“Can a Nation Lose its Soul?” Coming to terms with the conscience of the United States and the torture of Iraqi prisoners

article-2451784-00DFD6991000044C-357_634x755 Torture is so emblematic of what is deeply broken in our society. 

On May 4, 2004, I published this editorial in the Chicago Tribune. It is probably one of the best known things I have ever written.  The Tribune published it with this photo, of the hooded Iraqi detainee balanced on a box, with wires attached. A CTS student held up the paper in chapel that day and said, “This is lynching.” And it is.  The editorial discusses the torture of African Americans by police in Chicago in Areas 2 and 3.  

This is what I wrote more than ten years ago:

Almost one year ago, Amnesty International documented the torture of Iraqis by coalition forces. Charges of abuse surfaced again in November and December at the notorious Abu Ghraib Iraqi prison. And now we have photos racing around the world of hooded prisoners attached to electric wires and piles of naked Iraqi men being sexually humiliated by U.S. soldiers.

In the investigation to date, a report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba has found that the reservist military police at the prison were instructed to “set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses.” In other words, the torture was policy. This “special cellblock” was not under the direct control of Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, now relieved of her command, and her reservists, but under the control of Army intelligence officers. Gen. Karpinski has said that military intelligence officers at the prison went “to great lengths to exclude the ICRC [the International Committee of the Red Cross] from access to that interrogation wing.”

Torture as a means of extracting information from prisoners is explicitly against the Geneva Convention. It is also spurious to defend it as a means to extract information that will “save American lives.” More Americans in Iraq and around the world will be targeted as a direct result of these photos than ever before. These photos show U.S. soldiers clearly enjoying the physical humiliation and degradation of Iraqis. This is the face of America now imprinted on the world.

The soul of a nation, like the soul of an individual, is the root from which decency arises; it is the basis of any desire to behave according to our collectively expressed values. And we, as a nation, have lost this. We are a nation that tortures prisoners. There is a breakdown between our expressed values of democracy and human rights and the torture of Iraqis.

President Bush has said of this documented torture that it is “not the way we do things in America.”

It is, actually. In John Conroy’s book on the dynamics of torture, “Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture,” he documents, among many cases both domestic and foreign, the alleged pattern of torture by police from Area 2 and Area 3 units in Chicago, torture that included burns and electric shock. Systematic and repeated patterns of torture of suspects and prisoners by police, especially of African-Americans, is not confined to Chicago, of course. As a nation we already have good reason to struggle to make our expressed values better match our actions.

In 1975, the UN defined torture as “an aggravated and deliberate form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The United States voted in favor of the definition. In the ever-shrinking list of reasons why the United States felt justified in a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, the documented torture of Iraqi citizens by the regime of Saddam Hussein has been used to demonstrate that Hussein was “evil.” And now what? Is the U.S. evil because we have been shown to do the same? Much of the Muslim world probably thinks so.

The question is, do we as a nation have enough courage to question our consciences and really deal with this issue? Or will we retreat from the reality of what we have done, simply punish a few token individuals and forget about it?

One of the biggest obstacles America faces in confronting these ugly facts is the high moral tone that the Bush administration has taken regarding the conduct of our nation’s foreign policy.

As Bob Woodward has plainly documented in his new book, “Plan of Attack,” President Bush’s faith has given him an extremely high degree of moral certainty that the actions of the U.S. in attacking Iraq are justified. We are fighting the “axis of evil” as the agents of the good. We have left ourselves no room to examine our national conscience in a way that is believable to the rest of the world.

The more Bush distances himself from the fact that we are torturing prisoners, claiming to be “disgusted,” while offering no concrete condemnation of the fact that this is military policy and putting forward no plan for redress, the more unbelievable our claim to live by our values becomes. The most powerful thing we could do as a nation is to acknowledge our national responsibility for how these prisoners (and others) have been treated, confess that this treatment was wrong, repudiate the policy of the torture, and take concrete and verifiable steps to change the treatment of prisoners. We need to hold not only the individuals accountable but also their superiors. We must do this in a way that makes clear not only to the perpetrators and their superiors, up to the highest levels of command, but to the world that this behavior is un-American and will not be tolerated by the U.S. Furthermore, we must invite representatives of well-respected, non-governmental agencies such as Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross to oversee the retraining of all our troops and the treatment and hopefully recovery of those whom we have tortured.

It is said that “confession is good for the soul.” It is. Nations as well as individuals can confess. In 1985, German President Richard von Weizsacker addressed the Bundestag with one of the staggering confessional statements of the 20th Century. In this address, he spoke of the “conquest of self” and the willingness to confront the German nation with the question that after their genocidal acts against the Jewish people “Who could remain innocent?” as a matter of national conscience.

There are moments in life and in history where clear choices emerge. This is one such time. The U.S. could confess torturing is wrong and take decisive and internationally verifiable steps to change the treatment of prisoners, or we can just wring our hands and express “disgust” and let it continue. As Jesus asked, “What does it profit you to gain the whole world and still lose your soul?”

About Susan Thistlethwaite

I am a Professor of Theology and former President of Chicago Theological Seminary; I blog here, at the Huffington Post, and at other venues. I am a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. I am interested in what I call "public theology," or how deeper meaning is made and contested in the public square.
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