Last week, the White House released memos dating back from the previous administration proving that the government promoted the use of extreme interrogation tactics. These tactics, as described in the memos are easily considered torture. The memos have been read and analyzed by many in the media and you can find many reviews in a lot of places. I will not continue that discussion today.
Instead, I want to touch on a question that a lot of people have been asking: “What next?” How will we respond to this information as a government and a people? How should we punish those responsible? Who is responsible, exactly?
With all this uncertainty and murkiness, it seems like a truth and reconciliation commission similar to what happened in post-apartheid South Africa should occur. Through that process, we can find who is truly culpable and create closure on this gruesome period in our history. It makes sense for the Unitarian Universalist Association to call for truth, reconciliation, and repair since we are attempting to use that model in concerns of our racial history.
However, this model may not be the correct one in this case of a government sponsoring and endorsing torture of their prisoners. Traditionally, truth and reconciliation (T&R) commissions are reserved for societies where there is no government able to investigate, try or prosecute those responsible. In cases of failed democracies, such as South Africa, or in non-nation state-based communities, such as religious bodies, T&R allows a community to admit wrongs, forgive or punish as they see fit. An important element of T&R procedures is restorative justice where the suspected perpetrator is allowed to admit their deeds and apologize to the offended parties. By apologizing and receiving forgiveness, they receive amnesty and immunity from a prison sentence. It is a process that is long, grueling, and spiritually draining, but ultimately healing. It allows a community to admit their communal mistakes and receive a “do-over” with everything out in the open.
In the case of the Bush-era torture, the culpability is easily investigated. There is already a short list of people who could be caught red handed. Just off the top of my head, I would personally send to the witness stand: President Bush; Vice- President Cheney; CIA Director George Tennet; Secretaries of State Rice and Powell; Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld; White House Counselors Yoo and Meirs; and Attorneys General Gonzales and Ashcroft. In this case, we still have a justice system that works. The DOJ and courts still function and Congress still sits. A truth commission followed by a trial can be completed easily.
The ultimate question at hand is: “Can we reconcile torture?” Is this a time in which we can just forgive heinous and murderous actions endorsed by our government? When I read about actions inflicted on prisoners and the way these techniques affect the performers of the actions, and considering what could have been accomplished without these techniques, I think that we cannot just forgive it away. There seems to be no reconciling this–as long as we can really punish those responsible. It is important here to note that reconciliation and forgiveness are not always the same thing. One can reconcile differences without forgiving and vice versa. And even proponents of T&R would admit that the process is not for every one or for every situation.
What we have here resembles the Nuremburg Trials of the 1940’s. Now, I am not one to fall into populist rage and I consider myself pretty even handed. I am also not one to compare folks to the Nazis unless they have been responsible for the attempted annihilation of an entire race of people. That being said, we have a clear chain of command responsible for a specific action that has a concrete set of documents proving their intention. If that is not worth investigating and punishing, I am not sure what is. And so, by calling for a truth commission and a war crimes trial, we use the systems in place to resolve the problem at hand. That is why we at the UUA, along with our partners at UUSC, TASSC and NRCAT, are calling for a truth commission and justice for the victims—including the soldiers who were ordered to inflict these deeds. It is the very least we can do. To learn more and join our call for a truth commission please visit our partners at NRCAT.org.