Monday, October 25, 2010

Healing the soul of a nation

A Guest opinion by Rev. J. Edwin Bacon, Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater and Dr. Maher Hathout
Posted: 10/22/2010 [Pasadena Star-News]

PRIOR to the Bush administration, many of us thought the practice of torture was beneath the United States government. It is certainly antithetical to our central values that all people are created equal and are endowed by certain inalienable rights - to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In June, we joined with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and interfaith religious leaders in decrying the evidence uncovered by Physicians for Human Rights that the U.S. government not only practiced torture but also experimented on detainees to refine torture techniques. While this month's report of unethical medical experiments on Guatemalans in the 1940s elicited public apologies from the Obama administration and a commitment to a thorough investigation, the only response to the evidence of these more recent experiments involving torture has been public denial by the CIA and silence from the White House. Medical experimentation without consent is wrong wherever it takes place. We need to uncover the full truth about our government's use of torture in order to begin healing our nation's soul.

Thomas Merton was once asked the question, "What is the contemporary face of evil?" Merton's answer was dehumanization. A whole host of immoral practices grow from one central cancerous thought: that certain lives are less valuable than others.

This lie has taken root in our time, for there is no life that is of less value than another. All of us have within our soul the living image of God. Every human being is sacred. When we do any harm to someone else, we have done that harm to God. Our practices of torture have unleashed into the world a flood of dehumanization, the effects of which we will feel and know for generations to come.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that African-American people were not the only victims of racism. "Oppression has two victims," he said. "Both the recipient and the perpetrator of racism are victims." This is true of torture as well. We have reports of American soldiers who, having tortured detainees, are especially susceptible to suicide. Alyssa Petersen was one such soldier. She refused to participate in "enhanced interrogations" on naked detainees and days later took her own life. The official report said, "She could not be two people." Alyssa Petersen could not escape the torture inflicted on her own mind, soul, and body by the acts she was tasked with committing.

In protecting persons from torture, we are also protecting those who would inflict torture. You cannot cause intentional pain to another, who bears the image of God, without suffering trauma in your own soul.

Truly, the victims of torture include both its victims and its perpetrators. To an important degree that includes us all.

Accordingly, healing for victims of torture must also include everyone.We must do everything we can to become agents of healing instead of oppression and torture. And true healing involves honest accountability.

That is why you and I have a moral responsibility to urge President Obama, Congress and Attorney General Holder to initiate an investigation and ensure safeguards that torture and involuntary human experimentation will never happen again in the name of the United States. President Obama has refused to do so, effectively sweeping it under the rug arguing that he wants to "look forwards, and not backwards." But no victim can recover from the past by ignoring what occurred. The only way we can look forward with clarity of vision is to look backwards to heal what is wounded in our past. There is much moral reckoning that must be transacted. Trauma victims and trauma theory tell us that trauma cannot be healed unless and until it is acknowledged, reverenced, recognized and given a moral content.

We must alter the mindsets which allow for such heinous evils as torture. Allowing torture against human beings has become our new norm because of the blanket excuse, "They are terrorists."

In this way we have replaced the title God gave to the human being - child of God. In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, we ask God to purify our conscience by God's daily visitation. The Jewish tradition sees that each person is created in the image of God, as we read in the book of Genesis, and therefore each face is the face of God. The Koran tells us to honor the progeny of Adam.

This is our prayer for our nation, that by the visitation of God our actions toward other human beings might be realigned with God's vision of them. The first step toward realigning our national conscience is openly and honestly accounting for U.S.-sponsored torture and the experimentation on human victims that bolstered torture practices. That is the only path to healing torture survivors. It is the only path to healing the soul of our nation. It is the only path to healing the soul of the world.

Rev. J. Edwin Bacon is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. Maher Hathout is senior advisor of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater is senior rabbi of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center.

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