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March 04, 2008
Torture undermines dignity of perpetrators and victims
By Bishop Thomas Wenski *

By Bishop Thomas Wenski *

During Lent — and of course in the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary — our minds and hearts are turned to meditating on the sufferings of Our Lord: his agony in the garden before his arrest, his painful scourging, the mocking crowning with thorns, his carrying the cross and his crucifixion. We do well to recall how this was visited upon Jesus with state sanction if only to understand why the Church in her teachings condemns torture. Pope Benedict XVI, in a Sept. 6, 2007, address, said, “I reiterate that the prohibition against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstances.’” Torture undermines and debases the human dignity of both victims and perpetrators.

As chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I have written several letters to Congress over the past two years urging passage of legislation to prohibit torture as an interrogation technique. In 2005, our Conference of Bishops was successful in encouraging Congress to adopt provisions prescribing uniform standards for interrogating detainees held by the Department of Defense and prohibiting cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment of persons under its custody or control. Congress adopted these provisions. However, the president has threatened to veto HR 2082, the Intelligence Authorization Act, which includes legislation just passed last week that would expand this ban on torture to other agencies and agents of the U.S. government. Thus, regretfully, the debate over torture continues.

The United States should hold itself to the highest ethical standards and fully comply with earlier commitments to observe international law in its treatment of detainees. This should apply to those held here in the United States or abroad or whether rendered by the United States to its allies. This is important to how the United States is viewed abroad; but, more importantly, human dignity is undermined once we allow ourselves to pursue an ethic of ends justifying means.

A “might makes right” posture undermines the rule of law and opens the door to tyranny. The foundation of security, justice and peace in an open society must be based on respect for the dignity of every person — ally or enemy. There can be no compromise on the moral imperative to protect the basic human rights of any individual incarcerated.

As a nation we have championed human rights. Support for Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions has long been U.S. policy. This article prohibits “cruel treatment and torture” as well as “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” While combating terrorism remains a top priority for our government, any report of prisoner mistreatment by the United States or its allies will ultimately prove counterproductive in the war against terrorism.

Terrorism does incite fear; but we cannot allow fear to dehumanize us as we seek to respond to very real threats. In adhering to Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, we would commit our nation to treat prisoners as we would demand that our enemies treat our own military personnel or citizens. Congress should act to ban torture by any agent of the U.S. government. To tolerate or condone torture not only undermines our moral credibility in the world, but also erodes our own self-understanding as a people dedicated to the proposition that all men, created equal, “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

The original column can be found at the Diocese of Orlando, Florida website.

Most Rev. Thomas Wenski is bishop of Orlando, Florida.
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