WASHINGTON (JTA) — A recent report by Physicians for Human Rights has found that in the period after Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government engaged military and civilian health professionals in “human research and experimentation on prisoners in U.S. custody.” Appalled by these findings, a number of religious leaders representing the National Religious Campaign Against Torture have joined the growing chorus of American voices demanding that Congress establish a commission of inquiry to determine how this could happen in a democracy — and how to ensure that it never happens again.
Human experimentation abetted by medical professionals recalls the heinous acts committed by the Nazis in the concentration camps. Indeed, present-day human experimentation, conducted for the purpose of further developing torture techniques, is a violation of accepted standards of medical ethics and of domestic and international law, including the Nuremberg Code, adopted in response to Nazi atrocities.
To be sure, Nazi medical experimentation in the concentration camps was an unparalleled horror, significantly different from the research conducted on prisoners in U.S. custody. Nevertheless, the Holocaust has provided vitally needed moral lessons to the world. Among the most crucial is the need to stop abusive activity and violations of international law when they first begin.
During World War II, licensed doctors engaged in experimentation in Nazi concentration camps. As Robert Lifton noted in his book "Nazi Doctors," not only did doctors use human subjects for perverse, pseudo-scientific study, they worked with the Gestapo to develop and refine information extraction techniques by experimenting on Auschwitz inmates. This grave misuse of medical knowledge grossly distorted a profession designed to ease suffering, not to create it.
Lifton described the step-by-step process that drew otherwise ethical doctors into this evil. Spurred by social and political pressures, they became implicated in the medical experimentation. Lifton calls this the “socialization of evil.”
The Nuremberg laws were intended both to prevent the suffering of future human subjects and the harm done to doctors by co-opting them in violations of the law and their ethical obligation.
Following World War II, the global community made a commitment to preventing future holocausts by identifying and condemning the cultural and societal norms that allowed these inhumane acts to occur and creating clear guidelines for acceptable behavior. The result was the adoption of the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg Code, which constitute an internationally recognized framework for treatment of prisoners and the laws governing human experimentation.
Directives of the Nuremberg Code require voluntary consent of human subjects and implementation of safety measures to protect subjects against injury, disability or death.
Drawing such lines was a key factor when the issue of torture came before the Supreme Court of Israel, which like the United States today has faced persistent threats from terrorists. Proponents of the use of torture under certain circumstances pointed to the distinct dangers posed by terrorists, the same concern of the CIA. Opponents argued strongly that limitations must be imposed to prevent torture.
The Israeli high court affirmed that the elimination of inhumane treatment of detainees is “the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it." It said also that "Although a democracy must fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand.”
Of course, it’s not just our history as Jews that compels us to condemn torture in all its manifestations but also our values as Americans. The issue of torture touches on core moral principles of concern to the American Jewish community, principles that go to the heart of both American and international humanitarian values, as well as to the very essence of democracy.
There is no question that in the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. faced significant security challenges that continue to test our nation in unprecedented ways. Yet as we seek to thwart those who wish us harm, we must not abandon the values and ideals that have been the hallmarks of our nation’s greatness. Indeed, as a democracy committed to human rights we may not, dare not, in good conscience avail ourselves of barbaric practices, no matter how tempting the results may seem.
Just as the world committed to creating new boundaries after World War II, so we must now commit to ending U.S. use of interrogation methods that amount to torture and to act in a way that reflects the ideals on which our country was founded.
With these principles in mind, the American Jewish community must affirm its unswerving commitment to ending torture, including illegal human subject research, by calling for a commission of inquiry into human rights violations against detainees in CIA custody and demanding passage of legislation that will permanently end U.S.-sponsored torture.
The lessons of our Jewish history and our American values demand no less.
(Rabbi David Saperstein is the director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.)