“Battle for the Soul of the Nation”
Secular and Religious Organizations co-sponsor forum on
The Ethics of Torture and Human Rights
Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008
Portland, Oregon

A growing national campaign against the use of torture by the U.S. government will touch down in Portland on Wednesday, July 23, when several religious and secular organizations sponsor a one-day forum on “The Ethics of Torture and Human Rights.”

What is torture? Why do most religions find the use of torture to be morally repugnant? What international laws and treaties restrict the use of torture? Is there a universal human right that prohibits the use of torture under all circumstances or are there special situations that justify the use of torture? These questions and more will be addressed during the day’s discussions.

George Hunsinger, PhD, founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) and professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary, will be the lunchtime keynote speaker, presenting “A Battle for the Soul of Our Nation: Why Torture Matters.”

The event is sponsored by Amnesty International, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon; Jewish Federation of Portland Community Relations Committee; Muslim Educational Trust; National Religious Campaign Against Torture; Oregon Area Jewish Committee; and Willamette University Center for Religion, Law and Democracy.


Margery Post Abbott
[On Panel with Rabbi Maurice Harris of Temple Beth Israel in Eugene and member of Rabbis for Human Rights; Mike Abudharr Branch, board member of the Muslim Trust; and Jeff Bachman of Amnesty International]

I live in this beautiful neighborhood just a short distance from here. Walking around amidst friendly people and admiring the gardens, a place like Guantanamo feels quite remote. It is all too easy to believe that all the men there deserve to be there, or at least that their fate is not my problem. But then my penchant for history and for stories of my heritage cut in and it becomes obvious how potent long memories can be and how they shape peoples. I happen to be a member of one small religious group whose formative years in England and North America were molded by imprisonment on trumped up charges. In this they learned not about hatred and revenge, but about forgiveness and compassion.

In the 17th century, thousands of Quakers were thrown into filthy prison cells under conditions which make Guantanamo look luxurious. Yet this is a story repeated again and again – many, many people around the world can tell such stories of their past, and sometimes of their present. How cane we hear of torture and not seek to end it!

I have been asked to speak to you today as a Christian, and will give a glimpse of that tradition through my Quaker lens.

Quakers are one of the peace churches which have long held a testimony against all violence. Our history, as is true for so many others, gives life to the New Testament words recorded in the 13th chapter of Hebrews:

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Hebrews 13. 3 NRSV)

This admonition is near the top of the “General Christian Obligations” in Hebrews which begin with “Let mutual love continue” and “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

This admonition about torture assumes it is the reader’s friends and fellow Christians who are being thrown in prison and tortured. This and other passages tell people to expect to be maltreated and to bear it without complaint – or even with joy, to forgive those who did this evil – and, throughout the Bible we are also encouraged to assert our rights as human beings to justice and to humane treatment. Applying this today, we are called to speak out on behalf of those who are treated so evilly and to seek forgiveness for our complicity in such actions.

This passage in Hebrews also highlights the words of Jesus that the greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as God has loved us. So I do not see how it is possible to call oneself a Christian and torture anyone for any reason.

Whether speaking of humanity made in God’s image, or, as Friends say, that there is that of God in all people, we believe that our task is to help nourish the Light in others as well as ourselves. We are also called to stop evil, but with the stricture that our only weapons are those that Jesus used – truth, patience, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. While we recognize the obligation of the State to take action to restrain criminals and maintain the peace, that does not mean that the State has a blank check to ignore basic human rights of its own citizens or those of other nations.

William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, once said, “A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it.” Torture violates the basic human dignity that all religions recognize; it degrades victims, perpetrators, and the policy-makers and citizens of a nation whose agents use it.

Our beliefs are meaningless if they are not visible in our lives. Thus we must actively stand against torture.

Torture is more likely to occur when it is hidden – when euphemisms, or outright lies are used to keep this knowledge from public awareness, or when top officials defend such actions claiming that various forms of torture are legal or absolutely essential for national security. We can act to help end torture. We do not have to accept the atmosphere of fear which has pervaded our nation for the past decade.

I just want to mention three of the basic tools for the prevention of State-sanctioned torture:
1. A vigorous media that will pierce secrecy, expose the institutionalized practice of torture and shine a light on all those involved.

2. Congressional oversight and scrutiny which can examine the evidence when even the possibility that torture has occurred.

3. An independent judiciary that will hold military perpetrators responsible, hold contractors responsible, and enforce international obligations, treaties, conventions and customs.

It is crucial that each one of us, as citizens of this nation, add our own weight to these tools. Congress is taking steps which erode our liberties as well as making actions such as torture easier to hide and defend such as the recent passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act which authorizes our government to intercept international communications without individualized warrants, without determination of probable cause and no specifics on who will be caught up in this net. And it gives retroactive immunity to companies against any challenges to violation of your or my privacy.

We need to make use of the media to inform others and we can raise our voices to insist that Congress take its oversight responsibility seriously and make it known that we expect the judiciary to uphold our nation’s integrity.

As I’m sure many of you have done, googling “torture” will link you into a number of organizations and websites with up-to-date information and a list of specific actions you can take. Three of these are:


– stoptorturenow@yahoogroups.com


I’ll talk mainly about the group I am most familiar with, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), the Quaker lobby on Capital Hill. I have some handouts [ON YOUR TABLES??] which will offer some basics on how to contact your member of Congress and ways to encourage others to join you in making your voices heard.

If you go to fcnl.org/torture/ you will find information on upcoming votes and on the most recent actions in Congress, and often on key judicial decisions. There is a place where you can ask to be notified by email on various issues. And there is easy access to write your member of Congress. Members of Congress do pay attention, especially to phone calls and emailed letters which have a personal message at the start and are easily distinguished from uniform mass mailings.

Earlier this year, an email to FCNL supporters regarding a vote against torture generated over 3,000 email letters to Congress in two days. Lots of people in Washington took note. I am told that members of Congress are more and more making speeches on the floor of Congress condemning torture and saying the kinds of things we would like them to say. But that is not enough. [The recent provision to require the CIA and other US interrogators to follow the U.S. Army Field Manual was vetoed by President Bush – and the votes were not there to over-ride this veto. Blumenauer, DeFazio, Wu, Baird all voted for it. Walden voted with the President. There is work to do here.]

At this point, I would urge you to:

– contact the President and tell him that torture is unacceptable

– write your member of Congress and urge them to establish a subcommittee to investigate US interrogation practices and the treatment of detainees.

– ask members of Congress and candidates for public office what they will do to keep the US from engaging in torture. Make this a campaign issue.

– And, there a possibility that there will be a vote in early August regarding Red Cross access to prisoners. If there is to be a vote, you can find notice on FCNL or NRCAT’s websites.

Thank you for acting now!

In the 20th century, under the pressure of World War II when Friends were among those who actively worked with the US government to establish the right for conscientious objection to participation in war, Quakers realized the value of a permanent office on Capital Hill. Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) was established in 1943 and has been active ever since as a voice for peace, for human rights, justice and equity in national legislation.

In recent years, while the war in Iraq and efforts to prevent other wars have taken much of Friends’ attention, FCNL has also been a voice for protection of human rights and objection to torture.

There is a banner on the Friends Meeting House on SE Stark Street proclaiming the evils of torture. Friends are just one tiny part of the current National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and join with all those who state that humanity is called to act with compassion, to live by the “golden rule”, to pursue just treatment for all, and reconciliation among enemies.

In just one example, while eventually Congress was unable to override a presidential veto, the heavy pressure from people like us around the country delayed action for a year, despite heavy pressure from the administration.


I am writing to ask you to support the establishment of a Select Committee of Congress to investigate the activities of the agencies of the United States government with respect to the interrogation and treatment in detention of detainees held in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and secret prisons overseas.

Earlier this year, ABC News reported that the President’s top national security advisors held regular meetings, with the President’s approval, to authorize the use of torture and other abusive interrogation techniques on detainees. This revelation is the latest in a line of disturbing disclosures, from the CIA Director’s admission that the U.S. government waterboarded three detainees, to the existence of secret CIA prisons, to the graphic images of the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

I believe there should be a thorough investigation of U.S. interrogation practices and the treatment of detainees. A Select Committee – with a specific focus and the power to issue subpoenas – is an important way to achieve a full accounting of exactly how and why we mistreated detainees and to enable us to ensure that we never do so again.


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