This is a tough one. It shouldn’t be. Even before the United States Senate released the already infamous “Torture Report” the reaction was highly charged on all sides. Critics argue that the actions taken by the CIA in detaining and interrogating suspected terrorists were necessary and effective. They foretell harms that will be directed at American citizens as a result of the report’s publication. Supporters point to the invaluable importance of “setting the record straight” and revealing the truths about CIA torture tactics to serve as a “bookend to this sorry period in our history.”
In reality, this report will unlikely bring closure to a difficult chapter of American history. Instead, it re-opens the old wounds and embarrassment felt when the pictures from Abu Ghraib first circulated around the world a decade ago. It is a painful reminder that in the pursuit of justice, even a nation which prides itself for its “exceptionalism” can succumb to the same dark and dishonorable instincts it sees in its enemies and which it is supposedly fighting against. What makes public discourse on this topic so difficult is that the true motivations on all sides of the debate are not always obvious or respectable.
To suggest a moral moral equivalence between cruel acts of interrogation and the atrocities committed by terrorists is entirely misplaced. It is not sufficient to justify all means by a well intentioned and publicly sanctioned end even if the objectives are venerable. The bottom line is – like we were taught as children – two wrongs don’t make a right.
Torturing people is a mortal sin.
It’s a very serious sin. – Pope Francis
Torture, as a moral obligation, should be rejected out of hand, regardless of its effectiveness. When Pope Francis visited convicted mafia in a Calabrian prison this past summer, he made an appeal against torture: “I invite all Christians to engage and collaborate in abolishing torture and to support victims and their families.” Nothing in the Pope’s plea was an appeal for leniency. After all, his congregation on that day was serving time in prison. The Pope’s message is also one of atonement, to forgive even unspeakable acts through charitable acts of forgiveness. This isn’t to say that evildoers shouldn’t be stopped or punished, but they should be treated justly and in a manner consistent with the golden rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) It is a rule, which no doubt informed Senator John McCain as a victim of wartime torture, who stood in support of the report’s release.
So what good is to come out of a report, which includes no clear policy recommendations? Like other recent revelations such as the NSA Surveillance programs, they will no doubt be used by America’s enemies to chastise the United States and perhaps even justify their own wrongdoings. In the long haul, however, publishing reports of wrongdoing allow the United States to stand up for principles of liberty and justice and challenge other nations to do the same. Precisely because the United States has the ability to project incredible and sometimes unchecked power around the world, it must act with self restraint. Through transparency and accountability America can demonstrate what is truly exceptional about the United States – an ability to learn and adapt. If not forget, the world, too, must be willing to forgive.