The so-called “conservative” responses to the Senate torture report are now making their rounds, and they tell us quite a bit about what really matters to certain people. Thus far no one has denied that the most morally repugnant alleged practices actually took place. No one has said, “That’s crazy! We would never use rape as a weapon! We could never forcibly insert food into someone’s rectum! No way!” No. They have not said that. They have attempted to justify the practices by arguing that the practices produced important information, that the proper authorities knew about them, and that our enemies do much worse. But they are not denying those practices.
Tellingly, Dick Cheney declined to refute the charge of rectal re-hydration. He sidestepped the gravity of the question entirely by saying he had “no knowledge” of that specific practice, but then he went straight to a defense of its hypothetical use on the grounds that it would have been necessary: “What are you prepared to do to get the truth against future attacks against the United States?” It’s a good question. What are you prepared to do? Are you prepared to threaten to rape someone’s mother? Are you prepared to make that threat within a context where it is credible? Are you prepared to carry through with that threat? If the answer is NO!, which it should be, then Mr. Cheney’s justification fails.
It’s also worth pointing out that Mr. Cheney’s “rebuttal” to the Senate report actually heightens the moral culpability of the United States government, as he spends great time arguing that the President was fully aware of everything he needed to be aware of. He denies that the CIA acted alone or simply went off track. He says it was very well-executed and in line with what the authorities instructed. That might be a kind of political point scored, but for moral onlookers it makes things worse not better.
Let’s be clear about this. The “partisan” nature of the Senate report has nothing at all to do with the identification of the “techniques.” The partisan nature has to do with where the blame should be put and the level of functionality and efficiency claimed for the program. But thus far no one disputes the depraved actions used to obtain information. You cannot skip that point. Anyone who does is irresponsibly avoiding the primary moral issue.
This is actually not the first we are hearing of such practices. If this were 2007 or 2008 one might have reasonable grounds to wait for more information to come out. But the evidence has piled up since then. In fact, the making and revealing of this report was staunchly opposed by many of the defenders of the US’s torture practices. They didn’t want more information back then. But more evidence has been available for some time. Eric Fair was a party to the torturing. He has been writing about the effects torture had on him since at least 2007. On Tuesday of this week he wrote:
Today, the Senate released its torture report. Many people were surprised by what it contained: accounts of waterboardings far more frequent than what had previously been reported, weeklong sleep deprivation, a horrific and humiliating procedure called “rectal rehydration.” I’m not surprised. I assure you there is more; much remains redacted.
This also isn’t the first time defenders of torture have reserved the right to employ the most barbarous methods if necessary. John Yoo was a high-ranking legal counsel to George W. Bush, the author of the “Torture Memos,” and a principal legal architect of the policies and methods used as enhanced interrogation. In 2005, wholly in the open and with no shame, he acknowledged that crushing the testicles of a suspect’s child was within the bounds of what the United States ought to be permitted to do:
Under the logic of Deputy Assistant Attorney General Yoo’s view of presidential power, the president, as Commander in Chief, could direct the torture of a detainee’s innocent child in order to obtain his cooperation, and no law can stop him. This is no exaggeration, nor is it a proposition from which Mr. Yoo would retreat. In a December 1, 2005, debate with Notre Dame Professor Doug Cassel, Mr. Yoo stated the president could lawfully order “crushing the testicles of a person’s child”:
Mr. Cassel: If the President deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?
Mr. Yoo: No treaty.
Mr. Cassel: Also no law by Congress. That is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo.
Mr. Yoo: I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that.
(Reining in the Imperial Presidency pg. 117-118)
If John Yoo will publicly claim for the US the right to crush the testicles of an innocent child, then it is not at all difficult to believe that the US would threaten to rape someone’s mother. In fact, Yoo’s fiendish imagination almost makes what really happened seem a relief. At least it was only a threat. But it was a threat given in a context where it was believable and where its credibility was essential to its effectiveness.
We also have to face the reality that such torture debases and degrades the torturer along with the one being tortured. Remember Eric Fair. Or how about those lower-ranking soldiers who were arrested? Remember Lynndie England, Megan Ambuhl, Charles Graner, and others. I have no problem saying that they were, at least for a time, moral monsters. But now we have to wonder how it was that they became moral monsters. It certainly seems as if they were molded into them. And make no mistake, their lives are forever ruined. They will never recover. They will never be “normal.”
In 2008, Michael Peppard showed that female serviceman degraded themselves sexually in order to degrade Guantánamo detainees. I won’t reprint the material here, for it is truly disturbing, but those who wish to read for themselves can find it towards the bottom of this essay. This week Mr. Peppard has again written on the subject, showing how the latest Senate Report demonstrates such methods were intentional and a consistent part of the program.
So again, back to the Vice President’s question. What are you willing to do? Are you willing to crush the testicles of a young boy? Are you willing to destroy the lives of American servicemen? Are you willing for your daughter to sexually degrade herself in an attempt to obtain information that a detainee may or may not possess? What are you willing to do?
This all highlights the problem here for humans. Not for politicians. Not for abstract conversations. For humans with moral consciences responsible before a living God. There are some things that are off limits. These things are always evil. They are malum in se.
The Apostle Paul famously anticipates a certain sort of consequentialism in Rom. 3:8 saying, “And why not say, ‘Let us do evil that good may come’?—as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just.” Notice that Paul says any suggestion that he affirms such an argument is slander. If something is evil per se, then it may not be used in the service of good. That’s a basic Biblical principle. There are lots of things that are not evil per se which are still “bad” and ordinarily off-limits. The taking of human life is such an item. Murder is evil per se, but not all taking of human life is murder. Capital punishment, as well as the taking of life in defense of other life immediately threatened is not murder. But what of sexual assault? That’s what I keep coming back to. Can one engage in sexual assault in order to save a life? The question is hard to take seriously. One obvious reason is because it cannot reasonably be conceived as “necessary” to do such an act. But it’s also because sexual assault is a special kind of evil that can never be justified, not under any circumstance.
There’s a saying popular in the legal community that goes like this: “If the facts are on your side, pound the facts into the table. If the law is on your side, pound the law into the table. If neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound the table.” Conservatives right now who avoid the gravity of such immoral actions are currently pounding the table. They do not have the facts on their side. So they attack commentators. They do not even have the law on their side, certainly not the moral law of God. So they attack partisan motives or try to stir up competing emotions. They are pounding the table.
But this is a massive failure because this isn’t just an argument. We humans are not the only participants in this conversation. God is here. He is not mocked. He has eyes. He sees all. It does not matter if our enemies would have done the same thing to us. We are not judged by that standard. To suggest that the greatest existential need was to avoid the threat from those enemies is to actually miss the big picture. God is here. Fear Him.
Also, we have to remember that an immoral freedom is actually not freedom at all. It is a new kind of bondage. If we defeat our enemy only to discover that we have become very much like him, to learn that we are no longer honest and upright men, then we have not defeated the greatest enemy at all. We have succumb to his powers. To bend our wills and distort our consciences is not freedom.
What are you prepared to do? Are you prepared to sell your soul? Are you prepared to sear your conscience and forfeit your claim to justice?
And any Christian who is not worried about this fact right now needs to step away from the politics and draw near to their God.
Well said. God have mercy on us, we must repent.
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Steve, thank you for this. One of the best things I’ve read this year.