Several years ago as I walked through a busy square in Jerusalem, I witnessed a disturbing scene: Jewish Israelis were silently protesting their government’s use of torture through street theater. It was disturbing not because these activists chose to raise the subject but because their simple movements and protest signs were a stark reminder of their government’s use of torture. The crowd who gathered was angry at the protest; they did not want to wrestle with the subject, especially not during a casual stroll down the street.
Here in the United States, we also do not like to be reminded that our government is responsible for acts of torture. Yet as we approach the 10th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, we too must wrestle with our government’s policies of torture of the past decade. As we reflect on the widespread use of torture, we should not only be disturbed. We should be outraged.
Guantanamo Bay stands as a glaring symbol of our nation’s willingness to abandon our principles and commitment to the rule of law. Within weeks of the arrival of the first prisoners at Guantanamo on Jan. 11, 2002, our government declared that these prisoners did not enjoy the protections of the Geneva Conventions, and the prison soon developed a legacy for torture and mistreatment of detainees. As a nation, we cannot remove that shameful legacy and ensure that U.S.-sponsored torture and indefinite detention ceases until we shutter the prison doors forever.
President Obama banned torture upon taking office and promised to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Not only has he failed to follow through on his promise but he signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which contains dangerous provisions authorizing the use of indefinite detention without trial and making it more difficult to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Torture is morally wrong, without exception. Jewish tradition, like other religious traditions, teaches that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and it obliges us to protect human life and dignity. Torture is an egregious desecration of the image of God, and it degrades both the victim and the perpetrator.
Torture is always illegal. According to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, of which the United States is a signatory, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
Torture is an ineffective means for acquiring information from detainees. As interrogators from the armed services, CIA, and FBI attest, torture is unreliable and causes prisoners to shut down mentally. Moreover, torture does not make us safer; on the contrary, it can inspire extremists to commit acts of terror against us and increases our vulnerability.
Closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay is an important symbolic act. It would allow us to acknowledge the harm we have done through the use of torture and indefinite detention. We cannot move forward unless we confront these shameful practices, understand exactly what happened, and hold accountable those who were responsible. Only then can we begin to implement safeguards to ensure that we end the use of torture and indefinite detention.
Torture is wrong, illegal, and ineffective. On this 10th anniversary of the opening of the prison in Guantanamo Bay, I join the more than 300 religious groups supporting the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in arguing that it is time to confront our government’s use of torture and demand that it end the practice once and for all.
Laurie Zimmerman is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison and an active member of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America.