Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, February 17, 2006

Sophie Scholl: The Christian as witness in a time of evil

For many years there has been a stream of books and documentary films, mostly ignored, about the student movement called The White Rose and, in particular, Sophie Scholl. This young German's extraordinary witness of resistance against the Nazis impressed even her persecutors. Sophie was guillotined by the Reich after several harrowing days of interrogation. The newest film about Sophie, The Last Days , has been nominated for an Oscar. Perhaps now this story will become as well known as it should be.

What is especially important is that Sophie was a devout Christian, a fact that the undependable Wikipedia fails to mention. On another website I found at least this sentence:

"In Munich Sophie met artists, writers and philosophers, particularly Carl Muth and Theodor Haecker, who were important contacts for her concern with the Christian faith. Of foremost importance was the question of how the individual must act under dictatorship."

American Christians are not in a dictatorship nor in danger of losing our lives (unless we are in the armed forces). However, as more and more information accumulates by the day about abuse and torture under American auspices, it is our responsibility to ask ourselves some of the questions Sophie and her friends asked their theological teachers.

I have not yet had an opportunity to see the movie but I hope to view it soon. Here is a link to an informative review:

Monday, February 13, 2006

Take heart, confessing Christians

Here is a very encouraging op-ed piece by the entertainingly acerbic critic Stanley Fish. Interestingly, it is one of the "most e-mailed articles" this week.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Superb article about torture from the Christian perspective

David Gushee, Professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, is a young theologian whom I have long admired. His article appears in the February 2006 issue of Christianity Today. Used by permission of Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, IL 60188.

Against Torture

By David P. Gushee

Amazingly, the evangelical community in America remains grotesquely silent about [torture]. Silence in a court of law implies agreement, and the court of world opinion watches and waits for an evangelical response.
--Christianity Today reader Dan Karns

I. Vignettes of Torture

“Three marines in Mahmudiya used an electric transformer, forcing a detainee to ‘dance’ as the electricity coursed through him.”

“On another occasion Detainee-07 was forced to lie down while M.P.’s jumped on his back and legs. He was beaten with a broom and a chemical light was broken and poured over his body….During this abuse a police stick was used to sodomize Detainee-07 and two female M.P.’s were hitting him, throwing a ball at his penis, and taking photographs.”

In Guantanamo, “burning cigarettes were placed in the ears of detainees.”

“A dog was allowed in the cell of two male juveniles and allowed to go ‘nuts.’ Both juveniles were screaming and crying, with the youngest and smallest trying to hide behind the other juvenile.”

“They threw pepper on my face and the beating started. This went on for a half hour. And then he started beating me with the chair until the chair was broken. After that they started choking me…And then they started beating me again. They concentrated on beating me in my heart until they got tired from beating me.” –accounts from US government and officially authorized investigations

A detainee “had been hooded, handcuffed in the back, and made to lie down, on a hot surface during transportation. This had caused severe skin burns that required three months’ hospitalization…”–International Committee of the Red Cross, February 2004

“In November 2002, an inexperienced CIA case officer allegedly ordered guards to strip naked an uncooperative young detainee, chain him to the concrete floor, and leave him there overnight without blankets. He froze to death, according to four U.S. government officials.” –Washington Post, November 2, 2005.

“al-Qatani was forced to perform dog tricks on a leash, was straddled by a female interrogator, forced to dance with a male interrogator, told that his mother and sister were whores, forced to wear a woman’s bra and thong on his head during interrogation, and subjected to an unmuzzled dog to scare him.” –Newsweek, November 21, 2005

“A former Iraqi general “died of asphyxiation after being stuffed head-first into a sleeping bag…at an American base in Al Asad.” –New York Times, October 23, 2005

Over 83,000 people have been detained in the “war on terror.” Roughly 14,500 are currently in custody. Over two hundred have been detained for more than two years. One-hundred-eight have died in US custody as of March 2005. Twenty-six of these deaths are being investigated as criminal homicides. --AP report, November 2005

II. Understanding Torture

The word “torture,” tellingly, comes from the Latin torquere, to twist. Amris and Arenas define it as “the infliction of severe pain (whether physical or psychological) by a perpetrator who acts purposefully and on behalf of the state” (italics in original). Webster’s Dictionary says that torture is “the inflicting of severe pain to force information and confession, get revenge, etc.”

According to international law scholar Lisa Hajjar, the governmental context is the key to understanding torture. It involves “purposefully harming someone who is in custody—unfree to fight back or protect himself or herself and imperiled by that incapacitation.” For Hajjar, the definition of torture hinges not so much on the specific details of various kinds of harm that human beings can do to one another, but on the fact that the tortured are prisoners in the custody of a government. They are persons upon whom suffering is inflicted for some public purpose.

This helps us understand our current moment. The debate in our nation today concerns whether various kinds of harm can be inflicted by those serving our government upon prisoners who are in our custody. Most particularly, the current debate focuses on what kinds of measures legitimately can be taken to extract information from prisoners held by us in the “war on terror” and/or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As such, it is a debate about the proper use of government power in a liberal democracy.

As to the exact kinds of acts that constitute torture, there is no single precise definition—they seem to fall along on a continuum, but this does not signify that the meaning of the term is infinitely elastic. International agreements that deal with torture provide some clues. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights simply states that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.” Article 17 of the Third Geneva Convention (1949) asserts that “no physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war,” but instead, “persons taking no active part in the hostilities…shall in all circumstances be treated humanely.” The 1985 UN Convention Against Torture defines it as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” The United States is a signatory to all of these international declarations and historically has incorporated their principles into military doctrine. For example, the 1992 (current, though under revision) U.S. Army Field Manual tells soldiers that “[Geneva] and U.S. policy expressly prohibit acts of violence or intimidation, including physical or mental torture, threats [or] insults…as a means of or aid to interrogation.”

Mark Bowden, a military scholar and author of Black Hawk Down, reminds us that torture is “a crude and ancient tool of political oppression,” practiced by governments for various reasons through the centuries and by many still in our own time. The kinds of acts most often classified as torture make for a dreary catalog of pain. They include slicing tongues out, beatings with clubs, use of electric cattle prods, employment of mind-altering drugs, sticking pins under or through fingernails, cutting off fingers, hands, ears, noses, or other body parts, and so on. There is no end to inventive ways of harming the bodies and minds of other human beings.

When the current U.S. president says of the United States that “we do not torture,” perhaps these kinds of acts are what he has in mind. But it is now clear that since September 11, 2001 the Bush Administration, chafing under the perceived constraints of the ban against torture, has attempted to carve out room for acts that brush up against the boundary line separating aggressive interrogation from torture without (they believe) crossing over it. Called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “professional interrogation,” “moderate physical pressure,” or even (by outside analysts) “torture lite,” these have included a variety of measures, some approved as policy by our government and others not publicly acknowledged or approved but found by both independent and government investigators to have occurred in our detention facilities.

Among the sometimes approved measures have been prolonged standing, removal of detainees’ clothing, sensory deprivation, hooding (often with smelly hoods), prolonged interrogations, use of dogs, shaving of beards, grabbing, poking, or pushing, sleep adjustment/deprivation, and waterboarding (dripping water onto a wet cloth over the detainee’s face, which feels like drowning).

Among the (apparently) unapproved but practiced measures, some of which were mentioned at the beginning of this article, have been punching, slapping, and kicking detainees, religious and sexual humiliation, prolonged shackling, exposure to severe heat or cold, food or toilet deprivation, mock or threatened executions, letting dogs threaten and in some cases bite and severely injure detainees, and taking photographs of such things as well as of dead detainees.

The abuses (that is, unapproved measures) appear to have been particular prevalent in military intelligence interrogations, among private U.S. contractors serving the military, and among the underprepared and poorly trained military police at places like Abu Ghraib. There are also profound worries and disturbing allegations about what is going on with “high value” detainees in CIA interrogations at undisclosed locations, and certainly about what is happening to prisoners “rendered” to other countries (many known to practice torture) by our government. Lack of any access to such sites or prisoners makes it impossible to know what is happening in these cases.

Internal Bush Administration documents reveal various efforts to define either acts or prisoners in such a way as to permit at least the approved measures just described. Techniques that many consider torture, or tantamount to torture, have been renamed as “enhanced interrogation.” While “torture” has been officially rejected, the Administration balks at any legal restriction on “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of detainees, at least if not held on U.S. soil. Prisoners held in the war on terror generally have been viewed as “unlawful combatants” and thus beyond the reach of American criminal, civil, or most military law protections or of international law. By defining torture and the applicability of law narrowly--and military necessity in the “war on terror” broadly--the U.S. government has made official room for acts against detainees that have never before been officially approved by our government, whether we would choose to classify them as “torture lite” or “torture” or something else. The question before us is whether, as Christians, we can support our government in this movement into the neighborhood of torture and sometimes across the borderline into torture. I believe the answer is a clear No.

III. Where and how is torture prohibited?

The ban on torture in international law, as Hajjar notes, “is stronger than almost any other human right because the prohibition of torture is absolutely non-derogable and because the law recognizes no exceptions. What this means is that no one—ever, anywhere—has a ‘right’ to torture, and that everyone—always, everywhere—has a right not to be tortured. It also means that anyone who engages in or abets torture is committing a crime.”

The prohibition on torture has been understood since the late 1940s as both a matter of fundamental human rights and a right accorded to prisoners of war. In other words, no human being may be tortured, just because they are human. And no prisoner of war may be tortured, not just because they are human but particularly because they are prisoners of war and as such are covered by various protections in international law. Both understandings were deeply affected by the atrocities that occurred against civilians and P.O.W.’s during World War II.

This ban on torture has roots deep in the emergence of liberal democracy, because, as Michael Ignatieff has written, “liberal democracy stands against any unlimited use of public authority against human beings, and torture is the most unlimited, most unbridled form of power that one person can exercise against another.” Therefore it is one of the strongest international legal prohibitions in existence; once ratified and codified by states it becomes part of each nation’s law as well. Hajjar points out that at least in legal terms the right not to be tortured is actually stronger than the right to life: “There are many circumstances in which people legally can be killed, but none under which people legally can be tortured.” For example, it is perfectly legal (however tragic) to kill an enemy combatant in wartime, but not at all legal to take that same person into custody, disarm him, and then torture him.

And this prohibition on torture in international law quite explicitly admits no exceptions. The UN Convention Against Torture puts it this way: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture.”

The U.S. ratified this convention in 1994, before September 11th, before our launch of the war on terror. Now many Americans and certain leading Administration officials believe that acts at least tantamount to torture are indeed morally permissible in the exceptional case posed by Islamist terrorism. As State Department official Cofer Black famously put it: “All I want to say is that there was before 9/11 and after 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves came off.” Here is why I believe that, regardless of 9/11, the absolute prohibition of torture remains a moral and legal norm that should not be weakened.

IV. A Moral Analysis of Torture

Let me begin by granting the obligation of government to preserve public order and protect the security of its population. This principle is recognized in international law, moral thought, and public opinion. For Christians, it is clearly stated in Romans 13:1-7. Government deters violations of peace and order, punishes wrongdoers, and does all it can to advance the common good within the limits of its mandate. This work of government does involve the sword; that is, coercion, and in necessary cases, violence. Various legal and moral restrictions are placed on government as it exercises this fearsome power. It is generally understood that government officials must use the minimum force necessary to accomplish their missions.

Let me also grant that the terrorist attacks of September 11th were one of the most heinous acts ever visited upon this nation and a clear violation of the laws of war and of any kind of civilized moral code. Terrorist acts around the world since then remind us that our nation, along with many others, faces the threat of enemies who do not adhere to the kinds of moral scruples that we are considering in this essay.

Finally, I also grant the point that Mark Bowden makes in arguing that there is a built-in tension between what he calls the “warrior ethic” and the “civilian ethic.” For the warrior, the goal is to accomplish the mission. For the civilian, the goal is to preserve the rule of law. Even if we grant that well-intentioned warriors also recognize the importance of the rule of law, and that well-intentioned civilians recognize the importance of accomplishing the mission, their passions and priorities tend to differ. They will always stand in some tension with one another. Managing this tension is a major challenge in any civilized society. I acknowledge that I write from the civilian side.

So I do not write to demonize those who believe that protecting our nation’s security, and preventing the horror of another September 11, requires the use of interrogation techniques that could be classified as at least borderline torture. But I do believe that the case against this move is far stronger than the case for it. Here is why:

(1) Torture violates the intrinsic dignity of the human being, made in the image of God.

The human person is a creation of God. Every inch of the human body and every aspect of the human spirit come from God and bear witness to his handiwork. We are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). Human dignity (value, worth) comes as a permanent and ineradicable endowment of the Creator, to every person.

Recognition of the intrinsic dignity of the human being requires a corresponding restraint in our behavior toward all human beings. Christians, at least, should be trained to see in every person the imprint of God’s grandeur. This should create in us a sense of reverence or even sacredness. Here, we say—and we say it even of detainees in the war on terror—is a human being sacred in God’s sight, made in God’s image, someone for whom Christ died. No one is ever “subhuman” or “human debris,” as Rush Limbaugh has described some of our adversaries in Iraq. An inchoate sense of the proper reverence due to every human person makes its way even into “secular” and public codes, such as international legal documents. These texts may not be able to say why human beings should be treated with respect but they know that this is in fact a binding obligation. Christians can say why: because this “detainee,” even this “terrorist,” if he is one, is a child of God, made in God’s image.

A moral commitment to the dignity of the human person is sometimes fleshed out in terms of human rights. Just because they are human, on this view, people have rights to many things, including the right not to be tortured. Christians sometimes debate the legitimacy of “rights-talk,” partly because it is a language often overused in modern debate and partly because we think about how Jesus gave up all of his “rights.” Just because someone claims a “right” does not mean that it is a right. But I believe that at least an implication of a biblical understanding of human dignity is the existence of a set of human rights. Among the most widely recognized of these in both legal and moral theory is the right to bodily integrity; that is, the right not to have intentional physical and psychological harm inflicted upon oneself by others. The ban on torture is one expression of the right to bodily integrity.

The absoluteness of such human rights can be debated. Following the categories of Catholic moral reasoning, Robert G. Kennedy has argued that even the most widely recognized human rights, such as the right to life or the right not to be tortured, are absolute in existence but not extent. What this means is that while the right not to be tortured applies to all persons, like all rights it can, at least in theory, be qualified by other rights and by the requirements of justice. Kennedy argues that “defensive interrogatory torture” (and only this kind of torture) may be morally legitimate under very carefully qualified conditions. And yet he goes on to argue that “it is quite likely that most instances in which interrogatory torture is employed would not conform to these principles and so would be immoral.”

Whether we open the door to torture just a crack, as Kennedy suggests, or keep it firmly shut as an absolute ban, as I believe, the principle of human dignity and its correlated rights remains a transcendently important reason to resist the turn toward torture. And because rights correspond with obligations, all of us who recognize the human right not to be tortured have an obligation to protect those rights. This is an obligation—I say it with sorrow—that as Christians, and as Americans, we have not been meeting in the last four years.

(2) Torture mistreats the vulnerable and thus violates the demands of public justice

Lisa Hajjar points out that torture, by definition, is something that a government does to a person in its custody. Imprisoned people are vulnerable people. Whatever they did, or may be suspected of having done, once in our hands they are completely vulnerable to us.

Justice has many meanings and can be defined in many ways. But it is clear in the Scriptures that God’s understanding of justice tilts in the direction of the vulnerable. “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in the Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry” (Ex. 22:21-23). As this text suggests, primary forms of injustice include the violent abuse and domination of the powerless by the powerful and their exclusion from participation in a community that cares about their rights and needs.

One reason why there are so many layers of procedures and protections given to accused and imprisoned persons in our legal system (and to prisoners of war in international law) is precisely their powerlessness at the hands of government authority. Justice requires attempting to balance the scales so that defenseless people are not overpowered or abused by governments. This is especially important in any legal system, which has the power to deprive people of their liberty, and sometimes their lives.

The 83,000 people who have been detained by our government and military in the last four years are, by definition, as prisoners, vulnerable to injustice. Those of them who have been abused or mistreated by representatives of our nation—as in the examples cited in this essay--are victims of injustice, however carefully we may define or excuse the treatment that we have meted out to them. They were in our hands and we abused our power over them. They were dominated, harmed, abused, and sometimes violated physically, even murdered. Christians must learn to care about justice—more, we must develop a deep passion for justice, the kind of passion for justice that God has, the one who hears the cries of the oppressed and dominated (Ex. 2:23-25). Torture is an injustice and must be protested as such.

(3) Authorizing any form of torture trusts government too much

Human beings are sinful through and through (Rom. 3:10-18). We are not to be trusted. We are especially dangerous when unchecked power is concentrated in our hands. This applies to all of us.

So certainly it is likely that authorizing even the “lightest” forms of torture risks much abuse. As Richard John Neuhaus puts it, “We dare not trust ourselves to torture.” Or as Gary Haugen recently wrote, “Because the power of the state over detainees is exercised by fallen human beings, that power must be limited by clear boundaries, and individuals exercising such power must be transparently accountable.”

Haugen rightly emphasizes both the procedural and substantive regulation of detainee interrogation. Given human sinfulness, it’s not just that people should be told not to torture, but also that structures of due process, accountability, and transparency must buttress those standards to make them less likely to be violated and subject to redress if violated. This is what is so dangerous about the discovery of secret CIA prisons in Europe and “ghost detainees” who are located no one knows where. As Manfred Nowak, UN special rapporteur on torture said at the time the CIA’s secret prisons were revealed, “Every secret place of detention is usually a higher risk for ill treatment, that’s the danger of secrecy.” Just because U.S. government officials say that we can be trusted to act “in keeping with our values”—without due process, accountability, and transparency—does not make it so. No government is so virtuous as to be able to overturn the too often verified laws of human nature, or to be beyond the need for democratic checks and balances.

(4) Torture invites the dehumanization of the torturer

In reflecting on torture, Mark Bowden concludes that sometimes it is the right choice. But even so, he worries, “how does one allow it yet still control it? Sadism is deeply rooted in the human psyche. Every army has its share of soldiers who delight in kicking and beating bound captives. Men in authority tend to abuse it—not all men, but many. As a mass, they should be assumed to lean toward abuse.”

Loosening longstanding restrictions on physical and mental cruelty toward prisoners risks the dehumanization not just of the tortured but the torturers. What may be intended as carefully calibrated interrogation techniques easily tempt their implementers in the direction of sadism—pain infliction for the sheer fun of it, especially in the heat of military conflict, in a climate of fear and loathing of the enemy, and in the context of an endless war on terror. How many of us could be trusted to draw the line consistently between the permitted “grabbing, poking, and pushing,” on the one hand, and the banned “punching, slapping, and kicking,” on the other? How much self-control can we reasonably expect people to exercise? And once the line has been crossed to torture, as Michael Ignatieff claims, it “inflicts irremediable harm on both the torturer and the prisoner.”

Frederick Douglass commented famously on how holding a slave slowly ruined the character of the woman who owned him. Martin Luther King frequently talked about how in a sense the greatest victims of segregation were the white people whose souls were deformed by their own hatred. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, reflecting on the Soviet Gulag, said that “our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: they are turning into swine, they are departing downward from humanity.”

War threatens the dehumanization of all sides and all parties. This is why there are so many limits placed on how wars may be fought. The ban on torture is one of those limits, and for good reason.

(5) Torture erodes the character of the nation that tortures

A nation is a collective moral entity with a character, an identity across time. Causes come and go, threats come and go, but the enduring question for any social entity is who “we” are as a people. This is true of a family, a church, a school, a civic club, or a town. It is certainly true of a nation.

Senator John McCain, who has led the Republican charge against the drift toward torture, has said, “This isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies.” In a November Newsweek article, he put it this way: “What I…mourn is what we lose when…we allow, confuse, or encourage our soldiers to forget that best sense of ourselves, that which is our greatest strength—that we are different and better than our enemies, that we fight for an idea, not a tribe, not a land, not a king…but for an idea that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights.”

McCain is saying something very important here. His worry is that any move toward torture threatens our national character, our shared values, and our goodness as a nation. He rightly acknowledges that our Islamist terrorist enemies do not share our commitment to the rule of law, to human rights, to procedural justice, to limits on what can be done for the cause, however holy. This is tragic, even evil, and it makes them a particularly lethal and insidious threat, but it does not somehow settle the question of how we as a nation should respond.

We often say in church circles that people of integrity respond to life on the basis of scriptural principles, not preferences, feelings, or circumstances. We act on the basis of who we are, not who others are. If someone is ruthless to us at work this does not authorize biblical people to be equally ruthless in return. If someone violates their covenant with us it does not authorize us to do the same to them. Mature persons, and nations, know what their core values are and seek to act in every circumstance in a manner consistent with those values. If they abandon those values when severely tested, it raises real questions as to how deeply such values were ever held.

(6) Torture risks negative consequences at many levels

Those who know anything about moral theory know that the argument for torture is essentially a utilitarian one. Some are willing to torture because they believe it is the best means available to protect the 300 million people who live in this country. Hundreds/thousands of (foreign) detainees suffer as the price of protecting millions of us. Thus we achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Utilitarianism is a deeply flawed moral theory, as has been shown by many. In emphasizing intrinsic human dignity, and concerns about both personal and national character, I have implicitly rejected any purely utilitarian argument for (or against) torture. Indeed, because I believe that torture is intrinsically wrong, it poses a risk to the very argument I am making even to entertain utilitarian considerations. But because many policymakers and citizens at least implicitly operate from a utilitarian framework, it must be addressed here.

The greatest gain promised by the resort to torture is that it might extract information from suspects that would otherwise be unavailable. In the most sensational and widely discussed scenario—the so-called ticking bomb case—utilitarians argue strongly that the torture of one terrorist at a pivotal moment could in turn save thousands of lives, and thus it must be permitted.

In a brilliant utilitarian analysis of what an institutionalized torture regime might look like, and what its consequences might be, Jean Marie Arriga has suggested a number of difficulties even for a utilitarian approach to torture.

For example, and as many others have noted, there is abundant evidence that people will say anything under torture, just to stop the pain. It is not just that they will be intentionally deceptive, but even more that after sufficient torture they may lack the mental ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood or to convey the truth. If the goal of torture is to extract critical information, these problems are obviously profound. Several news agencies have reported that information apparently gained from torture has proven false—after being announced as an important intelligence score by the U.S. government. The overall reliability of intelligence gained from torture remains the subject of great controversy.

The ultimate goal in gaining this information is to protect national security. However, there is good reason to wonder whether the use of torture more deeply motivates extant terrorists, and turns more people from concerned bystanders into hardened terrorists, than any intelligence benefit that might be gained. An editorial in the Vancouver Sun put it well: “Those subjected to physical torture usually conceive undying hatred for their torturers.” One must therefore also consider the greater likelihood that American civilians (here or especially abroad) and American troops overseas will be subject to torture (or terror) by aggrieved enemies.

Further, as has already happened, sometimes the consequences of torture are worse than intended, as when victims die prematurely due to the physical or mental toll. From a utilitarian perspective the main problem here is that a dead person cannot give you any information whatsoever. And, of course, as news of deaths trickle out, moral outrage scandalizes the torturer’s own people, the families and communities of the persons who have died in custody, and general world opinion.

Arriga’s most original insights concern the unintended but likely institutional consequences that can and often do flow from a torture regime. For example, medical and psychological practitioners become involved in enhancing and medically managing torture techniques, thereby risking the corruption of these institutions which are supposed to serve as agents of healing—or evoking their opposition. Biomedical specialists are recruited to study and develop torture, and torture resistance, techniques. Special torture interrogation units are established, with training in especially sophisticated methods of torture and a consequent demoralization and negative effect on other governmental and security institutions. The use of rogue torture interrogation services, such as organized crime, covert U.S. torture agencies, and brutal foreign intelligence services also poses severe problems in terms of command and control of torture operations and the empowerment of rogue elements here and abroad. Arriga’s article was published in 2004; one wonders how many of her concerns already are uncomfortably close to hitting their mark in our own case.

The “ticking bomb” case is theoretically important but in actuality a red herring. It has been wisely said that “bad cases make bad law” and this is true here. The percentage of such ticking bomb cases among the 83,000 people we have detained must be less than infinitesmal. It is just as foolish to legitimize the practice of torture because of this rare possible exception as it would be, say, to legitimize the practice of adultery because of the possibility that someone might have to commit adultery to save their child’s life from a criminal who demands sex in exchange for the child’s survival.

Much ink has been spilled considering how to handle these very rare ticking bomb cases. Perhaps the most widely discussed proposal has been Alan Dershowitz’s suggestion that we permit torture only through a “torture warrant” signed by a judge or a very high government official, such as the president himself, who would therefore bear full legal, political, and moral responsibility.

This would certainly be better than what we are doing now. But I think that any potential resort to torture in rare, ticking bomb cases would be better handled within the context of an outright ban. The grand moral tradition of civil disobedience, for example, specifies that there are instances in which obedience to laws must be overridden by loyalty to a higher moral obligation. These are usually unjust laws but this is not always the case. Dietrich Bonhoeffer participated in an assassination plot against Hitler but did not argue for the rewriting of moral prohibitions of political assassinations. He was prepared to let God and history be his judge. If a one-in-a-million instance were to emerge in which a responsible official believed that the ban on torture must be overridden as a matter of emergency response, let him do so knowing fully that he would have to answer for his action before God, law, and neighbor. This is a long way from an authorized torture regime.

V. Against Torture

Long ago, German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about the perennial human tendency to find exceptions to binding moral rules when those obligations bind just a bit too tightly on us. “Hence there arises a natural…disposition to argue against these strict laws of duty and to question their validity, or at least their purity and strictness; and, if possible, to make them more accordant with our wishes and inclinations, that is to say, to corrupt them at their very source, and entirely to destroy their worth.”

I believe that this is the best explanation for what is happening on the issue of torture in our nation. Our current crisis represents our succumbing to the temptation to waive moral rules that we have every reason to know are applicable to us. They are part of international law, military law, and moral law. We would certainly not want our troops or our “detainees” or ourselves to be tortured were the shoe on the other foot. We know that torture is wrong, but just not now, not in our exceptional case, not in this global war on terror. We are tempted to follow the logic of a Time magazine article when it says, “In the war on terrorism, the personal dignity of a fanatic trained for mass murder may be an inevitable casualty.”

And yet we are queasy enough about even this “inevitable casualty” that we do not want to call torture torture. We do not want to expose our policies, or our prisons, or our prisoners, to public view. We deny that we are torturing, or we deny that our prisoners are really prisoners, or when pushed to the wall we remind one another of how evil the enemy is. We give every evidence of the kind of self-deception so characteristic of the descent into sin.

It is past time for evangelical Christians to remind both government and society of perennial moral values that also just happen to be international and domestic laws. We must shake free now, without any further delay, from our sluggish inattention to this issue, and from our overall tendency toward comfortable partnership with (Republican) American government. We must speak truth to power here. We say we care about moral values and that we vote on the basis of such values. Many of us say that we care deeply about human rights violations around the world. Now it is time to raise our voice about human rights violations directed and permitted by our own government.

This is a call to say a clear and unequivocal No to torture, ultimately on religious grounds, but not on the basis of any kind of idealistic withdrawal from realistic engagement with the world. It is time that we raise our voices and make ourselves heard in our churches, in Congress, in the judiciary, in the executive branch, in the military, and in public opinion.

Christians have dual loyalties that do not always easily cohere. We are loyal to our nation but also, and always more fundamentally, loyal to Jesus Christ. Sometimes these loyalties conflict. In this case, though, rightly understood, they do not.

We serve a tortured, crucified Savior. In the politics of a long ago Empire, reasons of state appeared to require his torture and death. “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (Jn. 11:50).

I have sought to show that a proper understanding of our national well-being requires the rejection of torture. Now I want to close by saying that for Christians a proper understanding of our ultimate loyalty—to Jesus the tortured one—makes any support of torture unthinkable.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Portrait of two marriages

The Sunday New York Times (Feb. 5) featured a long, detailed story about two brothers with Type I (“juvenile”) diabetes who have lived to 90 and 85, respectively. At the very end of the article about these two remarkable men who have beaten the odds, we read this:

They also give much of the credit for their longevity to their wives, who helped them stick to the regimen and saved them from low-blood-sugar episodes. Robert's wife of 58 years, Ruth, is a nurse. "She probably knows more about diabetes than anybody I know," he said.

Gerald's wife, Mildred, died in 2002, after 62 years of marriage, but even as she was dying, he said, she kept the habit of checking his skin during the night for the profuse sweat that might signal low blood sugar. "One time when she had basically been bedridden for weeks, she found the strength to get up and go to the kitchen, and she poured orange juice and brought it back and made me drink it," he said.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Highly recommended article about American exceptionalism and the torture issue

The following review (an essay, really) is particularly noteworthy because Lance Morrow is anything but a liberal peacenik. He is really struggling with the issue here. He argues (very well) from both sides in the first half of the article. His last paragraph ("As for myself...") is especially noteworthy.

Torture: Necessity or Atrocity?
New York Times, January 29, 2006

Review by Lance Morrow of two books:

Edited by Karen J. Greenberg.
414 pp. Cambridge University Press. Paper, $18.99.

Does It Make Us Safer? Is It Ever OK?
Edited by Kenneth Roth and Minky Worden; Amy D. Bernstein, contributing editor.
218 pp. The New Press. $25.95.

Sept. 11 encouraged a corrupted version of American exceptionalism, among other things. The superpower suddenly became the embattled victim, the injured innocent - which was how Americans imagined themselves when they declared their independence in 1776. The Bush Justice Department's 2002 "torture memos" - hardboiled pettifogging intended to give legal cover for getting rough, for "taking the gloves off" in America's war on terror - were later repudiated by the administration. But the memos amounted subliminally to a different sort of declaration of independence, conjured up out of the founding Shinto: America, claiming a special dispensation under Providence, would make its own rules, especially if national security was at stake. The signal emanating from the White House and the Pentagon borrowed a memory from the American subconscious: we would not be contradicted by the tainted Old World, with its treaties and conventions drawn up far away - in Geneva, for example - especially not when such conventions would protect the likes of Al Qaeda.

New reality trumps old morality. Out of a new emergency of history, one particularly menacing narrative took shape, darkened by the prestige of apocalypse - the ticking bomb. A script emerged, along these lines:

The Qaeda terrorist breaks under aggressive questioning. (The waterboard worked. He came up spluttering and talking.) The interrogator relays information that, just in time, snips the wire on the dirty nuke hidden in the heart of an American city. The interrogator - "torturer," if you insist - is actually a hero. Thousands of lives are saved.

The ticking bomb may be hypothetical for now, but according to this scenario a certain amount of rough stuff may already have paid off in the war on terror, which, mind you, is a real war against ingeniously concealed fanatics traveling the globe at will, capable of mass killing, anywhere, without warning. In this context, due process, beyond a certain formal point, is for sissies. We live in a newly vulnerable, porous world. Human rights fetishists, fighting the last war (a state-to-state conflict, with old rules now rendered quaint) have become Al Qaeda's useful idiots. What will the bien-pensants have to say if and when another 9/11 - or something worse - occurs?

Who-whom?, Lenin asked. The rough-stuff rationale elicits an indignant counterversion from advocates of human rights:

Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo have become outposts in a global American gulag in which innocent and guilty alike are illegally detained and tortured, usually with no yield of usable intelligence - we squander the nation's moral capital for trash. Torture is the refuge of the lazy, the stupid, the pseudo-tough. Real intelligence services don't have to torture; they are intelligent enough to learn the prisoner's language and culture. Why would a tortured man tell you the truth? He will say anything to stop the pain. What happened to those mystic chords of memory about all men - all of them - being created equal, endowed with unalienable rights? What of America's respect for human dignity? For itself? A couple of dozen prisoners, give or take, have died in the American gulag - not to speak of those whom the C.I.A. has disappeared into regimes far less fastidious than our own.

The American superpower, many human rights advocates go on, has under George W. Bush turned its back on civilized opinion from Aristotle on, has abandoned the Geneva Conventions, America's 1994 antitorture law and a century's progress toward basic rights, and in the process, compromised the ideals of freedom and democracy for which the wars on terror and in Iraq are supposedly being fought. America has become a pariah among nations by committing human rights crimes similar to those for which Nazi government officials were tried and convicted at Nuremberg.

Two new volumes of essays take up all of the questions contained in these contrasting views, examining the subject of torture in the context of international terrorism, studying it in various lights - moral, legal, political, historical, military, philosophical. "The Torture Debate in America," edited by Karen J. Greenberg, focuses especially on legal questions; almost all of its contributors have been trained as lawyers, and are either professors of law or human rights workers. "Torture: Does It Make Us Safer? Is It Ever OK?," edited by Kenneth Roth and Minky Worden, looks at torture from a more global and historical perspective, ranging from ancient Greece and Rome, through the Renaissance, to contemporary Israel and Algeria and Argentina and Rwanda. Both collections proceed from an essentially left-brain mentality; the right brain's script has only token defenders. Overall, the voices in these books suffer from a tendency toward piousness: Torture bad, me virtuous.

Critics in both volumes dismiss the ticking-bomb scenario as chimerical - a puerile Hollywood hypothesis highly unlikely in actuality. The real danger of the administration's anything-goes message, they say, was that it fatally routinized and bureaucratized the coercive impulse, and once that message had made its way down the chain of command to the grunt level, it ordained in effect that all of Islam should be considered a ticking bomb. Any Muslim was fair game for waterboarding.

Skip to next paragraph
Edited by Karen J. Greenberg.
414 pp. Cambridge University Press. Paper, $18.99.

Does It Make Us Safer? Is It Ever OK?
Edited by Kenneth Roth and Minky Worden; Amy D. Bernstein, contributing editor.
218 pp. The New Press. $25.95.

Forum: Book News and Reviews
Is that version overdone? Heather Mac Donald, a fellow of the conservative Manhattan Institute, is one of the few contrarian contributors to either of the volumes. She argues in "The Torture Debate" that Abu Ghraib, which she says showed nothing more than "the sadism of a prison out of control," generated among the critics of President Bush a false "master narrative - call it 'the torture narrative.' " "The actual interrogation techniques promulgated in the war on terror," Mac Donald writes, were "light years from real torture and hedged around with bureaucratic safeguards."

Mac Donald's defense of rough coercive interrogation contrasts the Americans' "torture lite" with the gruesome, mangling, sadistic and genuinely evil ingenuity that torturers have historically shown, from the Inquisition to Pol Pot. Training manuals for Al Qaeda, according to Chris Mackey in "The Interrogators," tell fighters that a failure to cooperate with Americans carries no penalties and no risk of torture - a sign of American weakness. Mac Donald quotes an American interrogator who said: "They realized: 'The Americans will give us our Holy Book, they'll draw lines on the floor showing us where to pray, we'll get three meals a day with fresh fruit, do Jazzercise with the guards. . . . We can wait them out.' " Gitmo as Club Med.

Conscience is a protean thing; it reprehends acts that, unofficially, it may consider necessary under some circumstances. We have formal morals and vernacular morals, like the good china and the everyday. Torture is that paradox, an all-but-universal practice that is simultaneously a universal taboo, like incest. In the real world lots of people marry their cousins.

IF you call something torture, you are officially bound to be against it. So call it "interrogation." Almost everyone concedes that it is all right to try to find out what a terrorist in your custody may know. But what methods are all right? Sleep deprivation? Being forced to stand for long periods? Bright lights? Hooding? Rock music? Menacing dogs? Cigarette burns? Thumbscrews? Electric shock? Rape? Where do you draw the line?

Any wholesome mind thinking of torture sympathizes with the victim. (A diseased mind identifies with the torturer.) Therefore, anyone inclined to countenance rough physical or psychological treatment is bound to argue either that what he has in mind is not really torture, but something short of that, temporary discomfort maybe, or that a certain amount of brutal questioning is legitimate because it is aimed not at the past but the future: it is inflicted not for purposes of punishment or revenge, but to prevent a future catastrophe, another 9/11. The change of tense from past to future is what might turn the interrogator from villain to hero.

But surely torture - whether torture lite or torture satanic - is, in the long run, bad karma for the United States. Noah Feldman, a professor of law at New York University School of Law, argues in one essay in "The Torture Debate" that "whatever the merits of unilateralism in foreign policy, unilateralism in law and morals is incoherent and dangerous."

Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler observed that different people living at the same time may inhabit different centuries. What century does Osama bin Laden inhabit? In what century is Guantánamo located? Who is pulling whom back to darkness and barbarism? Being a victim of 9/11 gave Americans a kind of moral Get Out of Jail Free card. But a superpower cannot plausibly play the victim for long; for many of those who recognize the dilemmas surrounding torture, the card expired somewhere between Shock and Awe and Abu Ghraib.

As for myself, after reading these two thoughtful collections, I would contend that America should be setting an example of attention to international norms and treaties, and respect for the opinions of others in the world. Torture is a mug's game. You give up too much in the way of ideals for too little in the way of information. Al Qaeda may not abide by the Geneva Conventions, but Americans should do so scrupulously, ostentatiously, not in order to coddle terrorists but to encourage the rule of law in a bad world. God presumably granted Americans their dispensation only on condition that they aspire upward. When they head in the other direction, the dispensation is rescinded.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

If I had to cite just one article to read about the Iraq war right now, I think it would be this one.

ECONOMIC VIEW; When Talk of Guns and Butter Includes Lives Lost

By Louis Uchitelle
New York Times, January 15, 2006

As the toll of American dead and wounded mounts in Iraq, some economists are arguing that the war's costs, broadly measured, far outweigh its benefits.
Studies of previous wars focused on the huge outlays for military operations. That is still a big concern, along with the collateral impact on such things as oil prices, economic growth and interest on the debt run up to pay for the war. Now some economists have added in the dollar value of a life lost in combat, and that has fed antiwar sentiment.

''The economics profession in general is paying more attention to the cost of lives cut short or curtailed by injury and illness,'' said David Gold, an economist at the New School. ''The whole tobacco issue has encouraged this research.''

The economics of war is a subject that goes back centuries. But in the cost-benefit analyses of past American wars, a soldier killed or wounded in battle was typically thought of not as a cost but as a sacrifice, an inevitable and sad consequence in achieving a victory that protected and enhanced the country. The victory was a benefit that offset the cost of death.

That halo still applies to World War II, which sits in the American psyche as a defensive war in response to attack. The lives lost in combat helped preserve the nation, and that is a considerable and perhaps immeasurable benefit.

Through the cold war, economists generally avoided calculations of the cost of a human life. Even during Vietnam, the focus of economic studies was on guns and butter -- the misguided insistence of the Johnson administration that America could afford a full-blown war and uncurtailed civilian spending. The inflation in the 1970's was partly a result of the Vietnam era.

Cost-benefit analysis, applied to war, all but ceased after Vietnam and did not pick up again until the fall of 2002 as President Bush moved the nation toward war in Iraq. ''We are doing this research again,'' said William D. Nordhaus, a Yale economist, ''because the Iraq war is so contentious.''

Mr. Nordhaus is the economist who put the subject back on the table with the publication of a prescient prewar paper that compared the coming conflict to a ''giant role of the dice.'' He warned that ''if the United States had a string of bad luck or misjudgments during or after the war, the outcome could reach $1.9 trillion,'' once all the secondary costs over many years were included.

So far, the string of bad luck has materialized, and Mr. Nordhaus's forecast has been partially fulfilled. In recent studies by other economists, the high-end estimates of the war's actual cost, broadly measured, are already moving into the $1 trillion range. For starters, the outlay just for military operations totaled $251 billion through December, and that number is expected to double if the war runs a few more years.

The researchers add to this the cost of disability payments and of lifelong care in Veterans Administration hospitals for the most severely injured -- those with brain and spinal injuries, roughly 20 percent of the 16,000 wounded so far. Even before the Iraq war, these outlays were rising to compensate the aging veterans of World War II and Korea. But those wars were accepted by the public, and the costs escape public notice.

Not so Iraq. In a war that has lost much public support, the costs stand out and the benefits -- offsetting the costs and justifying the war -- are harder to pinpoint. In a paper last September, for example, Scott Wallsten, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and Katrina Kosec, a research assistant, listed as benefits ''no longer enforcing U.N. sanctions such as the 'no-fly zone' in northern and southern Iraq and people no longer being murdered by Saddam Hussein's regime.''

Such benefits, they found, fall well short of the costs. ''Another possible impact of the conflict, is a change in the probability of future major terrorist attacks,'' they wrote. ''Unfortunately, experts do not agree on whether the war has increased or decreased this probability. Clearly, whether the direct benefits of the war exceed the costs ultimately relies at least in part on the answer to that question.''

The newest research was a paper posted last week on the Web ( by two antiwar Democrats from the Clinton administration: Joseph E. Stiglitz of Columbia University and Linda Bilmes, now at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Their upper-end, long-term cost estimate tops $1 trillion, based on the death and damage caused by the war to date. They assumed an American presence in Iraq through at least 2010, and their estimate includes the war's contribution to higher domestic petroleum prices. They also argue that while military spending has contributed to economic growth, that growth would have been greater if the outlays had gone instead to highways, schools, civilian research and other more productive investment.

The war has raised the cost of Army recruiting, they argue, and has subtracted from income the wages given up by thousands of reservists who left civilian jobs to fight in Iraq at lower pay.

JUST as Mr. Wallsten and Ms. Kosec calculated the value of life lost in battle or impaired by injury, so did Mr. Stiglitz and Ms. Bilmes -- putting the loss at upwards of $100 billion. That is more than double the Wallsten-Kosec estimate. Both studies draw on research undertaken since Vietnam by W. Kip Viscusi, a Harvard law professor.

The old way of valuing life calculated the present value of lost earnings, a standard still used by the courts to compensate accident victims, generally awarding $500,000 a victim, at most. Mr. Viscusi, however, found that Americans tend to value risk differently. He found that society pays people an additional $700 a year, on average, to take on risky work in hazardous occupations. Given one death per 10,000 risk-takers, on average, the cost to society adds up to $7 million for each life lost, according to Mr. Viscusi's calculation. Mr. Stiglitz and Ms. Bilmes reduced this number to about $6 million, keeping their estimate on the conservative side, as they put it.

None of the heroism or sacrifice for country shows up in the recent research, and for a reason.

''We did not have to fight this war, and we did not have to go to war when we did,'' Mr. Stiglitz said. ''We could have waited until we had more safe body armor and we chose not to wait.''

Chart: ''Figuring the Costs of War''
Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, in a report issued last week, estimated the long-term* budgetary cost of the Iraq war at $1.3 trillion, not counting indirect costs, such as the value of life lost or impaired.

Interest payments on debt: $386 billion
Combat and support operations
Future spending: 271 billion
Spent to date: 251 billion
Increased military spending e.g., higher pay, costs for recruitment, research and development, and maintenance: 139 billion
Disability payments to veterans: 122 billion
Healthcare costs for veterans: 92 billion
Demobilization costs: 8 billion

*Assumes a small continued U.S. presence in Iraq until 2015.