COMMENTARY: CIA torture report ought to disturb all our consciences

c. 2014 Religion News Service

(RNS) At Easter, Christians celebrate Jesus’ rising from the dead. But in light of new revelations of the CIA’s abhorrent acts of torture, it’s the United States that needs resurrection, too.

Details of the CIA’s post-Sept. 11 torture campaign — made worse, if that is possible, by evidence of official deception — are described in key portions of the report on CIA-sponsored torture that the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee voted last week to release.

Though the public has not yet seen the report, current and former U.S. officials who have read it have disclosed information to The Washington Post, Human Rights Watch and other sources that ought to disturb all of our consciences.

The report is said to describe how “CIA doctors monitored the prisoners’ body temperatures” for hypothermia as they were continuously covered with ice water, ensuring that their temperatures would not drop to the point of death so they could be tortured again. Reportedly, the torture got so bad at a “black site” prison in Thailand that “CIA employees left the agency’s secret prison after becoming disturbed by the brutal measures employed there.”

In January, The Washington Post reported how the CIA delivered a $15 million cash bribe to the Polish intelligence service to open and maintain a secret torture site in Poland. The lengths members of our government went to to abuse and dehumanize prisoners make me ill.

The United States cannot turn back the clock on the international torture regime that was set up in our name after 9/11. We cannot undo the untold damage that was done to our international reputation, to the safety of our troops in the field or to our collective conscience.

We can, however, hope and pray that God forgives us for what our government has done in our name, even though only a handful were ever made aware of the torture as it was being authorized and carried out. We can also act to ensure torture never happens again.

I can’t get out of my mind images of what it must have been like in the cold, dark, isolated, lonely and hate-filled rooms where fellow human beings endured the kinds of torture the report is said to expose. People of faith, many of whom have worked for years through the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, know that torture is wrong at all times, for all reasons.

Although we should base our opposition to torture on our morals, not pragmatism, reports also indicate torture did not provide critical intelligence and that it was ultimately harmful to our national security.

Why then, did the CIA, with the blessings of the highest level of U.S. government, unleash a widespread and horrific campaign of torture after 9/11? The faith community and those who care about the U.S. Constitution, or both, should lead a discussion to answer this question in every house of worship, every community center, every street corner in America.

Was the CIA simply an extension of each one of us? What is it about a people who profess to be faithful or to care about the rule of law that can so easily unleash the urge to kill and harm other human beings? And what is it about the distorted nature of our culture or our democracy that elevates torture and death-dealing to the level of national policy so we can be “safe”?

We must be concerned for the healing of those who were tortured, and yes, even those who carried out the torture, for we know that those who torture and kill carry lifelong scars as well. But we should also be concerned about the soul of our nation itself. There is nothing safe or right about the situation we now find ourselves in with respect to our country’s history of torture.

And where does that leave us, the American people? The shocking and mortifying truth that we tortured people for no good reason will not be easily accepted. On the surface, it makes no sense, and so Americans, unable to believe that their country could do such wrong, will be susceptible to the inevitable denials from the CIA and others of the accuracy of the report. If so, the unseen will remain hidden, and we will learn nothing from its revelations.

We shouldn’t have tortured, period. Start there and stay there as a sound moral position, regardless of what those who continue to believe that “torture works” will say. It’s the whole point of approaching life from a perspective of faith, to speak the unspeakable, to shed light on the things unseen — an approach to cherish at moments like this.

(The Rev. Ron Stief, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, is executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.)