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Commentary: Torture Didn’t and Doesn’t Make Us Safer

c. 2011 Religion News Service

(RNS) Immediate claims by supporters of the Bush administration’s torture program that Osama bin Laden was found and killed based on information obtained through torture leaves one almost breathless.

Disregarding the absence of clear facts, and overeager to justify an illegal operation, Bush-era officials and others are already claiming that the use of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” led to finding and killing bin Laden.

But let’s be clear: Reality is always more complicated than the news cycle. We still don’t know what, exactly, led to finding bin Laden, and shouting is often more bluster than truth.


The use of torture by the U.S. after 9/11 hurt us significantly. Just as photos of abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison were used as a major recruiting tool by al-Qaida, revelations of U.S.-sanctioned torture have cost us the good will of people who could have helped us locate bin Laden years earlier.

It took the United States almost 10 years and at least $1 trillion to locate bin Laden. Imagine if we hadn’t made the terrible mistake of turning to torture, and how much sooner we might have found him if we had squandered our support with countries across the Islamic world.

Torture has many consequences, and all of them are self-defeating. First, of course, it dehumanizes the individual — both the tortured and the torturer. It also creates enemies — passionate enemies — who feel compelled to respond to the degradation and pain inflicted upon them.


Torture also stains the soul of the torturing nation. In the case of the United States, our embrace of torture placed us in the same league as the countries we disdain for their failure on human rights.

It also results in unreliable information that can cause terrible damage. Just recall the statement by Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, that information that Saddam Hussein was working with al-Qaida was obtained through torture and ended up being wrong; it’s part of what led us to launch a war against Iraq.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, forged by the horrors of two world wars and Nazi atrocities, later gave birth to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which has the support of 147 countries, including the United States.


The treaty prohibits the use of torture under all circumstances, without exception. Because it deems torture as reprehensible as genocide and slavery, it also establishes universal jurisdiction, meaning any country can bring a case against someone who has engaged in torture, regardless of where the torture was committed or where the torturer resides.

Authors and perpetrators of the Bush torture program know that regardless of whether they ever face prosecution here at home, the could be prosecuted elsewhere. Hence, the shouting.

Besides being illegal, torture is also profoundly immoral. As the National Religious Campaign Against Torture has said, “Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear … It contradicts our nation’s most cherished values. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.”


The proponents of the Bush torture program are hoping we learn the wrong lesson, that at least when it comes to bin Laden, the ends certainly justify the means. But to do so would be an irreversible mistake.

Now, more than ever, we need a government-sponsored Commission of Inquiry with full subpoena power to publicly expose the full extent and consequences of the torture program. Supporters of the Bush torture program should welcome a Commission of Inquiry; if they believe what they say, they should not be afraid of the facts.

We all should know the truth about torture. Nothing is more important for the soul of America at this time than a complete and unlimited review of the U.S. torture program.

(Linda J. Gustitus is president of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. She lives in Washington, D.C., and is a longtime member of River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, Md.)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment nnmns

    She makes good points. We should certainly take what the former torturers say about how necessary it was with big grains of salt unless it can be verified.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cmaglaughlin

    I guess the Obama Head of the CIA didn’t get the memo. Leon Panetta confirms waterboarding led to bin Laden kill. Ask the relatives of those killed in 9/11/01 whether they are for or against. Panetta answers Brian Williams three times concerning the question. Enjoy.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    No one knows what led to the finding of ObL—and we may never know. Personally I disagree with torture as I doubt that gets accurate information.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment nnmns

    I’m against torture because it makes us as bad as those who oppose us and because it harms those involved on both sides.

    That said, there could be occasions where I’d condone it as a last resort. But that’s a slippery-slope area so there needs to be a mechanism to be sure it’s only done then. And I don’t know how to do that, at least not in a practical way.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cmaglaughlin

    The same Obama administration basking in the glory of plugging bin Laden is the same that is conducting an intense investigation into the Bush approved waterboarding of three terrorists. One of the terrorists was the courier that gave up vital info about his boss’s whereabouts. Forget about Al Qaeda EVER humanely keeping our prisoners behind bars. Chop, chop! They aren’t impressed with our pussy approach of prohibiting any further intense interrogations. Obama stopped waterboarding the moment he was elected. Terrorists of the supreme evil kind only respect strength. This administration has already proven to be liars in most everything they attempt to lay on the general public. Now their hypocrisy panties are showing big time. The author of this article is of the appeaser crowd which only leads to more tragedy, heartache and weakening of our leadership role as a nation in this ungodly world.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mordred08

    cmaglaughlin: “Terrorists of the supreme evil kind only respect strength.”

    Like we really want this scum to respect us.

  • Reggie Greene / The Logistician

    Although I neither have first-hand experience nor research to support this notion, I strongly suspect that since time immemorial, certain forces of EVERY state have used tactics which clearly constituted torture (no matter how defined) and shocked the conscience, although many (for various reasons) have chosen not to do so openly.

    However, that we live in a society capable of public introspection may be just good enough, for now, especially with other issues on our plate.
    It’s what helps form the “collective conscience” that all societies need, but do not have.

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