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Commemorate 9/11 by ending torture forever

On Sept. 11, 2001, we were attacked. For the last decade, under two presidents, we have made war, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, against everyone suspected of being somehow connected to terrorism.

Along the way, we lost our moral compass. We attacked Iraq on false premises. We compromised civil liberties. Using such techniques as drone and missile attacks, we have indiscriminately killed innocent civilians, often far from where U.S. troops were operating.

Perhaps worst of all, we adopted torture: waterboarding, sexual humiliation and enforced nudity, prolonged isolation, shackling prisoners for hours in severely painful positions and a host of other techniques that destroy human bodies and souls. This conduct stood blatantly opposed to our own laws banning torture and our ratification of the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

My hope is that in this second post- 9/1 1 decade, we can make peace, instead of war, with people abroad who have grievances against American foreign policy, and with the poor of the world, who need a small piece of our wealth to reduce starvation and disease. We also need to make peace on the home front, with our consciences, God, our government and our fellow citizens.

All these kinds of peace, especially the ones close to home, require national reflection. Our government's torture programs have been veiled in secrecy, just as adamantly under the current administration as under the previous one.

The president says we need to move forward, but no good move forward comes from ignoring the past. How can we examine our national soul, repent of the evil done in our name, hold accountable those who authorized it and establish new laws to reduce the risk of recurrence, unless we learn this painful history?

If we just keep a polite silence, if there is no accountability, the consequences will be terrible. For one thing, the next time we are under national stress we will probably again resort to torture tactics. But also, we will have an unresolved conscience. We will have forgone the opportunity to talk about our core values and the sacredness we attribute to the human person.

For all these reasons, it is essential that we undertake a full and independent inquiry. The best way, as championed by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, is to establish an independent commission, empowered by Congress to subpoena documents and witnesses. The commission would gather information, report to the public and make recommendations for new laws and other corrective actions. Its mandate should be broad: to look back at least 20 years and to examine any kind of alleged abuse of prisoners, in any location, carried on by the United States and its agents and contractors -- or by allies when the United States was in a position to stop it -- in the course of our anti-terrorism efforts.


Stephen Hart of Buffalo is convener of the Western New York Chapter of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship.

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