Discussions of torture and the United States’s use of it in the “War on Terror” are not new. Many thinkers, including Christian theologians, have considered the matter before, and there are some legitimate qualifications and discussions to be had. However, in the wake of the recent Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, there are no longer relevant reasons to prevent us from concluding that the United States did participate in torture and that many of the specific forms were unjust and abhorrent. They were evil.
Writing for The New Yorker, Amy Davidson summarizes the report explaining:
The interrogators didn’t know the languages that would have been useful for real intelligence, but they did come up with a lexicon of their own: “walling,” which meant slamming a person against a wall; “rough takedown,” in which a group would rush into a cell yelling, then drag a detainee down the hall while punching him, perhaps after having “cut off his clothes and secured him with Mylar tape”; “confinement box,” an instrument to make a prisoner feel he was closed in a coffin (the box came in large or small sizes); “sleep deprivation,” which might mean being kept awake for a hundred and eighty hours before succumbing to “disturbing hallucinations”; the ability to, as the report put it, “earn a bucket,” the bucket being what a prisoner might get to relieve himself in, rather than having to soil himself or being chained to a wall with a diaper (an “image” that President Bush was said to have found disturbing); “waterboarding,” which often itself seems to have been a euphemism for near, rather than simulated, drowning; “rectal rehydration as a means of behavioral control”; “lunch tray,” the assembly of foods that were puréed and used to rectally force-feed prisoners.
This is what the talk of family could look like: “CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families—to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to ‘cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.’ ” The interrogation of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri included “implying that his mother would be brought before him and sexually abused.”
These ought to be shocking and disgusting revelations. The use of sexual assault and threats of sexual assault (and murder!) against family members are the kind of enormities which make rational men go mute in shock and moral disbelief. Yet sadly, many of these very practices were not surprises just revealed this week. Taxi to the Dark Side documented several of them 7 years ago. The new revelation is that they were not episodic offenses carried out by individuals but were rather intentional parts of official strategy.
Americans ought to be upset. Americans ought to be sad. Americans ought to be driven to introspection.
And this should be especially true for Christians.
Unfortunately, as many of us know, it is not a true generalization to say that Christians, conservative Christians especially, currently oppose the use of torture. I was a student at Reformed Theological Seminary during some of the initial torture revelations. In an ethics class with Dr. Derek Thomas, a few students defended the use of torture as a necessary means to an end, and Dr. Thomas rebuked them sternly, stating that he held torture to be an offense against the image of God. What was disheartening, however, is that some explained Dr. Thomas’s response as evidence of a lingering British liberalism. American Christians, it was thought, were simply tougher and more willing to do the dirty work. Since that experience, I have also been a direct witness to Christian pastors in churches very similar to my own (both theologically and culturally) defending torture, including some of the grosser violence listed in the Senate Report, on the grounds that it is a part of the reality of war and a necessary step to save American lives. Thus, there is still a very real need to address this issue.
As I said at the very beginning, there are legitimate distinctions to made in this discussion. Joe Carter explains that the official definition of “torture” has a clear but rather broad range of applications, including lesser and potentially defensible actions and procedures. Thus the name “torture” itself is not a definitive argument. And yet, even with that being the case, there is a definitive moral line along the spectrum (even if we argue where it precisely is), and utilitarian defenses can never justify crossing that line. It does not matter if an action or policy “works” if it is truly evil. It does not matter if an action or policy “promotes American interests” if it is truly evil. It does not matter if an action or policy is associated with a particular political party or patriotic sentiment if it is truly evil. It is never right to do wrong. Surely sexual assault and threats against a suspect’s family cross the moral line and are wholly out of the question for reasonable people to consider.
Jeffrey Goldberg is not quite careful enough in his terminology, as he makes no distinction between personal revenge and legal retribution, but he still highlights a very important point in saying a desire for revenge was the primary justification for America’s actions following September 11th. This desire is something the Bible speaks about often. We are not to “avenge ourselves” because vengeance belongs to the Lord (Rom. 12:19). This means that earthly justice is always limited and we are not permitted to attempt to bring about perfect justice through our own works. And while the civil magistrate is the appropriate minister of wrath, it cannot discard the demands of justice in the fulfillment of human passion because, as James tells us, “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Legal “vengeance” and retribution must still be just. It also does not follow that if a government has the right to capital punishment then it also has the right to all other physical punishments short of death. “Cruel and unusual” is still a meaningful prohibition (with a Biblical analogue in Deut. 25:3), and punitive actions are not the same as preventative or interrogative ones. This is the case because punitive actions are grounded in the demands of justice. Prior to those demands being rightly identified, they cannot be rightly satisfied, and they certainly cannot be satisfied apart from moral rectitude. To do so would be a blatant self-contradiction.
A final response one encounters is the venerable maxim salus populi suprema lex esto. This saying is only true if “the supreme law” is itself contextualized as being always already under divine law, and it must also take into account more than simple pragmatic concerns. “The health of the people” also includes their moral and spiritual health, as well as their perceived moral standing abroad. As John McCain has ably argued, America has compromised its integrity with the use of enhanced interrogation and thereby weakened the health of the people.
Now, there are many potential political and legal considerations and responses. I lack the expertise to propose them or comment on various alternative policies which could have been implemented or should be implemented going forward. But I can speak to Christians who have failed to notice the severity of this issue in the past or have even defended it on such spurious grounds as I have listed. Take this matter to heart. Ask yourselves if you really can and should be defending “rectal hydration.” Why are you not morally shaken by such a practice, or, if you are, why are you still able to overcome that moral compunction?
This issue also highlights a more basic one. If you have ever defended an evil action because it satisfied personal revenge or gave you a limited opportunity to indulge violent and bloodthirsty passions, then you must repent. This is not a trifling matter. The torture revelations are but a macro-level version of what goes on in every human heart. Only, in this case, the hateful desires were not suppressed or denied but rather fed. Murder begins with unchecked anger in the heart. Torture comes from elevating hatred, or a false sense of moral entitlement, over the inherent dignity of the image of God. We close our eyes to an obvious evil because we are serving something we deem greater. But in this instance it is not God we are serving but our own image, an idol leading to destruction.
The good news, though, is that Jesus died for torturers. And he died for torture apologists. There is forgiveness, even for the most heinous sins, and therefore there is also forgiveness for failing to see or admit those sins. Nothing is greater than the love of God. But once those sins are brought to light, they must be let go. Repentance is not defeat. It is the only way for sinners to avoid defeat.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).