The human rights violations committed by the Bush Administration on American detainees around the world are well documented. One of the most enduring legacies of the past eight years has been the use of extreme interrogation techniques on prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo.

While many major Jewish organizations are on the record opposing torture, it hasn’t been a significant agenda item of anyone except Rabbis for Human Rights North America. I think this is largely due to both the overall lack of outrage over any of the rule of law issues (civil liberties, wiretapping, etc) and because of the concern that it would raise questions about torture in Israel (which it should). Many of us blissful ignore what is happening to someone else (probably Muslim) somewhere else (like Guantanamo or a secret CIA prison) in the name of keeping us safer. It doesn’t, but it is easier not to confront that.

We can’t afford complacency now–we’ve been complacent for eight years. I think that many Americans were willing to ignore U.S.-sponsored torture and illegal rendition because we thought it would go away with the Bush Administration. These is naive on our part. Torture is not a partisan issue.

With a President-elect on the record with a call to end torture and restore habeas corpus, today I participated in a national effort to confront the current reality. Nearly 60 Interfaith delegations of religious leaders, sponsored by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), visited members of Congress across the country (full disclosure: I helped coordinate Jewish efforts nationally, answering such questions as “Can you connect me with a rabbi in Des Moines?”). We had a 3 part ask: 1) Endorse NRCAT’s Declaration of Principles for an Executive Order Against Torture 2) Create a Special Committee to investigate what exactly happened over the past few years and 3) Pressure President-Elect Obama to commit to issuing an Executive Order Against Torture (we aren’t the only ones calling for this).

We got warm receptions but most of us got answer akin to “We’ll get back to you.” I think there will be movement but it will take time. This issue is about America’s moral standing–it can’t wait until the economy gets fixed. Kudos to Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey for being the first elected official to endorse!

Luckily, there are actions you can take right now. The first is that you can call both your Senator and your Congressperson, and ask them to endorse the Declaration of Principles. The second it to email the new President. Which is easier than it sounds:

  • Fill out your contact information.  Write “torture” in the “another issue” box.
  • In the “Your ideas” box, explain why you believe torture is wrong. A sample statement might be: “I am deeply troubled by our nation’s use of torture.  The Jewish tradition urges us not to oppress the stranger, because we were strangers in the land the Egypt, and implores us to honor the image of God in every person. Torture goes against these values and against everything America stands for as a country. Please act to end U.S.-sponsored torture by issuing an executive order based on the Declaration of Principles endorsed by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.”
  • Then click “submit form.”

But hasn’t Obama already pledged to end torture?

Apparently, not strongly enough.

Today the Wall Street Journal reported that Obama is unlikely to revoke the CIA’s ability to use enhanced interrogation techniques. This is unacceptable. I would point out that it is precisely because John McCain refused to rule out the CIA using torture that he was abandoned by human rights activists on the one issue we probably agreed about. I used to quote John McCain about torture when I was trying be bipartisan. It was a sad day when I had to stop. The CIA does not operate outside our system of laws and values.

Take action. This is a change we need today.