Catholics and other Christians profess discipleship to a Savior who was tortured to death by the military superpower of His day, and whose ministry focused on urging us to identify with the victim rather than the oppressor. Last week the US Supreme Court issued a ruling that left the modern-day proponents of torture quivering with fear and loathing. In Hamdan vs Rumsfeld, the Administration had sought to defend its plan to try the Guantanamo prisoners-of-war in military courts, because it seems likely that the use of torture there and the absence of specific evidence of wrongdoing by the accused would have led to dismissal of charges for most or all of the cases in federal criminal court. Perhaps more ominously, the Court ruled that the Administration must abide by the Geneva Conventions in their treatment of these prisoners. This less-publicized dimension of the ruling has perhaps the most profound implications, because Administration officials who approved of torture methods can now potentially be prosecuted for war crimes.
The court indicated that the Geneva Conventions' Common Article 3 applies to the Bush "war on terror," by virtue of the fact that it prohibits torture and even "outrages upon personal dignity." Under US federal criminal law, violators of Article 3 can explicitly be subject to imprisonment and even the death penalty. While the Bush Justice Department is unlikely to pursue such charges against its own, a future administration could do just that.
When the Administration decided to submit the prisoners in its custody to torture, their lawyers knew full well that Mr. Bush may be surrendering any capability to try those individuals in a court of law for the threat they had posed to the lives of Americans. Rather than hold the Administration accountable for this gross error of judgment undermining national security, Republican Senators John Warner and Arlen Specter scheduled hearings to craft new legislation codifying the Administration's intent to hold military trials. Enabling the Administration's flawed plan indicated that these senators had completely missed the point of the Court's ruling. Congress could respond to the ruling by adopting penalties for the 2005 McCain legislation banning torture, which if applied to future detainees would avoid the threat to national security created by the Administration's use of torture toward these prisoners.
As Christians, we are called to use persuasion rather than coercion to reach for the Kingdom of the Lamb that Jesus has described for us. The Supreme Court ruling invites members of the Administration to reconsider their use of torture and their willingness to operate outside of US law in confining human beings indefinitely in Guantanamo, the prison camps of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the CIA's secret gulags around the world. "When I was in prison, you visited me" said Jesus. And no matter how bad the accused in our prisons may be, we are similarly called in Matthew 25 to treat them humanely.