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The land of the free-to-torture

By James Coffin, senior pastor of the Markham Woods church.
This appeared in the Orlando Sentinel today.
I would have never believed it possible had you told me in the fall of
1959 — the beginning of my formal education — that in the year 2007
I’d be reading a rash of newspaper headlines about a U.S. attorney
general-designate’s uncertainty concerning what constitutes torture.
   Or, worse still, that a Democrat-controlled Senate would confirm him despite his uncertainties.

Now don’t get me wrong. In 1959, I wasn’t some kind of child prodigy
with deep political and moral insights. Not at all. I was just a
run-of-the-mill American kid experiencing school for the first time.

That year, on the day after Labor Day, I not only placed my hand over
my heart and pledged allegiance to “one nation under God,” but I also
learned how to seek shelter under my desk should the Russians start
dropping bombs. That day I was introduced to a world of good government
versus bad government. And it made an impression.
   Over the next few years I learned a lot as I moved through the eight grades and two rooms of that little country schoolhouse.

I learned the significance of the ubiquitous fallout-shelter symbols
I’d seen in the basements of public buildings. I learned about the
stored provisions that would sustain us should the Russians launch a
nuclear attack.
I learned about the evils of godless,
oppressive, coercive communism and the merits of democracy and
capitalism and a nation willing to base its actions on the
Judeo-Christian ethic.
I learned those lessons well. But
increasingly I wrestle with the disquieting possibility that my
government no longer shares the ideals and the vision I had instilled
in me so effectively as a child.
   In class, we studied the history of our government — a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

In class, we learned that all humans “are endowed by their Creator with
certain unalienable rights.” We learned about due process — even for
bad guys. We learned about the presumption of innocence. We learned
that it was better to have a standard so high that the occasional
guilty person goes free rather than to risk punishing the innocent.

In those country-schoolhouse classes, we repeatedly contrasted the
virtues of the U.S. form of government with the obvious shortfalls of
many other governments. We took pride in the role the United States had
played in bringing about worldwide improvements through such documents
as the Geneva Conventions.
We learned that there are some
actions to which Americans won’t stoop simply because the actions are
wrong — categorically. They violate self-evident, unalienable human
rights — no matter how advantageous they might be in the short term.
   Was it all just propaganda? Whistling in the dark? Wishful thinking?
   Or do some of our nation’s major players need a refresher course in a little country schoolhouse in the Midwest?If you care about this issue and what to magnify your moral voice, check out the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

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