What is the legacy of 9/11? As we approach the 10th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we have a chance as a nation to reflect on more than just our own stories of what happened that day.
One theme that has emerged is “Remember Sept. 12” because it was the day after the terrorist attacks that our nation came together as one—people reaching across divides of class, religion and race to mourn the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives and remember the heroic first responders who raced to the scene of chaos and destruction. Unity and lovingkindess are part of the narrative we tell this year and the legacy for which we hope.
But it was also immediately after the 2001 attacks that a darker story emerged. Under the guise of safety from future terrorist threats, America abandoned its longstanding repudiation of using torture as a method of interrogation. Torture was used at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and was authorized at the highest levels of government.
The gloves may have come off, but in reality we lost our way.
Ten years later this is a story we are still unraveling. The U.S. government’s use of torture is yet to be fully investigated, and with every passing day such an investigation seems less likely. On June 30, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced an end to a two-year preliminary investigation by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham into the CIA’s use of torture on detainees. Holder concluded that further investigation was not warranted and that the deaths of only two detainees would be investigated further.
Having the administration’s only probe into the use of torture stopped with such a minimalist outcome demonstrates the need for an independent investigation—one free from political bias and the limits of a criminal investigation—to provide a complete accounting of our nation’s use of torture.
At no point in our nation’s history has the use of torture presented a greater danger of becoming widely accepted than now. In 2009, two days after President Obama was sworn in, he issued an executive order halting torture and calling for the closure of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. But more than two years later, Guantanamo Bay remains open and the U.S. government refuses to confront its history and fully investigate its use of torture. Meanwhile, proponents of torture still advocate for it, claiming the necessity of its use for American survival.
But survival at what cost? The Jewish tradition teaches that every person is created in the image of God, endowing each of us with sacredness and dignity. That sacredness is marred by the use of torture, which by its very nature denies the image of God found in the victim. We do not have the right to engage in abominations in order to ensure our safety. Survival at any cost is not the goal. We have an obligation to hold ourselves to a higher moral and ethical standard, which is that torture is always wrong.
Being created in God’s image is not a trivial sentiment. If one takes God seriously, as Americans of faith do, then one has to take the image of God seriously to recognize every person, even one’s enemy, as sacred. If we desecrate the image of God in order to survive, then we have survived only as monsters.
I was in New York on Sept. 11, 2001 and saw the second plane hit the Twin Towers. I have long considered my work directing Rabbis for Human Rights-North America’s campaign to end American use of torture permanently to be part of my personal ongoing narrative of that day, part of my commitment to a legacy of lovingkindness. We are part of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a group of more than 300 religious organizations committed to the moral imperative that torture is always wrong and runs counter to the teachings that all religions hold dear. We believe that torture degrades everyone involved—policymakers, perpetrators and victims—and fails to honor the God-given dignity of all people.
Even as the urgency of the photos of Abu Ghraib fades from public memory, we continue to call for a thorough investigation of America’s use of torture and the legislative will to permanently eliminate the possibility of its future use. This year, the legacy of Sept. 12 is to make that commitment a permanent reality.
(Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, of Teaneck, N.J., is director of North American programs for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She is a member of the board of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.)