Culture, Justice, Politics

Keeping his promise for change: Ask the President-Elect to End Torture

guest post from Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster:
In the days that lie ahead, we’re going to hear a lot of rhetoric about restoring America’s moral standing after eight years of the Bush Administration, doing collective teshuvah for the sins of our nation.
President-elect Obama has been. And again, in his 60 Minutes interview, he stated that he wanted to end torture and close Guantanamo, that “[t]hese are part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.” He said something similar when he accepted the Democratic nomination. Part of the collective teshuvah is holding him to his word. Calls for an Executive Order against torture during the first 100 days of the Obama presidency have been issued by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, among others. An Executive Order would be more than symbolic. The Bush Administration’s expansive view of the powers of the Executive Branch allowed them to circumvent American laws and treaty obligations, including those outlawing torture.
But we shouldn’t assume that this is case-closed. Already, reports have appeared (and have been critiqued) that Obama may not revoke the CIA’s ability to use harsh interrogation techniques that the military is prohibited from using. This backtracking, if true, would be a major blow in the effort to end torture. After all, many of us in the anti-torture lobby used to quote John McCain (author of the Detainee Treatment Act) until he decided at some point during the Presidential campaign that it was okay for the CIA to torture. Torture isn’t suddenly effective because the CIA is using it.
I would also argue that ending torture is not simply a top-down cause. We all have to be part of the national teshuvah and take responsibility for what we, the people, have done. The limited public outcry against torture (and many other civil liberties issues such as wiretapping) gave no incentive to stop doing it. Torture happened over there, to someone else. And with all the depictions in popular culture of torture being effective, many Americans want to believe that torture keeps us safer.
I wish I didn’t believe that last sentence, but I do. I work to raise the awareness of the Jewish community about ending torture, and I’ve noticed something disturbing. On the one hand, many Jews I speak to understand that Judaism is against torture and that torture doesn’t work. They don’t want to talking about the halachic reasons—they just want to know what they can do to end it. But when I press deeper, something else is uncovered. If torture did work, if it truly gave real intelligence that kept us safer, if the ticking time bomb wasn’t just a mythical scenario…then its harder to get them to say they are against torture.
This is the moral legacy of the past eight years. Deep down, we’ve bought the message of the Bush Administration’s dark side. Now we need to do teshuvah. President Obama needs to hear from us.
And here’s how:
• Go to
• Fill out your contact information. Write “torture” in the “another issue” box.
• In the “Your ideas” box, explain why you believe torture is wrong. A sample statement might be: “As a Jewish American, I am deeply troubled by our nation’s use of torture. The Jewish tradition urges us not to oppress the stranger, because we were strangers in the land the Egypt, and implores us to honor the image of God in every person. Torture goes against these values and against everything America stands for as a country. Please act to end U.S.-sponsored torture by issuing an executive order based on the Declaration of Principles endorsed by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.”
• Then click “submit form.”
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is the Director of Education and Outreach for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, where she directs K’vod Habriot: A Jewish Human Rights Network.

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