This past week, the United Nations Convention Against Torture met and examined President George W. Bush and President Obama’s track records on cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners. The panel that monitors compliance with an international anti-torture was critical of the treatment of prisoners currently being held at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility. They questioned the United States delegation on practices such as the four-hour minimum sleep standards that could lead to unnecessary sleep deprivation, according to a New York Times report from last week.
Torture, while cruel and inhumane, is not something that we often hear about from mainstream media, nor is it something we have written about very recently at the Religious Action Center. The Reform Jewish position on this issue is clear: in a post-9/11 world we understand the need for enhanced national security, and yet we believe that security must be balanced with the importance of civil liberties and bodily autonomy. Experts agree that torturing prisoners or holding them in extended solitary confinement go beyond the practical needs of national security (since torture is found to be an ineffective way to obtain information) and abandon the constitutional right to due process as well as fundamental Jewish values. Nearly six years after President Obama came into office and promised to close Guantanamo Bay, the detention center stays open and the 149 individuals held there remain.
Today marks thirteen years since the day a plane flew into the Twin Towers and destroyed the Manhattan skyline, as I had known it for the first nine years of my life.
Although the 2013-14 L’Taken season is over, I want to reflect on my experience working with high school students on issues of torture and indefinite detention as we prepare to commemorate Torture Awareness Month.
Nearly 300 students participate in each of the six L’Taken weekends, and I had the privilege of teaching a program on issues related to the War on Terror to about 35 of them each weekend. Although these students and I are not that far apart in age, we did grow up in two very different worlds in terms of these topics, which is why it is so important to approach any conversation regarding torture – in particular – with a sense of how an individual might view the world. I am comfortable sharing with the students that I was 10 years old on September 11, 2001, and that I was in Lower Manhattan (in school just a few blocks away from the Twin Towers) on that day. That experience, and the aftermath, has shaped my views and sharpened my sensitivity to the importance of human dignity: ending the use of torture, better sensitivity to language that can be hurtful and hateful, and using our traditions – governmental, religious – to further these agenda.
Since 2010, every Congressional appropriation bill for the Department of Homeland Security has included the following language: “That funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds.” The number has varied slightly, but the implications have not; while this language seems innocuous, it means that Congress has mandated immigration authorities to meet a quota of detainees in custody each night. Read more…
It has been a long time since I last wrote about the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. In recent weeks, the major civil liberties focus has been the Senate Intelligence Committee’s vote to release the report on the CIA’s use of torture. But now, as Congress begins work anew on the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, provisions related to Guantanamo and efforts to close it have been reignited.
Last year’s NDAA included language that lifted a ban on the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to another country, although bans on transfers to the United States for trial in federal court or emergency medical care remains. The NDAA is an important opportunity to further efforts to close Guantanamo Bay.
In response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:
We are deeply disappointed by today’s Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, upholding sectarian prayer before a legislative session. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that requiring invocations be nonsectarian would call on the legislatures sponsoring these prayers and the courts to intervene and “act as supervisors and censors of religious speech.” Yet, Justice Kennedy did suggest there were limits to such prayers, among them: denigrating non-believers or religious minorities, threatening damnation, or preaching conversion — leaving courts in exactly the same role as line-drawers. The record has shown that the overwhelming majority of prayers offered were Christian. That is why we were pleased to join an amicus brief to the Court, opposing the constitutionality of the town of Greece’s practices, along with a diverse array of faith and religiously-affiliated groups.
An individual’s religious belief – or non-belief – ought not be a prerequisite to accessing the political process. The Greece v. Galloway decision undermines the fundamental American principle of equal participation in government, regardless of the faith of the individual.
For more information on the RAC’s views on the separation of church and state and religion in the public sphere, contact Eisendrath Legislative Assistant Sarah Greenberg or visit our Religious Liberties web portal.
Last night, the state of Oklahoma effectively tortured one of its prisoners to death, after weeks of legal back-and-forth between the state’s courts about the legality of the execution. Clayton Lockett’s execution was halted after it was clear that the lethal injection procedure was botched, but he suffered significantly and ultimately died as a result of the botched procedure.