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OPINION: Guantánamo remains open, but we can never torture again

The Rev. Mark Hallinan is a member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and a member of the steering committee of the Metro NY Religious Campaign Against Torture. Rabbi Simkha Weintraub is a founding board member of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America.


Today is the deadline President Barack Obama set for shutting down the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Because of complex legal and ethical questions relating to the future status of some detainees, however, the center will remain open.

Guantánamo is known around the world not only for its seemingly endless detentions without trial but also as a place where the United States lost its way and engaged in torture. The torture that occurred there stains the image of the United States and diminishes our influence around the world. We must shut down the detention center.

Trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a federal court in New York City, and bringing other terrorism suspects to trial, is a positive step that will help advance efforts to close the prison and, moreover, restore our reputation as a nation in which the rule of law prevails.

But other steps are needed. Religious groups such as ours are working across the nation to end U.S.-sponsored torture forever. We strongly believe that torture is immoral; it violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions hold dear and threatens the spiritual well-being of our nation.

There are those who argue that torture is essential to our national security. But military and intelligence leaders tell us that information obtained through torture is notoriously unreliable. In addition, our nation's use of torture provides justification for other nations to use torture on captured American personnel as well.

The U.S. government must put in place safeguards to make sure that torture never happens at our hands again. But to clarify what laws or other changes are needed, Americans need to better understand U.S. torture policies and practices since 9/11.

We need to know who was tortured and why, who ordered the torture, what the effects of the torture were and who implemented it. We need an independent, nonpartisan commission of inquiry to investigate and make findings and recommendations to the Congress and the president about what further safeguards are needed.

Some members of the House of Representatives have discussed creating a select committee to perform a similar function. What's important is that we figure out how this came to be part of our national policy and then institute safeguards that ensure it never happens again.

The president's executive order on torture, issued Jan. 22, 2009, mandated that all government agencies follow guidelines laid out in the Army Field Manual while conducting interrogations. With the exception of Appendix M - which allows for the possible use of sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation - the manual creates one single, public, humane standard for all U.S. interrogations. In the future, Appendix M ought to be removed from the Field Manual. Additionally, new legal prohibitions ought to be put into place to prevent the transfer of suspected terrorists from one country to another, known as rendition, in order to torture.

Executive orders are not law, and Obama's executive order is not the final word on this subject. A future president could revoke it. So Congress should pass legislation that makes elements of this order permanent.

The necessary protections include a "Golden Rule" standard that would require the president or another high-level administration official to affirm that each interrogation technique authorized for use by American interrogators is based on the idea that we will not do unto others what we would not want done unto our own soldiers. In addition, Congress should require by law that the International Committee of the Red Cross be granted access to all U.S.-held detainees.

So as today comes and goes and the detention center at Guantánamo remains open, we ask America's religious community to continue its work to end U.S.-sponsored torture by educating those within our churches, mosques, temples and synagogues. Eight years of a horrendous symbol of torture is eight years too many. America's religious community should take the lead to ensure that the detention center at Guantánamo closes in 2010 and that future generations of Americans grow up in a country that does not engage in torture.


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