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Protesting torture

War on Terror | Washington congregations stage a protest rally outside the White House, asking the next president to ban torture

WASHINGTON-With a police escort, several hundred members of churches and synagogues marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House on Wednesday. Torture survivors and opponents were protesting the Bush administration's policy of permitting torture techniques in military and intelligence interrogations.

"We should not treat another human being this way," said protester Debbie Churchman, who is a Quaker. "It's not a Christian idea. It's an ineffective tool."

The group called for President-elect Barack Obama-though he isn't residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. yet-to issue an executive order banning torture. Both Obama and his former opponent, John McCain, oppose the use of torture and said during the campaign that they would issue bans as president.

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According to various studies, evangelicals are divided on whether using torture in certain circumstances is appropriate. In a Faith in Public Life and Mercer University poll released in September, 57 percent of white Southern evangelicals said torture was sometimes justified, compared to about 48 percent of the general public who feel that way.

"We are all opposed to torture, but there's some careful thinking that has to go on," said Alan Wisdom, vice president for research and programs at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). Aggressive interrogation of enemy combatants, he said, is different than torture, and governed by international conventions.

Though protesters didn't specify what falls under "torture," they did point to President Bush's Military Commissions Act of 2006 as giving too much leeway to interrogators. Waterboarding, which simulates drowning, is a controversial technique that the CIA reportedly has used on prisoners in the war on terror.

Some, including at one time Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens, argue that waterboarding does not amount to torture. This summer Hitchens decided to undergo the technique himself, at the hands of military personnel who train U.S. Special Forces to resist the technique. The title of his article after the ordeal: "Believe Me, It's Torture."

"We have been damaged by the incidents of torture that have been reported," said IRD's Wisdom, referring to waterboarding and torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. "We need to be clear that the problem of torture is the problem of authoritarian repressive governments. By contrast, the U.S. government is a responsible democratic government that does seek to abide by the law."

Protester Jean Athey attributed America's support of conditional torture to cultural norms set by television shows such as "24," where the good guys torture the bad guys.

"The churches I try to embarrass into opposing torture say, 'Well, they would do worse to us!'" said protester Tom Brown.

Some of the protesters blamed conservative church leaders for characterizing Christians as supporters of torture. However, a year ago, a group of evangelical scholars released "An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture," which broadly laid out opposition to whatever encompasses "torture." Because their declaration specifically targeted the president's torture policies in the war on terror, it elicited reactions from other evangelical scholars who said the group was simply attacking the administration.

These other evangelical scholars point out that protesters like the ones who demonstrated Wednesday don't define "torture," and in the process imply that the Bush administration permits pervasive practices, which isn't the case. Furthermore, they say these protesters ignore the complexities of dealing with enemy combatants, such as terrorists, who bypass international conventions.

The IRD's Faith McDonnell said that these Christians who protest interrogation techniques miss the big picture: "As Christians, if they're going to be against torture, the first order of business should be the arbitrary and even gleeful torture of Christians [around the world], particularly in Eritrea."

President Bush still lives in the White House, and he gives no indication that the U.S. position on interrogation under the Military Commissions Act will change, though the Supreme Court has since rejected a portion of the act that denies habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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