The images of the burning towers on Sept. 11 are seared into our collective memory. It seemed unthinkable that we could be attacked on our native soil.
During our nation's founding, we were also attacked on our soil. And though the British who captured our fighters treated their prisoners brutally, Gen. George Washington instructed his troops to act with integrity. "Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands," he told the Northern Expeditionary Force in September 1775.
More recently, President Ronald Reagan, from his signing statement in 1988 ratifying the U.N. Convention on Torture from 1984, said: "Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today."
Fast forward to 2003, when the first photos of the abuses at Abu Ghraib were revealed. Some Americans recoiled in horror that our forces would conduct themselves this way. Others dismissed the abusers as a "few bad apples." Still others rationalized that our use of torture was not as harsh as that of our enemies. Over time, we learned that the use of interrogation techniques that we had long deemed torture or abuse were being widely used — and, shockingly, were approved at the highest levels of our government.
This year, Human Rights Watch released a report, "Getting Away With Torture," citing a number of cases of torture and abuse committed at the order of senior Bush administration officials and warranting criminal investigations because of their violations of domestic and international law.
Ten years after Sept. 11, many still approve of torture. For this we can thank people like Dick Cheney, who in his newly released book continues to justify the use of waterboarding and other torture methods; and former Justice Department official John Yoo, who in a Wall Street Journal op-ed just this week again wrote approvingly of the "tough interrogation" (read: torture) techniques he helped legitimize.
However, trained interrogators and military generals have testified before Congress that the use of torture, far from keeping us safe or securing valuable information, actually makes us less safe. Torture and abuse of prisoners are morally reprehensible and are war crimes that we have punished in the past. Torture destroys our credibility in the world and our reputation for fair play; ignores international treaties and the Convention Against Torture, which we have signed; serves as a recruiting tool for jihadists; and alienates our allies who refrain from this practice. Furthermore, torture provides a new and terrible model for despots seeking validation for their use of torture, puts our citizens and military at greater risk abroad, and provides unreliable and often false information.
When I served in post-war Bosnia in 1996, I was fortunate to remain safe largely thanks to the reciprocity with which Americans were treated, thanks to the United States being respected internationally for its fair play. No one dared to behave abusively with an American as a witness.
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture was formed in 2006 to be the interfaith religious voice urging a return to our moral values and to hold accountable those who violated these values. I join the organization in calling for the U.S. government to convene a commission of inquiry to investigate — and to understand — what led to our use of torture. The next step will be to seek accountability and codify laws that will not permit this descent into immorality again.
Suzanne O'Hatnick, a member of the board of directors of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture Action Fund, is representative to the NRCAT Participating Members Council for Stony Run Friends Meeting in Baltimore. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.