and memos available to explore.

Those who bear these scars must not be met by torture’s best weapon — the silence of good people.

Many church bodies decry, and even condemn, torture. Some have worked with NRCAT to bring state-authorized torture to an end. But a majority of church-going citizens believe torture to be sometimes permissible, even though it is illegal anywhere, anytime, by anyone! Most church bodies agree torture is immoral, but these churches must be even more clear to convince their members.

The United States and torture

Torture works by debasing humans, making them into objects, stripping away their humanity by taking away all the senses, and causing the prisoners to become totally dependent on her or his torturer.

The screams of the physical pain are matched by the screams of the soul dying within the self, scarred by the evil of torture. Those who bear these scars must not be met by torture’s best weapon — the silence of good people.

Even the hint of torture must be investigated. But there is currently little accountability for torture policies. Who raised concerns when the Geneva Conventions — the only protection against wartime torture — were put on hold?

It is not enough to say “we are against torture.” Prosecution should be considered and followed when violations of human rights occur.

What if every member of all churches wrote President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and their senators and representatives? What if everyone wrote a letter to the editor? What if all prayed for all the prisoners tortured and made every church a haven of safety for them? What if the church asked the prisoners for forgiveness for the evil that was done to them? What if every church in the metro area took one of the names of the 173 prisoners remaining at Guantanamo and learned about them and wrote to them?

There is a lot of work to do, and taking responsibility for what we have done is a vital first step. Our shame is only a pittance of what we need to do for the evil we have done to other human beings.

Sonja Johnson is a retired Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor living in Minneapolis. She served in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

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