Perception is reality. It’s not the only reality, but it is real to the one perceiving it. Perceptions can change, but until they do, what someone perceives as being real is real–to them.
President Bush has said repeatedly that the United States does not torture. It certainly has not been our practice in the past. The United States has for much of our history been able to lead with a certain moral authority. Our commitment to our own constitutional ideals, not to mention a certain sense of divine calling, inspired us to place the rights of human beings above other interests.
Now there are questions being raised about our handling of enemy combatants. In some instances there are questions about whether detainees are even combatants. And the lurking suspicion of torture hangs in the air clouding our image as a just and righteous nation.
The president says that we do not torture. And I want to believe that he is right. But what I fear is that the United States does not torture according to a narrow definition of torture–torture as defined by the president and his lawyers. But since perception is reality, torture cannot be defined by the torturers, only by the tortured.
The perception of many people living in the Middle East is that the United States does in fact torture its prisoners. The photos and subsequent testimony regarding the Abu-Ghraib scandal reinforce this idea. The practice of extraordinary rendition, transporting prisoners to secret prisons, and the continued existence of the Guantanamo facility all feed the perception that we are not living up to our own high ideals.
And why would we torture? Most intelligence experts doubt the effectiveness of torture as a means of gaining information. Often what is given is false and misleading. The tortured will say anything to get the pain to stop.
The counter argument, of course, is that 9/11 changed everything. We can no longer afford to be soft and humane. We are up against a brutal and ruthless enemy for whom kindness is seen as weakness. If we want to be safe in this world we are going to have to be as tough and determined as our enemy.
Which is fine as far as it goes. But what happens if in our determination to be tough on our enemy, we become what we hate in our enemy. If in the course of our fight to survive we give up our humanity, what will we have gained?
The Apostle Paul wrote to one of his churches that they would be wise to avoid even the appearance of evil. It may be that we are not practicing torture, but it appears that we are. If the perception exists, the reality also exists.
Our challenge is to find a way to change the perception. That means opening up the detainee and interrogation process to independent supervision. We insisted on this during the Second World War and the Red Cross was able to visit American prisoners of war. By keeping our process secret we bolster the notion that we have something to hide.
President Bush says that America does not torture. And I pray to God we do not. There is no cause so righteous that inflicting of pain on a helpless human being can ever be justified.
And to argue that we must torture in order to save ourselves is a tacit admission that all we had that was worth saving is already lost.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.