Debating the Morality of Torture

Richard Killmer, a Presbyterian minister, hopes to convince legislators that torture is wrong.

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The Rev. Richard Killmer's message is as unambiguous as the banners he distributes to the nation's churches. Simple white letters set on a field of black in a simple sentence: Torture is wrong. Yet despite its apparent innocuousness, that message is a surprisingly tough sell to a nation that remains in profound conflict over the moral and legal conduct of the war against terrorists.

Before 9/11, there was national consensus on the illegitimacy of torture. After all, it was President Reagan who made the country a signatory in 1984 to the United Nations Conventions Against Torture, which both banned the practice and called for universal jurisdiction for its prosecution. But the events of the intervening years have changed the nation to the point where Killmer's message is now that of a radical. "I don't know what has gone so wrong," says Killmer, sitting in his modest office across the street from the Supreme Court. "Whatever the political or security issues are, they don't change the basic moral fact that some things are always, always, always wrong."

The soft-spoken Killmer, a Presbyterian minister, is the executive director of the four-year-old National Religious Campaign Against Torture, an interfaith or­ganization of more than 270 religious groups opposed to what they see as numerous instances of government-sponsored torture and abuse. Founded in 2006 in the wake of revelations of the mistreatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners and abusive CIA interrogations, the group splits its efforts evenly between lobbying in Washington and outreach to local congregations around the country. NRCAT was a key voice in urging the Obama administration to release the so-called torture memos, which outlined the legal justification for the Bush administration's interrogation regime, and has been insistent that the president fulfill his promise to shutter Guantánamo Bay.

Killmer has spent decades at the crossroads of religion and politics, sparked by his early opposition to the Vietnam War and support for the civil rights movement. He now splits his time between a house in Maine and his job in Washington, urging lawmakers to enact policies consistent with religious teachings. His office bookshelf, surely one of the more eclectic in town, holds a copy of the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, a tome on the historical teachings of Jesus Christ, and The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals by investigative journalist Jane Mayer.

Over the past few years, NRCAT's staff of half a dozen has expanded its efforts to include prison reform, particularly relating to the use of solitary confinement. But the group's raison d'être is halting abuses perpetrated in the U.S. fight against terrorism. It has also pushed for a nonpartisan commission, which won backing from Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, to examine the abuses committed under the Bush administration. When talk of a commission surfaced in 2009, the White House met with Killmer but in the end declined to support creating such an investigative body.

Exhibit A for NRCAT's pitch remains the CIA's use of waterboarding during the interrogation of three suspected terrorists. More than 70 percent of Americans believe that waterboarding is torture, according to a poll conducted last year. However, most frustrating to Killmer, nearly 40 percent of Americans also say that they approve of its use against terrorist suspects. "For many Americans, religion has become compartmentalized to the weekends, and they don't think that there should be religious restraints for issues like national security," he says.

Americans strongly self-identify in religious terms. More than 90 percent of them believe in God, and 78 percent believe in absolute standards of right and wrong. And yet, according to a recent poll from the Pew Center, more than 6 in 10 white evangelical Protestants agree that "the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can be often or sometimes justified." Furthermore, the survey showed that the more often a person attended church, the more likely that person was to agree that torture could be justified. Support from Americans of all other faiths was significantly lower: Fifty-one percent of Roman Catholics answered in the affirmative, while 46 percent of mainline Protestants agreed.