Take Mandela’s example and shine a light on CIA torture

In Jewish tradition, when someone dies we say: Yehi Zichrono baruch – May his memory be a blessing. Upon Nelson Mandela’s passing, a rabbinic colleague of mine noted: Nelson Mandela’s memory is already a blessing. The challenge is for us to become a blessing to his memory. 

In the coming months, Congress has the opportunity to do precisely that. 

{mosads}The Senate Intelligence Committee will likely vote before the end of the year on whether to release a more than 6,000-page report on the CIA’s use of torture on post-9/11 detainees. Commendably, in December 2012, the bipartisan committee approved this report, but a full year later, it remains classified from public view. This report comes at the same time that an independent, nonpartisan task force of experts convened by The Constitution Project has released a report on its own investigation into detainee treatment, showing that torture did not provide critical intelligence and that its use had long-term negative effects on our national security. That report provides an eye into the truth, but it’s only part of the story. Its findings are based on in-depth interviews with eye witnesses, but the Task Force on Detainee Treatment wasn’t privy to classified documents as the Intelligence Committee was.

And so now, I join thousands of clergy and people of conscience around the nation coming together through the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in calling upon Congress to make this report public. 

A strong, moral nation accepts responsibility for its mistakes and then takes action to address them moving forward. Strong, moral leaders hold their nations accountable for undergoing such a process, both because they know it is right, and they trust it will move us to a better place. 

Under Mandela, South Africa created its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission required detailed, public confessions as a precondition for amnesty for the perpetrators of apartheid’s crimes.

But then, as now, the prospect of public truth-telling was met with considerable hesitation. Mandela, in his 100 Day Address to Parliament in 1994: “The issue of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has generated much public debate and some apprehension…what this issue raises is how we deal with a past that contained gross violations of human rights – a past which threatens to live with us like a festering sore.”

Now, as then, public truth-telling is an indispensible part of preventing the festering sores of past human rights violations from erupting again in the future. 

And as Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us, “In the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing.”

Judaism also teaches that true healing (teshuvah) involves honest confrontation. Jewish tradition lays out four elements of healing, the absence of any of which shuts down the process. To truly heal, we must:

1. Stop committing the wrongdoing
2. Face the reality of the wrong we have done, and ideally, feel profound regret
3. Confess our wrongs before God and one another
4. Refrain from repeating our wrongs in the future

In that it violates the basic dignity of the human person, torture is always, and unambiguously wrong.  In an ideal world, an honest reckoning with that fact would be enough to motivate us to end American use of torture now. In the real world, an authoritative 6,000-page report that shows that torture is always and unambiguously ineffective will help motivate the American public to insist we refrain from repeating this wrong.

Inspired by Mandela’s example, American leaders can and should provide an exemplary example of defending human rights by owning up to and learning from our mistakes. I urge Congress to let that process, and the healing that will come from it, begin now. Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. The Senate Intelligence Committee must release the torture report.

Gartner serves on the board of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and serves as their representative to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. She is also an active member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call to Human Rights.




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