On torture, no time like the present to own up to our past

I was a child in Beirut, Lebanon, when my American teacher told me the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. She also told me about Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves. I never forgot these stories and felt immediately that I had kindred spirits across the ocean.

Many years later, I became a U.S. citizen and held my head high as an American. I believed in this country’s constitutional and ethical values — and most of all, in its justice.

Then 9/11 happened, and our world changed forever. I was supposed to meet with President Bush at the White House that afternoon; instead, we met a few days later at the Islamic Center of Washington when he spoke to the nation in support of American Muslims. At the time, we Muslims weren’t as concerned about the blowback as we were about U.S. security and the victims of 9/11.

And then came the aftershock: wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, more bloodshed and foreign detainees. The prison at Guantánamo Bay opened. Stories about incredible acts of torture while interrogating detainees trickled in. Initially, American Muslims refused to believe. Not this country, not our president. But facts are stubborn, and we had to yield to them.

It didn’t have to be this way. Torture is illegal and immoral, and there is no persuasive evidence that its use against suspected terrorists produced actionable intelligence or helped save lives. The conventional interrogation techniques the United States has used throughout its history are effective. There was no justification for abandoning them — no matter how heinous the crimes committed on 9/11. That decision cost this country dearly.

The United States can regain its moral stature in the global Muslim community — but will never do so if it refuses to confront the abuses of the past. Like its first president, George Washington, America needs to readily admit the truth — as painful as it may be.

More than 10 years after 9/11, the claim that this information must remain classified to protect national security is unfounded. President Obama must direct executive-branch agencies to declassify evidence of abusive practices — with redactions only where needed to protect specific individuals or honor diplomatic agreements.

The best place to start would be with the information underlying the recently completed — but still secret — Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s interrogation program. According to senators familiar with it, the report — based on more than 6 million pages of classified documents — debunks the myth that torture saved lives. Allowing the public to see and evaluate the facts for itself is the first step toward ensuring that we will never again commit torture in the name of freedom.

But simply declassifying information is not sufficient to restoring America’s image in the Muslim community. The notorious Guantánamo prison — a symbol of U.S. torture and abuse post-9/11 — must also close. There are 166 detainees who remain at Guantánamo, even though the U.S. government has already cleared 86 for transfer. The seemingly indefinite detention of these individuals under deteriorating conditions has led to a massive hunger strike; more than 40 detainees are now being force-fed through a painful and degrading procedure that violates established principles of medical ethics. In recent years, almost as many detainees have died in custody as have been released — a trend that could worsen if the hunger strike continues.

During his counterterrorism speech last month, President Obama asked us to “[i]magine a future — 10 years from now or 20 years from now — when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not part of our country. . . . Is that something our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children?” The answer to both questions is a resounding No. If the president wants to avoid that future, he must act. He has the authority to immediately begin transferring prisoners out of Guantánamo, and he must use it.

Taking these steps will go a long way toward repairing the damage done after 9/11 and restoring respect and admiration for our country in the Muslim world. If America rededicates itself to its traditional values, the values I learned as a little girl in Beirut, its light can shine brightly once again.

Azizah Y. al-Hibri is a professor emerita at the University of Richmond School of Law, and the founder and chairwoman of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. She is a member of The Constitution Project’s Task Force for Detainee Treatment.

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