Thomas G. Wenski


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In my years of working to help refugees, immigrants, and other people in need, I have learned how cruelty is often inflicted on the most vulnerable. I want to give voice to their suffering and speak out against torture. Torture is abhorrent in the eyes of the Church as it undermines and debases the human dignity of both victims and perpetrators. It is never a necessary cruelty. Pope Benedict XVI, in a September 6, 2007, address, said, "I reiterate that the prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstances."

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As chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I have written several letters to Congress 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. When Congress adopted these provisions, we hoped the United States would regain the moral high ground on the question of how we should treat detainees. However, legislation that would expand this ban on torture to other agencies and agents of the U.S. government is still hotly debated and has yet to be signed into law.

This issue has a major impact on the way the United States is viewed abroad. I believe the United States must insist upon the highest ethical standards and fully comply with earlier commitments to observe international law in its treatment of detainees, whether here in the United States or abroad.

The United States has a history of championing human rights and has long supported Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits "cruel treatment and torture" as well as "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." Our own troops and citizens benefit from such protections. As the U.S. combats terrorism, we must recognize that any report of prisoner mistreatment by the United States or its allies could seriously undermine these efforts.

More importantly, prisoner mistreatment compromises human dignity. A respect for the dignity of every person, ally or enemy, is essential to security, justice, and peace. There can be no compromise on the moral imperative to protect the basic human rights of any individual incarcerated. Our nation must not embrace a morality based on an attitude that "desperate times call for desperate measures" or "the end justifies the means." As the Golden Rule teaches, our nation must treat its prisoners as we would expect enemies to treat our own military personnel or citizens.

In the end, the issue of torture is about us, not them; it is about who we are as a people. It is strategically wise to treat detainees humanely. It is also morally urgent.

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Thomas G. Wenski is the bishop of Orlando and chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  
 
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