The Catholic University of America

How Did We Let This Happen?

It is comforting to think that torture can only be carried out by the depraved. But it's not true. Like many practices, torture can begin with smaller steps that do not seem an abomination to its perpetrators at first. But its "metastatic tendencies," in the words one expert, begin to grow quickly when left unchecked.

That was among the key points made during "Torture, Conscience and the Catholic Moral Tradition," a daylong symposium hosted by the Columbus School of Law and sponsored by the Catholic Leadership Council of the National Religious Coalition Against Torture, and Catholic University's Life Cycle Institute and the Center for International Social Development of the Catholic University of America.

Experts such as retired military officers, former U.S. army interrogators, academics, members of the clergy and others examined the moral and social dimensions of state-sanctioned torture from many different angles.

In particular, they wondered how the United States could have permitted torture in the wake of 9/11, against two hundred years of national pride in being a society that does not permit such barbarism.

Some panelists, such as Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, believe that popular television shows like the Fox Network's "24" have inured Americans to the true implications of accepting the use of torture as another instrument in the fight against terrorism.

"It's clear now that torture was given clearance at the highest levels of government," said Steinfels. "As I kid, I was proud that Americans didn't do things like that. What an epiphany we've had over the past 8 years. How did we let this happen?"

Col. Patrick Lang, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer and a former Green Beret, repeatedly made the point that the Army never taught anyone how to torture. Nonetheless, he noted that the intense methods of interrogation that are now acknowledged to have happened by the government clearly amount to official torture and are "an absolute disgrace. Some people should be punished severely."

Lang laid most of the blame for the abuses that occurred at the feet of officers, who he said should have been responsible for putting the brakes on illegal practices, even if they were carried out by lower-ranking enlisted personnel.

"By training people to kill, you unleash the darkest corners of the human soul," said Lang. "All of these places that create and train officers must teach real human values. Some major or lieutenant should have stood up and said 'you're not going to do this.'"

The coalition of Catholic groups behind the symposium has released an agenda for 2009 that lists five goals for ending torture. The first and most important has already been achieved: Just two days after taking the oath of office, President Obama signed an executive order banning the use of torture.