By Brian McLaren
In “America the Exceptional,” an article published in the January 2012 issue of Sojourners, I intentionally misquote Genesis 12 as follows:
“And the Lord said to Abraham, I will bless you and make your name great. I will make you a great nation and all nations will submit to your exceptional status. They will kow-tow to your interests, submit to your invasions, and defer to your economic policies. You will act unilaterally and lead, not cooperate with, unexceptional nations. You will use and abuse the alien and stranger among you as you please, for they are not my chosen people blessed by manifest destiny…. For I am the Lord who shows favoritism to whom he will, and you are my chosen people.”
Then I added, “Oops! That is not Genesis 12 — but it might as well have been,” based on projects and attitudes promoted via distorted notions of the theory of American exceptionalism.
Nowhere is an ugly version of American exceptionalism more obvious — and embarrassing — than in relation to Guantanamo Bay and the network of secret prisons it has come to represent. Since Jan. 11, 2002, when the first inmates arrived, the United States has dared to declare itself “exceptional” in regards to the Geneva Conventions, hypocritically arguing that other nations should not torture while reserving an exemption for its own policies. Sadly, although President Obama promised to shut down Guantanamo, he has thus far failed to do so.
More than 300 organizations have joined the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and issued a call to close Guantanamo Bay and the secret network of detention centers with which it is associated. But so far, most American citizens have by and large remained silent and complicit with our political leaders’ inaction.
Many of us — including committed Christians such as myself as well as adherents to other faiths — are ashamed of our nation’s behavior at Guantanamo. We want the U.S. to be exceptional in the sense of exemplary, not in the sense of claiming exemptions from customary standards of decency.
We of faith believe that torture degrades all involved — the victim, the perpetrator, the policymakers. It dishonors God in whose image all people were created. We feel the pull of a higher call, the call to set a moral example by treating everyone — yes, even terrorists — with human dignity. By making exceptions for suspected terrorists, our nation undermines the very morality and justice it seeks to protect and extend. Whether or not these people have committed or are charged with having committed acts that classify them as terrorists, it would go against our values as God-fearing religious people to treat them any differently than we’d want to be treated ourselves.
To demonstrate a true change of heart, the United States must enact a true change in policy. We must fully investigate who was tortured, why they were tortured, what techniques were used on them, who was responsible for torturing them, who authorized the torture, and what steps must be taken to ensure that we will never torture again.
Rather than brushing the past under the rug or excusing it in the name of national security, we have a moral obligation to fully investigate the U.S. government’s past use of torture. As a supporter of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, I agree that the United States must establish a Commission of Inquiry that investigates all aspects of the use of torture by the United States to ensure that such horrors never happen again.
We had it right in 1998 when we published these words to the United Nations: “Torture is prohibited by law throughout the United States. It is categorically denounced as a matter of policy and as a tool of state authority. Every act constituting torture under the Convention constitutes a criminal offense under the law of the United States. No official of the Government, federal, state or local, civilian or military, is authorized to commit or to instruct anyone else to commit torture. Nor may any official condone or tolerate torture in any form. No exceptional circumstances may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
Sadly, we fell below our high ideals in the years since. We claimed exceptional circumstances. That dark era must end, and we must return to our highest ideals. We must signal to the world our commitment to a brighter future by closing Guantanamo for good.