U.S. owes apologies for mistakes in its war against terror

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U.S. owes apologies for mistakes in its war against terror

SATURDAY, JUNE 2, 2012
BY RACHEL KAHN-TROSTER
THE RECORD

"Morally speaking, … indifference to evil is worse than evil itself."

RABBI ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL

IN JEWISH tradition, every human being is created in God’s image, b’tzelem elohim. This concept from Genesis 1:27 means that every human being – whether friend or enemy – deserves basic respect and requires ethical treatment.

It means that even when we deal with those who try to harm us, we have an ethical standard by which we judge our own actions.

After Sept. 11, 2001, our country lost this moral compass, and we committed acts of torture against 9/11 detainees that were illegal under both American and international law. Fear became a driving force over our long-cherished values. And in return, both our values and our safety were compromised.

Torture is counterproductive — it doesn’t produce information that could not be collected in other legal ways and increases the number of people joining our enemies’ efforts to attack us. Torture is also a moral abomination, and it degrades the American people in the eyes of the world.

In our quick resort to torture, the innocent were trapped along with the guilty. In 2002, acting on information from the Canadian government, the U.S. government seized Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, held him for 12 days without charge and then sent him to Syria where the U.S. government knew it was likely he’d be tortured. He was regularly beaten with shredded cables and put in a 3-by-6-foot "grave" with rats and no light. After a year of torture in Syrian prisons, Arar was released and returned to Canada.

Canada has since conducted a thorough investigation into Arar’s arrest, torture and detention, and has cleared him of any connection to terrorist activities. They also formally apologized to Arar because it provided inaccurate information to the U.S. government that led to his arrest and torture. They paid him $11 million Canadian in compensation for his suffering.

However, the American government has refused to acknowledge that Arar was tortured in error or to compensate him for his suffering, and attempts to achieve accountability via the American court system have not met with success.

Unfortunately, Arar’s story is not unique. After 9/11, the U.S. government tortured individuals suspected of having connections to terrorism and also sent these individuals to third-party countries where they were tortured, a practice known as extraordinary rendition. On his first day in office in 2009, President Obama issued an executive order ending this practice, and he prohibited torture in American interrogations of suspects. Obama has urged us to look forward as a nation, not backward. But we have yet to bear accountability for our nation’s use of torture.

In Jewish tradition, one cannot repent without acknowledging what one has done, and asking those one has wronged for forgiveness. But for the use of torture, there has been no acknowledgement, merely silence.

Renowned Jewish social justice activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."

As a nation, our silence in the face of our government’s continued unwillingness to apologize to the victims of torture implicates us in this shame. Through silence, we accept the argument that torture was necessary to keep us safe. It was a false argument: Torture has only made the world a more dangerous place for Americans by strengthening the cause of those who would hurt us.

But as Americans, we still have the chance to take responsibility and break our silence. We can use our voices to perpetuate the Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world. At its heart, asking for forgiveness is an act of mending that which has been broken. Obama has sought to move this country beyond the season of fear, but to do so as a nation requires our government to both admit mistakes (even when they occurred on someone else’s watch) and make amends.

Now is the time to issue a formal apology to Maher Arar. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture joined with other human rights and religious organizations in delivering more than 60,000 names of people who have signed statements urging President Obama to issue a formal apology to Arar. We ask you to join with us in calling on the government to take responsibility for its troubled past.

Rachel Kahn-Troster is the director of North American Programs for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and a board member of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.