Haspel nomination reignites torture debate

On 9/11, I was a brand-new college student living in New York City for the first time.

In the aftermath of that day’s tragic events, I, like other Americans, was consumed with fear and anger. But then, as the War on Terror began, and on its heels the invasion of Iraq, stories about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and the torture of detainees made me feel the Bush administration’s responses to 9/11 were eroding our moral authority, emboldening extremists, and, ironically, making us less safe.

Wrestling with the profound ethical challenges of that era is part of what propelled my journey to the rabbinate. As a budding spiritual leader, I began speaking out on the abuses of torture in the War on Terror, and, as the Bush years ended, it seemed that we had turned a corner, and the better angels of our nature had prevailed.

But in the coming days, the debate over torture will be reignited as the Senate considers the nomination of Gina Haspel for director of the CIA. Haspel, a career intelligence operative, ran a notorious CIA “black site” in Thailand, one that committed such atrocities as waterboarding, forced nudity, walling (in which a person’s neck is enclosed in a collar used to slam them against the wall) and cramped confinement boxes.

There are credible reports that Haspel even personally supervised the waterboarding of a detainee and then participated in the destruction of videotapes documenting torture, thereby preventing members of Congress, including those on the intelligence committees, from viewing them.

If Haspel becomes our next CIA director, she will be the first CIA director — in fact, the first Cabinet-level official in the modern era — who is known not only to condone torture, but also to have been directly involved in the use of torture. And were the Senate to confirm her nomination, it would effectively be condoning the practice, if not endorsing it outright.

As a rabbi and member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, I find this unconscionable. Torture is immoral, and those who tolerate its use, much less participate in acts of torture, ought to be considered unfit for high office, especially for positions like director of the CIA.

Jewish history testifies to the immorality of torture. During the Holocaust, the Nazis and their collaborators systematically murdered 6 million Jews and millions of other innocents. But they also tortured virtually all of those victims, plus millions more.

I have been honored, as a rabbi, to serve congregants who survived these atrocities. I have been forever changed by hearing their stories and by seeing how, even in old age, they are still tormented by their experiences.

The pervasiveness of torture during the Holocaust reveals a fundamental truth about the practice.

Torture — the act of inflicting severe pain on an individual, whether as a method of punishment, coercion, or extracting information — is predicated on the mindset that a captive is somehow less human than his captors, that the prisoner is a mere vessel for whatever the captor wants from him.

The Jewish ethical tradition, on the other hand, holds as foundational the belief that every human being, whether friend or foe, is created equally in God’s image. That’s why in Jewish law a criminal may not be punished in a way that would make him suffer more than his victim. And every person is entitled to due process, ensuring that no harm befalls an innocent person. Torture violates these teachings: It is routinely employed in circumstances where guilt has not been established, and it is designed to be unfairly harsh. Adding insult to grievous injury, torture does not even produce useful intelligence.

From a Jewish perspective, even the realities of war must not change these core values. While Judaism is not a pacifist tradition, the Bible forbids the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in battle, carefully regulates sieges, and bans the rape of war prisoners. War may sometimes be necessary. But brutality — inhumanity — is always forbidden.

President Trump has repeatedly said that he would like to restart the widely condemned torture program our country briefly endorsed in the aftermath of 9/11. Fortunately, others — including his own Secretary of Defense James Mattis — have pushed back. But given her history, we cannot count on Haspel to stand up to the president should he order torture resumed. Additionally, confirming a CIA director who has condoned and allegedly practiced torture would imply that we, as a country, endorse torture, giving license to the practice elsewhere, emboldening extremists, and making us less safe.

Over the weekend, it was reported that Haspel has sought to withdraw her nomination. For the reasons outlined above, I hope she will indeed remove herself from consideration. But if she remains the nominee, I urge the Senate to take a stand against torture and reject her.

Originally published at: http://www.richmond.com/opinion/their-opinion/guest-columnists/michael-knopf-column-haspel-nomination-reignites-torture-debate/article_ff8bca21-8dbf-5dbc-8614-5a2a380e8996.html

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