Last week in this space, I wrote that the struggle against torture (and "torture-lite" techniques that still result in cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment) was a struggle for the soul of the nation and the soul of U. S. Christianity. Thursday, the U.S. Senate joined the house in passing a very flawed "compromise" bill on the interrogation, treatment in prison, and procedures for trials before military tribunals of suspected terrorists. The bill denies foreign nationals the right of habeas corpus (the right, guaranteed in our legal tradition for the past 800 years!, to challenge authorities to show cause for their detention or be released), opening the way to perpetual imprisonment without trial or even being charged with a crime. It allows the president to decide who is a terrorist, who will be interrogated, by what methods, and it protects those who may have already committed torture from prosecution. The bill allows evidence obtained by hearsay and under torture. It sets up tribunals with rules designed to guarantee conviction instead of designed with a presumption of innocence.
Although the majority in both Houses of Congress who voted for this bill were Republicans, significant minorities of Democrats aided and abetted this violation of human rights, too. This shame is bi-partisan, though not equally so. Several Democratic Senators spoke out eloquently for human rights and the rule of law, but none dared to filibuster in their defense. Lest we think the shame belongs solely to politicians, far too many clergy and people of faith have been silent on this issue and many prominent Christians have actually argued in favor of these outrages.
Yesterday on my own blog, I predicted that future U.S. schoolchildren will memorize 28 September 2006 as a day of national shame. They will learn to class the legalization of torture-lite in the so-called "war on terrorism" with the worst moments of U.S. history: the Salem witch trials; the flogging and jailing of Baptists and hanging of Quakers in Massachussetts Bay Colony; the U.S. army's "gifts" of blankets to Native Americans that were deliberately infected with Smallpox; the Trail of Tears; slavery; the Dred Scott decision ruling that African Americans "have no rights that white men are bound to recognize;" the Alien and Sedition Act; Plessy v. Ferguson; Japanese-American concentration camps during WWII in which citizens were "guilty by reason of race;" McCarthyism's Communist witch hunts, etc.
I believe that to be profoundly true. Unless this bill (almost certain to become law since it is the bill the president asked for) is struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (a more rightwing Court than we've had in decades), it will be difficult to repeal. Even if Democrats become the majority in both houses of Congress in November, it will be very unlikely that a bill to abolish these standards and return to human rights for all could garner a two-thirds' majority needed to override a presidential veto. So, this horror is likely to be the law of our land at least until 2009 (and how many people will be tortured before then or how many people convicted or even executed for "terrorism" on hearsay evidence?).
Both Amnesty International and Human Rights First, however, sent me emails yesterday reminding me that the struggle to end torture will continue. I believe that Christians and other people of faith must lead that campaign. No significant gain for justice in this nation, whether of the abolition of slavery, the ending of child labor, women's suffrage, ending segregation, etc. has ever succeeded without significant leadership by at least a portion of the nations' churches. I see far too few Baptist names involved in the National Religious Campaign to Abolish Torture.
To be sure, some are there: Glen H. Stassen (ethics professor at Fuller Seminary), David Gushee (ethics professor at Union University in TN), Roy Medley (Gen. Sec. of American Baptists), Stan Hastey (Exec. Director, Alliance of Baptists), William Shaw (President, National Baptist Convention)--even mega-church guru Rick Warren. But that's about it. [Update: As Melissa Rogers reminded me, more people have signed the NRCAT statement than names appear on their site. Since I had signed, I knew this. I'll email them to show membership on their site. I still invite us to organize a Baptist membership drive for this and other organizations working to abolish torture: the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, the Center for Constitutional Rights, etc.]
Let's change this. This is not a topic on which there should be any liberal/centrist/conservative divide. You cannot love enemies and "waterboard" them, too. Let's swell the ranks of the campaigns against torture. Let our opposition to any violation of human rights, of any cruel, unusual or degrading punishment, ring from pulpits, religious publications, blogs, letters to editors, etc.
We have lost the first round of this struggle and any moral high ground. So, let us redouble our efforts: Who we are morally as Christians and citizens depends on it.