In just a few days, I, along with hundreds of clergy throughout the country, will be participating in ceremonies which will honor and memorialize the more than 3,000 men and women who lost their lives in the attacks of 9/11. We will be reading names and honoring heroism. We will be reviewing video and continuing to comfort the families permanently affected by this tragedy. And no doubt, there will also be some in our country who will use this occasion as a time to rekindle their anti-Arab feelings and champion unwarranted xenophobia.
As for me, I am also hoping that we can add to the memory of the day a revisiting of the issue of any use of torture (or lesser forms of coercion) to obtain information from prisoners.
In 2005, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, meeting in Annual Convention in Houston, Texas, adopted a resolution that basically denounces and opposes the use of torture and other forms of prisoner coercion in violation of the Geneva Conventions. While there are Jewish legal and moral arguments that can be made to justify some coercion in times of war and in opportunities to save lives, as the resolution states, for the most part, the weight of Jewish tradition acknowledges that “all human beings are created in the image of G-d,” and therefore, torture and prisoner abuse defile that image. If it is bottom-line absolutely necessary for some coercion to take place, then, the resolution goes on, it must be done with ”humility and with full respect for the human dignity of those upon whom it exercises discipline.”
As I see it, the weight of Jewish tradition tilts away from using any kind of torture to extract vital information, even when such information could be used to save the lives of innocent people. Even after 9/11, this principle should be upheld as strongly as possible, especially as we have seen abuses in the name of preserving or furthering national security or fighting terrorism.
Furthermore, the use of torture is not compatible with the leadership standards for which the United States should be striving. Thus, from Reform Judaism’s perspective, we should use 9/11 to reaffirm the continued validity of the Geneva Conventions and its laws of war as we promote adherence to its guidelines. The final statement in the CCAR’s resolution on torture reads:
“Therefore, the Central Conference of American Rabbis urges that the President and the government of the United States resolve to … create an independent commission to investigate and report on the detention and interrogation practices of U.S. military and intelligence agencies deployed in the global ‘war on terror.’” The call for such a commission aligns well with the ongoing call by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a coalition of religious organizations committed to ending torture that is sponsored or enabled by the United States, for a commission of inquiry into the same issue.
9/11 should give us the opportunity to reaffirm the dignity of all.