From Nicaragua to Iraq to Guantanamo, torture happens around the world. We'd prefer to think that the United States is not complicit. Our government has lied to us about it before, so when George W. Bush insisted that we did not torture in Iraq, some believed him. Clearly, in that "exceptional" image of this country that we prefer and cling to, we do not torture. But it is better to know and face the truth than it is to be buried under a history of deceit.
When we learn that our government behaves differently than the ideals we espouse, we should be dismayed, chagrined and sometimes outraged. Finding out about our government's actions is often complicated, but recent reports give us a window on our practice of torture that shows us the reality rather than the propaganda.
Thanks to a report from The Constitution Project's Task Force on Detainee Treatment, the means to the truth are near at hand. The bipartisan, non-governmental group has found that the United States has used illegal torture tactics to gain information from people, specifically those suspected to be terrorists in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. In this credible, detailed report, it was shown that the United States used interrogation techniques on detainees that it had previously condemned as illegal when used by others, including waterboarding, stress positions, extended sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and prolonged solitary confinement.
But the task force report isn't the last word on torture. There is another report, based on a review of six million documents, including classified files, that remains unreleased to the public. The Senate Intelligence Committee conducted its own investigation into torture and approved a report on it in a bipartisan vote way back in December of last year. That report must be shared with the public. Without a clear picture of our country, both its strengths and its failures, how do we chart a course for a more moral future? How do we be sure we will not repeat torture?
I've known two people who suffered torture. Several years had passed since "Pajarita" had been imprisoned by Somoza and tortured in Nicaragua. That was OK with our government because Somoza was "our guy." Pajarita no longer showed physical signs of his abuse when we talked to him, and he calmly recounted to our Alaska Witness for Peace group what had happened to him.
The other torture victim I knew was a distinguished Iraqi scholar whose brother had gotten crosswise with Saddam, and the man I knew was hauled in for no other reason than that. The transformation in my friend was profound. The first two years at an international poetry conference he had convened in Baghdad, he came across as confident, wonderfully competent, and comfortable among hundreds of participants. We had become friends the first year. The third year, he was not there and no one wanted to talk about him. The fourth year, he was back - bent, a blanket around his shoulders, head bowed, dragging his feet. He did not look at me. I did not approach him because I feared the last thing he needed was to be seen with a person from the United States.
How tragic that was my reaction. How unfortunate that as an American in the Middle East, I was concerned that my connection to my government could endanger another human being. I kept my distance.
I don't want that to be the United States' legacy. It's time we repair our tortured past. As the minister of the Anchorage Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, I join with hundreds of diverse faith-based and religious organizations coming together through the National Religious Campaign against Torture in urging the Senate to tell us all and release the full report. We can handle it. We need to know the facts so we know what we need to change. Only then can we move forward on the moral path the United States has always claimed to be the way.
Gary Holthaus is the minister at Anchorage Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
By GARY HOLTHAUS