May 2 marked a year since Osama bin Laden was killed. Jose Rodriguez, a former CIA official, is using the occasion to justify the use of torture, euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation techniques," claiming that the key information leading to bin Laden's being located was obtained through torture. Rodriguez believes that our nation has become reluctant to use torture, and that this will imperil our security and cost American lives.
But we should be reluctant. Torture is illegal, under all circumstances. The United States has signed and ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture. According to our Constitution, treaties once ratified are part of the supreme law of the land, legally binding on our government and citizens. The convention is very clear: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture." Congress has also passed laws making torture illegal, and there isn't any "except when you think it might help locate bin Laden" clause.
Torture is also immoral, no matter what end it is intended to serve. As a Christian who belongs to the Episcopal Church, several times a year I answer, "I will, with God's help," when asked, "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?" and "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?" I cannot reconcile those vows with torture.
Torture is the ultimate denial of human dignity I can imagine, reducing the prisoner to an object. I believe that every human being, even one who has done terrible things, was created in the image of God, and torture defiles that image. When I hear speakers from the National Religious Coalition Against Torture, I discover that this is far from just an Episcopalian or Christian view: I hear Muslims, Hindus, Jews and many fellow kinds of Christians say the same thing, each in their own way.
I believe that even Rodriguez and defenders of waterboarding and other torture techniques used in the name of counterterrorism know at some level, with some part of their hearts and consciences, that torture is immoral. Otherwise, why would they so constantly pretend that even waterboarding is not really torture, or in the words of another CIA official and defender of torture, John McLaughlin, that the CIA interrogation program "was never conceived of as a torture program," but "was intended to encourage compliance."
If people like Rodriguez and McLaughlin were fully comfortable with torture, they wouldn't need euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation," and they wouldn't need to strenuously deny that they were involved in torture.
Likewise, the defenders of torture, despite their frequent claims that their own behavior and that of their colleagues was legal, know it isn't true. In 2005, Rodriguez had dozens of videotapes of torture destroyed. When he was called before a congressional committee to testify about this incident, he refused to do so without a grant of immunity. If he felt the need to protect himself from being convicted of a crime for his coverup, presumably it was because he knew that the torture he was covering up was illegal.
Rodriguez is hardly alone. Determined and extensive efforts have been made, and unfortunately continue today, to keep torture secret and to protect those who ordered and performed it from being prosecuted. Those efforts would be unnecessary if the conduct had been legal.
The claims for the usefulness of torture that Rodriguez, Dick Cheney and others have made are dubious. The United States had sought bin Laden for well over a decade, starting even before 9/1 1. Mountains of data -- electronic intercepts, images from satellites and surveillance aircraft, and interrogations or interviews with thousands of people -- have been mined. Furthermore, much of the "information" obtained by torture proves to be false. For example, some of the evidence that led our government to falsely think that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons was obtained by torture.
But in the end, the usefulness of torture is not the central issue. Actions that we think are useful, even ones we sincerely believe will benefit the nation, can be illegal and immoral -- and therefore unacceptable. As the National Religious Campaign Against Torture reminds Americans time and time again, all major faiths take torture to be something so inherently evil that no purpose, no usefulness can justify it. American traditions going back to the Revolution have rejected torture, and our law forbids it. It is time for us to return to these principles.
Stephen Hart is the convener of the Western New York chapter of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and the representative of the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. He has published widely on religious and political issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.