A permanent end to American torture

James Standish, Communications & Public Affairs Director, South-Pacific Division

As a boy I lived on the Malaysian island of Penang. Just down the road from our home stood an empty block. It was empty because it was the site of the house of horrors, the place where the Japanese had tortured Malaysians during their brutal occupation during the Second World War. One of the means of torture was water boarding. I still remember the stories of the agonizing sessions Malaysians endured if they came under the ambit of suspicion by the Imperial Japanese forces.

Twenty-five years after the end of Japanese occupation, that block remained vacant as a silent memorial to those tortured there. Even more profound were the scars on the memories of all who lived through that terrible period. The scars were accompanied by hard feelings towards those who perpetrated the atrocities in the house that once stood on the vacant block. The memories lasted decades after the crimes against humanity were committed.

But the atrocity of water boarding is not left in the pages of history; it is precisely the kind of barbaric actions that our government did in our name only a handful of years ago. Fortunately, during this dark page in our history, there were some among our leaders who stood up against this grotesque violation of human rights. They include both Sen. John McCain and then-Sen. Barack Obama, who as President ordered the end of this American use of torture. But this story is far from at an end. In recent weeks, leading public figures have openly called for the reinstatement of what is euphemistically referred to as “enhanced interrogation methods.” These calls should be met with polite silence, but with a very firm, very public, very explicit rejection.

Some argue the U.S. should not engage in torture because it isn’t effective. That misses the point entirely. Sometimes doing barbaric acts does accomplish a goal. It could be, for example, we find that kidnapping the children of suspected terrorists and holding them in deplorable conditions makes terror suspects more likely to talk. Does this mean we should do it? Absolutely not. We are a nation built on a concept of freedom and fundamental rights that cannot be bought and sold in the marketplace of expediency.

This is because our concept of human rights isn’t anchored in circumstances, but rather in the fundamental status of humanity as beings created in the image of God. The first national enunciation of our rights, the Declaration of Independence, anchors our rights in our Creator’s will. When an individual is tortured, we are not merely violating an individual’s rights, we are defacing the image of God, both in the one who is tortured and in the one who is doing the torturing. Both are dehumanized in the process, as are all who accede to the dehumanizing treatment.

American values require us to respect the indivisible rights endowed by our Creator, even if we pay a price for doing so. That is what makes us a freedom loving people. That is what makes us the bastion of fundamental rights. That is what makes America the world’s last, best hope.

The United States and her allies defeated Great Britain to win independence and then Fascism and Communism to secure freedom, all without resorting to systemic torture. And the United States also defeated Imperial Japan, freeing Asia from grinding oppression.

Not surprisingly, Japan continues to struggle with the deep ill will created by the atrocities committed by their imperial forces on populations from Malaysia to Korea, from China to the Philippines. Tragically, as a nation, we have similarly bought ourselves generations of deep ill will around the world by engaging in the horrifying treatment of suspects, treatment that is universally and rightly viewed as torture.

It will take decades to undo what was done in a few short years. But we must dedicate ourselves to doing so. The first step in the process is to ensure we don’t relapse into torturing those in our custody. Speaking publicly and vigorously in opposition to those who want us to return to operating American torture chambers is the first step in this battle. May the God who endowed humanity with fundamental dignity and the rights that accompany that dignity, give us the strength and the courage to do just that.

Back to list