Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the US, Canada, and parts of the UK. She is the author of eight books, all from Eerdmans Publishing. Her most recent book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, is the product of the work of a lifetime and is being described as a new classic on the subject.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
Discerning God's Work In The World: Tips From The Times For Preachers
Thursday, February 09, 2006Superb 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.
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.
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