By TOM CARNEY
Is the American public apathetic about charges its government uses and sponsors torture in its fight against terrorism?
Not apathetic, according to surveys. Fact is, a majority of Americans actually approve of the use of torture under some circumstances. What’s more, according to one survey, Catholics approve of its use by a wider margin than the general public.
“This may be a reaction to 9/11, the horrible loss of life and the atrocities of those acting in the name of Islam,” says Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., member of the bishops’ Committee on International Policy. “Some people feel the situation is out of control. They feel a vulnerability and a temptation to respond in kind. We have to resist that.”
But the portion of Catholics who justify torture is even higher, according to the survey. Twenty-one percent of Catholics surveyed said it is “often” justified and 35 percent said it is “sometimes” justified. Another 16 percent said it is “rarely” justified, meaning that nearly three of four Catholics justify it under some circumstances. Four percent of Catholics “didn’t know” or refused to answer and only 26 percent said it is “never” justified, which is the official teaching of the church.
Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew center, said these results mirror those of similar surveys.
That could be why Bush administration officials have been emboldened to use terms like “torture lite,” referring to abuse that does not result in organ failure or death, and why international and humanitarian organizations have been outspoken about American and American-sponsored torture.
A United Nations statement last year said that inmates at the four-year-old Guantánamo Bay detention center were deprived of legal assistance and information and living in conditions of detention that “amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.”
In February, five investigators of the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights concluded an 18-month study and recommended that the detention center at Guantánamo Bay be closed immediately.
Torture, according to the International Convention against Torture of 1984, “means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person.”
The United Nations has not been alone in charging the United States with torture. Amnesty International has complained of the “use of torture and ill-treatment against prisoners” at Guantánamo, citing the testimony of former prisoners. And it has detailed American-sponsored torture by Iraqi military brigades.
In February the American-based organization, Human Rights First -- formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights -- charged the U.S. government with the deaths of 100 detainees during “the global war on terror.”
A New York Times article, also in February, said the American military’s detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan, operates in “rigorous secrecy,” refusing to name, let alone bring charges against, its 500 or so prisoners. The facility may not be photographed, even from a distance. It is believed to be keeping prisoners that normally would have been sent to Guantánamo were it not for the recent critical publicity.
The article said an Army investigation discovered two practices -- since reportedly halted -- that resulted in at least two deaths at Bagram. One was the chaining of prisoners by the arms to the ceilings of their cells. The other was the use of knee strikes to the legs of disobedient prisoners by guards. Other practices, since phased out, included use of barking dogs to frighten new prisoners and handcuffing of prisoners to cell doors to punish them for talking.
“It was like a cage,” one former prisoner told the Times, likening it to the animal cages he had seen at the zoo in Karachi, Pakistan.
Besides conducting torture and sponsoring it, the American government has been accused of using “rendition,” sending suspects to another country without regard for the torture that might await them there.
While some in the Bush administration have appeared to support limited uses of prisoner abuse, Congress has been lukewarm in opposing it, with some exceptions.
“At Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq, at Guantánamo, and in Afghanistan, allegations and evidence of detainee abuse have damaged the standing of the United States in the world,” said a statement by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi in December.
She was speaking after the House passed the Murtha motion, 303 to 122, supporting the prohibition of torture. The motion, sponsored by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., was identical to an amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that passed the Senate overwhelmingly in October.
“Our struggle with the forces of international terrorism is as much a battle of ideas as a battle of arms,” Pelosi said. “We weaken ourselves when we compromise our ideals. Standing against torture helps define the differences between the United States and those who offer no message other than hatred and violence.”
On the other hand, the House International Relations Committee rejected in February a resolution introduced by Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., that would have required the Bush administration to provide information on the people who have been subjected to rendition.
Murtha, Pelosi and Markey are Catholic, as is U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who has defended America’s treatment of prisoners. This month Gonzales denied the U.S. government engages in torture or ill-treatment of terror suspects as well as the use of rendition.
“The United States has always been and remains a great defender of human rights and rule of law,” he said. “I regret that there has been concern or confusion about our commitment to the rule of law.”
That “concern or confusion” appears to be widespread, extending to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic peace organizations.
Bishop Ricard says Catholics should be concerned about charges of torture because “it’s more about us and our values as Catholics and Americans” than anything else.
Ricard, and Stephen Kolecchi, director of the bishops’ conference Office of International Justice and Peace, said the church is unequivocal in its denunciation of all torture.
“It cannot be contravened under any circumstances,” said Kolecchi, “including the use of detention for the sole purpose of trying to obtain information. It’s so standard in Catholic teaching that we’re opposed to torture.”
Ricard has written several letters to members of Congress stating the opposition of the church to torture and urging laws to ban it. The bishops’ conference has issued statements against torture in the wake of current charges.
The Catholic peace movement, Pax Christi USA, is also making its voice heard on the subject. Its Web site, www.paxchristiusa.org, has many statements on the Christian teaching on torture. It includes a national sign-in statement, “A Christian Call to Stop Torture Now.”
After a quote from John Paul II, the statement says: “As followers of Jesus, we must state clearly and unequivocally that torture violates the basic human dignity afforded all of God’s children, and is never morally acceptable. On this two-year anniversary of the revelations of the cruel, inhumane and humiliating treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison -- the first of numerous revelations regarding institutionalized torture practices in the U.S. war on terrorism -- we reiterate our church’s profound respect for the dignity of all persons and reject as antithetical to Christianity any and all justifications for the use of torture.”
Most disturbing now, says Pax Christi’s executive director, David Robinson, is the “merging of the profit motive with the routine use of torture.” Robinson says the U.S. government is “outsourcing torture to private entities” in Iraq that use abusive interrogation methods. The introduction of profit into the mix, he says, assures that there will be more of it.
During Lent especially, he says, the image of Jesus, who was tortured to death, should be powerful for Catholics, reminding them that “Christ is being crucified today through the practice of torture.”
Tom Carney is a media consultant and former reporter for The Des Moines Register.
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