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Religious Leaders Press for Torture Commission

Political candidates often invoke God and spirituality on the campaign trail, but Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign against Torture, would like more pols to live up to those professed beliefs once they’re in office. President Obama, for example, has spoken eloquently of his own religious awakening, and of the importance of religion in public life. But in meetings with Killmer and his colleagues, who have been lobbying for a “commission of inquiry” (similar to what Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) has proposed) to investigate torture under the Bush administration, Killmer said White House officials have been unequivocal: the president is not interested.

“They’ve made it really clear that the president right now is not supportive of a public commission of inquiry,” Killmer said in a phone conversation this morning.

Killmer has had better luck in Congress, where at least some Representatives support creating a House Select Committee to investigate torture. Although that would be more political than an independent commission, he said, at least it’s something. “There are a significant number of members of the House who know this isn’t done,” says Killmer, whose group has had more than 60 meetings with House members on the issue since June.

The religious campaign has made some headway on related issues, working with Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), chair of the House Select Intelligence Oversight panel, to convince Congress to pass a bill that would require the taping of all interrogations of detainees in U.S. military custody. The House passed the bill last week as part of the 2010 Defense Authorization Act. It could be voted on by the full Congress next week.”Our constituents understand the need for videotaping interrogations,” says Kilmer, “and the videotapes have to be protected so they’re an ongoing part of our history. It’s one way of making sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The religious groups also hope to achieve a codification of the terms of President Obama’s executive order mandating that all interrogations follow the rules of the Army Field Manual, and that the U.S. basically follows the “Golden Rule” when it comes to interrogations: we don’t do to others what we wouldn’t want them to do to our soldiers.

Still, Killmer said, codifying this for the future isn’t enough. After all, we had a Convention Against Torture and that still didn’t stop the U.S. government from torturing people.

In addition to a commission that would expose everything that happened and why, Killmer and other religious leaders are exploring the possibility of asking the government for an apology.”I think it’s extremely important,” says Killmer. Other countries have taken that step, such as Canada, which apologized — and paid $10 million – to Canadian citizen Maher Arar who, with the help of bad intelligence from Canada, was sent by U.S. authorities to Syria for interrogation under torture.

“This was wrong behavior,” says Killmer of the entire U.S. “enhanced interrogation” practice. And an apology “would help grow the moral consensus that torture is wrong,” he says, something he assumed existed before 2001, but now isn’t sure.

“Dick Cheney gets more credence than I would have imagined,” says Killmer. “The American people are still wrestling with this stuff.”

Killmer and his colleagues were dismayed when a Pew Research Center poll last spring found that a majority of Catholics and even evangelicals believe that torture is sometimes necessary. “That says we have a lot to do,” says Killmer. His group has put together this short interfaith video on U.S.-sponsored torture which they plan to show at churches, synagogues and mosques across the country, in part to explain that yes, torture really is a violation of all the dominant religions in the United States, and to encourage believers to join the anti-torture campaign.

Whether religious support is ever going to be strong enough to get that official apology is another matter. Although the U.S. has apologized for some things in the past — the Japanese internment during WWII, and slavery — in both cases, it came many decades after the deed. Killmer is cautiously hopeful: “It would be terrific if this could happen much more quickly.”

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