In an open letter released Sunday evening, a dozen Nobel Peace Prize laureates urged President Obama to close the United States’ dark chapter on torture. Two Nobel Peace Prize laureates – Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and former President José Ramos-Horta of East Timor – organized the joint letter, which asks the Obama administration to fully disclose details about the use of torture by United States officials. Some of the letter’s authors are torture survivors.
The twelve Nobel Peace Prize laureates urged the United States “to take the necessary steps to emerge from this dark period of its history, never to return.”
The letter came just one day after The New York Times released details of how journalist James Foley and other hostages were tortured before the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) beheaded them – what The New York Times referred to as “the horror before the beheadings.”
Unfortunately the horror Mr. Foley and others suffered is all too common. For more than a decade, I have conducted forensic medical evaluations of men, women, and children who have suffered through unimaginable forms of torture. As a medical doctor specializing in internal medicine, preventive medicine, and public health, I have met political prisoners who were beaten, burned, and nearly drowned.
Torture occurs in about ninety percent of countries worldwide, and there are about half a million torture survivors living in the United States. Anyone can be a victim of torture, and many people do not know why they are targeted and tortured.
Many of the torture survivors I have met sought refuge in the United States because of the democratic ideals that generations of Americans have fought to protect.
Some people believe that torture can be justified in extraordinary circumstances – such as during the interrogation of terrorism suspects. But all perpetrators of torture believe their actions are justified. Our actions set an example for the rest of the world. At their worst, our actions can place Americans at risk for retaliation by enemy combatants, terrorists, and hostile governments.
Unfortunately, this risk is no longer theoretical. It’s already happening.
As The New York Times revealed Saturday, in addition to lining up ISIS hostages in bright orange uniforms, mimicking those worn by Guantánamo Bay prisoners, ISIS captors also waterboarded prisoners, much like the George W. Bush administration did. As The New York Times quoted: “’It was when there was no blood,’ a former cellmate said, ‘that we knew he had suffered something even worse.’”
When a victim is waterboarded, water is poured over a material covering the face and breathing passages, causing a sensation of drowning. People experience severe fear and pain, and they can suffer from damage to the lungs and brain. They can even suffer from sudden death. Unfortunately, waterboarding is a form of torture and mock execution that dates back to the Spanish Inquisition.
Under the Bush Administration, lawyers argued for a narrow definition of torture under United States law, giving the Central Intelligence Agency the authority to use waterboarding as an “enhanced interrogation technique” in certain cases, including on detainees classified as enemy combatants. Numerous government officials denied that waterboarding is a form of torture, essentially ignoring international law and longstanding precedent.
There is no justification for the ways Mr. Foley and other hostages were treated – or the ways ISIS has treated other men, women, and children across the globe. But we are better than them. And we are not above the law.
Mr. Foley was certainly better. The New York Times article indicates that even as his captors attempted to strip him of his dignity, he shared meager rations of food, blankets, and camaraderie – even organizing Secret Santa games. This is how we will defeat evil – not by perpetuating evil itself.
As the Nobel Peace Prize laureates explained to Mr. Obama in their open letter, the United States is at a crossroads, and it is crucial that President Obama ends an era that “will be used to justify the use of torture by regimes around the world.”
The Nobel Peace Prize laureates wrote, “As torture continues to haunt the waking hours of its victims long after the conflict has passed, so it will continue to haunt its perpetrators.”
Instead of perpetuating torture, we should return to the principles on which our great nation was founded. It is imperative that we reverse course immediately, to avoid the terror that is already plaguing the globe.