“Where was the chaplain?” Whether the photographs from Abu Ghraib or the news of mistreatment of prisoners in Guantanamo, that was one of the questions that kept coming up. During Reckoning With Torture at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre last night, the same question kept coming to mind as actors, joined by former CIA and military officers, took turns reading excerpts from diaries, government reports and interview transcripts documenting incidents of Americans torturing prisoners. The Army Chief of Chaplains answered the question when we asked him — you can hear his full answer — but more compelling are some of the statements by former chaplains like Kermit D. Johnson writing in The Christian Century in 2006:
“What we must face squarely is this: whenever we torture or mistreat prisoners, we are capitulating morally to the enemy—in fact, adopting the terrorist ethic that the end justifies the means. And let us not deceive ourselves: torture is a form of terrorism. Never mind the never-ending debate about the distinctions between “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” and “torture.” The object of all such physical and mental torment is singularly clear: to terrify prisoners so they will yield information. Whenever this happens to prisoners in U.S. control, we are handing terrorists and insurgents a priceless ideological gift, known in wartime as aid and comfort to the enemy.
“As for individual guards or interrogators, whenever they are encouraged or ordered to use torture, two war crimes are committed: one against the torturer and the other against the prisoner. The torturer and the tortured are both victims, unless the torturer is a sadist or a loose cannon who needs to be court-martialed. This violation of conscience is sure to breed self-hatred, shame and mental torment for a lifetime to come.”
At the end of “Reckoning With Torture,” one of the presenters issued a call for action — legal action against those in position of power who approved and ordered the torture and compensatory action toward the victims of unjust imprisonment and torture. To quote some more from retired Chaplain and Maj. Gen. Kermit:
“We must react when our nation breaks the moral constraints and historic values contained in treaties, laws and our Constitution, as well as violating the consciences of individuals who engage in so-called “authorized” inhuman treatment. Out of an unsentimental patriotism we must say no to torture and all inhuman forms of interrogation and incarceration. It is precisely by speaking out that we can support our troops and at the same time affirm the universal values which emanate from religious faith.”
In light of the debate about humanist chaplains, it is only proper to add that these universal values also emanate from humanist worldviews in which individuals are seen as part of a greater body of humanity and responsible for each other.