Two recent Guantanamo reports serve as bookends, so to speak, to the debate over the legitimacy and future of the detention camp for prisoners of America’s war on terror.
On one end of the spectrum is the disturbing Pentagon report that 61 released Guantanamo inmates are believed to have returned to terrorism – 18 former prisoners have been confirmed as “returning to the fight,” according to a Pentagon spokesman, and 43 others are suspected of joining them.
“This is acts of terrorism,” said spokesman Geoff Morrell on the actions the prisoners have taken since their release. “It could be Iraq, Afghanistan, it could be acts of terrorism around the world.”
Morrell added that the rate of such terror recidivism has jumped from seven to 11 percent since last March.
It’s sobering news for those who call for the immediate closure of the camp, whether questioning the legality of “indefinite detention of detainees” (as the human rights director of the ACLU said), objecting to the use of torture while interrogating terror suspects, or both.
The other bookend, though, comes with this week's Washington Post story on a top Bush administration official using the word “torture” to describe a Guantanamo Bay detainee’s treatment.
In an interview with the Post, Susan Crawford, the convening authority of the Pentagon’s military commissions, explained her decision to halt prosecution against the so-called “20th hijacker” of Sept. 11, 2001, a man who Crawford herself believes would have been on one of the hijacked planes were he not denied entrance to America that summer.
Crawford, who has served as general counsel for the Army and the Pentagon inspector general under then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, reviewed descriptions of interrogation methods used on Mohammed al-Qahtani after his capture in Afghanistan in 2002.
They included being stripped naked in front of a female agent, forced to wear women’s undergarments, threatened by a military dog, forced to do “dog tricks” with a leash tied to his chains and subjected other physical abuses that led twice to hospitalization. At one point, a record shows, his heart rate was monitored at 35 beats per minute.
“It did shock me,” Crawford told the Post reporter. “I was embarrassed by it. If we tolerate this and allow it, then how can we object when our servicemen and women … are captured and subjected to the same techniques? Where is our moral authority to complain? Well, we may have lost it.”
Because of the “coercive” methods used to extract information from Qahtani – thus adding to the testimony against him – Crawford dismissed war crimes charges against him last May.
“You don’t allow [coerced testimony] in a regular court,” Crawford pointed out.
The whole piece is a gripping and rather fair look at the use of torture on terror suspects – and what America will have to grapple with as it shifts to a new administration.
Crawford, a Republican, gave a hint at what that will look like:
“I sympathize with the intelligence gatherers in those days after 9/11, not knowing what was coming next and trying to gain information to keep us safe,” she said. “But there still has to be a line that we should not cross. And unfortunately what this has done, I think, has tainted everything going forward.”
The Catholic Church rejects the use of torture under any circumstances, but as a recent study guide sponsored in part by the USCCB asks, “In this age of terrorism, is it possible for a nation to act upon the world stage in ways that demonstrate respect for human dignity, and are consistent with the Gospels?”
As Crawford herself states, and the Pentagon report on returning terrorists shows, the reality is that a man like Qahtani, still in custody at Guantanamo, is extremely dangerous to America’s citizens and those of its allies. And information gathered under torture has undoubtedly been of immense value to U.S. intelligence agents.
Still, on this the Church is clear: “In carrying out investigations, the regulation against the use of torture, even in the case of serious crimes, must be strictly observed,” the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states. It continues, quoting Pope John Paul II, “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim.”
Thus, even in war, “a prohibition against torture … cannot be contravened under any circumstances” (section 404).
In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II called physical and mental torture “shameful” and “intrinsically evil.” And in a 2007 address to an international congress of Catholic prison ministers, Pope Benedict XVI stressed that public authorities must eschew “means of punishment or correction that either undermine or debase the human dignity of prisoners.”
We can only wait and see what will happen with Guantanamo under the Obama administration, and as many have pointed out, the problems with closing the camp are numerous, carrying with them potentially dangerous consequences. The pros and cons of such a move are certainly open to debate.
But in clear cases of torture, we know where Catholics stand.