Most kindergartners know that telling the truth is the “right thing to do.” For adults, telling the truth to ourselves, about ourselves, is one of the marks of moral maturity. In the political realm, with few incentives to admit mistakes and fix them, the chance to learn from history gets lost in a blur of good media strategy and the self-serving memoirs of retired policymakers.
Perhaps only something even more precious than good public relations must be at stake to force us to take a hard look in the mirror, to view our own history honestly and to learn from it.
One such case rests before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee right now. Maine’s retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe, a member of that committee, is in a unique position not only to do the right thing but also to seal her reputation in history as one of those invaluable Mainers who stood up at the right time and insisted that the truth be told and decency restored, at long last.
For the past three years, the intelligence committee has thoroughly investigated CIA interrogation practices from 2001 to 2008. They have collected the truth about what was done to prisoners in the war on terror in America’s name – in our names.
The truth now resides in a 6,000-page report. The executive summary, alone, is rumored to run to 500 pages. It will take the CIA a year or more to redact the report to protect legitimate interests, such as references to agents in the field and other sources. But first, this month, the committee must vote on whether to adopt the report and – crucially — whether to submit it for declassification and public release.
The mirror we, as a nation, need to look in is now held in very few hands. It is still cloudy with conjecture. It is marred by partial evidence that human beings were tortured by the United States, a signer of the 1994 United Nations Convention Against Torture, which states: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” It’s time to clear the fog and look into the mirror directly.
Torture is illegal. Torture, by the testimony of many interrogation experts, is ineffectual. Torture is against the founding values of our nation and against the common standards of morality of every major world religion. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture and groups like the Maine Council of Churches have been calling for an investigation into U.S. interrogation practices for many years, since shortly after the world first saw the photos of the Abu Ghraib atrocities.
That thorough investigation is now complete, but it has no value to citizens, future policymakers or history unless the report sees the light of day. Snowe can make that happen as her long service as an independent-minded leader in the Senate draws to a close.
A strong, mature person accepts responsibility for mistakes and takes action to fix them. So does a strong, mature nation, one that other nations look to for leadership in peacemaking and human rights. Telling the truth to ourselves and others is a basic moral good. It is vital for accountable, democratic government. If we fail in this, we have nothing to help us see the way forward but the dim and failing light of wishful thinking, hoping that some unseen “they” must know what they’re doing, and we can just look away.
“We the people” are ultimately responsible for what is done in our name. Our job as citizens doesn’t end with voting. It continues by holding our government up to the scrutiny of open, public judgment. And that begins with getting our own story straight, with ourselves and with history.
With one vote to adopt and release the intelligence committee report, Snowe can help us all to do just that.
The Rev. Jill Saxby is executive director of the Maine Council of Churches.