Over a week ago, the Senate Intelligence committee released an “executive summary”—a highly redacted, summarized, and condensed version of a much larger and ostensibly more damning report—on the use of torture by the CIA on suspected terrorists since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. (The report, entitled Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program is available for free download from CNN.)
Before I discuss this issue, let me make my position very clear: Torture is, morally and unequivocally, wrong. Furthermore, let’s avoid fruitless, reductionistic arguments such as, “What if some men kidnapped your family, but you were able to apprehend one of the kidnappers. Wouldn’t you torture this man to find out where your family is being help?” This Senate report isn’t profiling the abuse of one man in searching for his family. Instead, it details systemic abuse perpetrated by or at the behest of the federal government. There’s something different about what happens in the heat of the moment between two men—one wronged and the other the inflicter of this wrong—and the cool-headed, long-standing policy of a nation.
I’m going to split this post into two sections. First, I’d like to write a little bit for all Americans. Nothing fancy; nothing new. And yet, I need to write it. Secondly, I’ve got something for the Christians out there. I think that you’ll need to read both sections to get my entire argument, though I am certainly tailoring these sections to the audiences I have indicated.
Here we go.
I’m going to immediately flip the tables in a an extreme way and then work backward to a more reasonable argument.
What if “they” (insert Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, ISIS, etc.) captured some of our soldiers and tortured them for information?
How would we feel about this? Would we accept this as a natural course of war, wherein our enemy, seeing us as their enemy, tortures our soldiers in order to keep their people safe from our “vicious” attacks? I doubt many Americans would see this as acceptable but what—save for some racist, ethnocentric, or nationalistic mindset—gives us the right to torture prisoners of war in order to safeguard our populace but then argues that its unacceptable for the other side to do the same?
What makes the United States the “good guys”? It’s not our system of government, representative democracy. Any system of government can be corrupted by means of money, power, career-politicians, and self-aggrandizing, self-perpetuating bureaucracy. No, that’s not what made us the “good guys” from my perspective.
It was truth, justice, fair play, and strong sense of morality based upon the essential, inherent worth of all human life. Where’s the truth in government so steeped in secrets that it prosecutes truth-tellers to the fullest extent of the law? Where’s justice when “suspected” terrorists are held indefinitely without trial, when US citizens are spied on without warrant or warning? Where’s fair play when the two ruling political parties have rigged the system to such a degree that the citizenry no longer run the system? Where’s the morality that grants everyone intrinsic human value when we are torturing human beings, treating them inhumanly?
I’m probably too naive, too idealistic, but what made us the “good guys” was that we stood up for “good things.” Why are Superman and Captain America two of our most enduring superheroes? They stood for an objective, external morality. They didn’t accept the idea that the “means justify the ends,” and we as US citizens shouldn’t either. We cannot allow our nation to lose its soul in order to prolong its safety. If we want to take the moral high road and intervene in other nations when they are doing something we view as “evil,” then we have to actually walk that high road in all of our dealings A situational morality is no morality at all.
I recently saw someone post the following image on Facebook:
Let’s discuss the false premise this picture presents: we should torture to avenge our wounded/fallen soldiers and to keep other soldiers safe. I’m sure that many would also add 9/11 to their list of reasons to be ok with human torture. Here’s my response to that:
We can’t argue that “because they did something evil, we’re going to do something evil”—this only perpetuates evil! I understand the fear, grief, and outrage that erupted after 9/11, but I don’t understand why we’re letting that furor carry us further down this path of un-American activities, further down a path that leads only to more fear, grief and outrage. Violence only begets violence.
Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.
Martin Luther King, Jr., in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964
When the torture scandal of Abu Ghraib broke, we should have “confessed” our sins, punished the guilty (not just those who tortured but those who explicitly and implicitly allowed it), and never dipped our toes in that filthy river again. Instead, we have dove head first into the polluted stream of moral filth that is human torture.
I entitled this section “American Hypocrisy,” and while I haven’t explicitly pointed out any hypocrisy yet, I hope that my point about the US feeling justified in torturing for the sake of our safety but not allowing for the same by our enemies did that implicitly. Though, even if it didn’t, I will now point out some explicit hypocrisy.
It’s been fairly common knowledge for years that the US used waterboarding as an “enhanced interrogation.” However, this same technique was used by the Japanese during World War II, and we—the United States of America—had them charged and convicted as torturers. In fact, we even court-martialed some of our own soldiers who used this method of torture against some Filipino guerrillas in the 1890’s, during the American occupation of that island nation.1
In case you moved past that section too quickly to truly catch what is says, let me summarize it for you: The United States used to prosecute waterboarders as torturers.
What happened, then, to make waterboarding ok? Or is it ok? What if our soldiers were being waterboarded right now? And how far can we go with waterboarding? Could the FBI use it when interrogating cyber criminals? Could the police use it to break suspected child molesters, drug dealers, or unlicensed street vendors?
We’ve overstepped the boundaries of right and wrong. We’ve crossed over; we’re the “bad guys” on this one. The Declaration of Independence contains this glorious, oft-quote line:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Declaration goes on to apply these truths to the creation of governments, arguing that governments were created to secure these rights for people. How would it sit with our Founding Fathers to know that the US has been engaged in culture? Sure, these individuals haven’t been US citizens, but again, the idea that we only have to treat our citizens like human beings is despicable. There has to be a certain point, a line that will not be crossed, no matter what. What’s the upper hand that the bad guys always have on the good guys in the comics? The good guys follow the rules because it’s the rules and the values they reflect that they’re fighting for.
What is the US fighting for?
Torture—or the euphemistic “enhanced interrogation”—is evil. It degrades both the tortured and the torturer. As a Christian, we cannot view torture as acceptable.
I’ll repeat that: we cannot view torture as acceptable.
Now that I’ve made that clear, I’d like to explain why this is true with four simple statements.
God made man in His own image. When we dehumanize others, we deny the glory and wonder of God’s creation, and in essence, when we torture one of God’s image-bearers, we are attacking God in His very heart.
Jesus died for everyone, torturers and terrorists. So let’s get this straight, Jesus died for these individuals, and you think it’s ok to strip them of their humanity, to devalue them as individuals, and inflict upon them unspeakable pain and humiliation? I don’t think I want to be on the side advocating this. Beside that, what does it say of our view of Jesus’ sacrifice when we take men—presumably Muslims—and have them tortured at the behest of the US government, the federal government of a country that we so ridiculously claim is a “Christian nation”? Aren’t we, essentially and simultaneously, proving to these outsiders that Jesus means very little to us and that their conversion to Christ means even less?
Jesus was tortured. Yep, that’s right. Before Jesus died on the cross, He was tortured by the Romans: He was beaten, scourged, and face the joint psychological and physical burden of carrying the instrument of His own destruction to the place of execution. Remember that verse in Matthew 25 where Christ said, positively, that whatever good was done to the “least of these” was done to Him? I wonder if that worse works as a negative inverse, meaning that the evil we do to others, we do to Him?
Every justification for torture rests upon a materialistic, temporal, non-Christian view of life. Think for a minute about the biggest argument offered in defense of torture: it helps us gather information that can be used to save lives. First of all, let’s deal with the idea that torture actually works. A recent NYT article discusses this idea and presents an answer in no uncertain terms: torture doesn’t work.2
The Democratic Senate staff members who studied the post-Sept. 11 program came up with an identical assessment: that waterboarding, wall-slamming, nudity, cold and other ill treatment produced little information of value in preventing terrorism.
In fact, the CIA had the same view, in 1989, as the NYT article quotes from one of their reports to Congress:
“inhumane physical or psychological techniques are counterproductive because they do not produce intelligence and will probably result in false answers”
Now, having dealt with that falsehood, let’s examine that underlying idea here: life is valuable and should be protected.
That is the idea, right? We torture “bad guys” to get information that can save innocent and ignorant Americans. What’s wrong with that?
Well, for starters, if you’re a Christian, you have to acknowledge that no one is innocent, not even children. The doctrine of original sin says that we’re all born sinful, born cursed by Adam and Eve’s rebellion, and since we’re born into a fallen world, we have no expectation for safety or security. Death is a part of the world that we’ve created, and while that sounds heartless, may I submit that while we’re torturing terrorists to save our children, perhaps we should ask why these individuals have become terrorists? Sure, some are true religious zealots, but I doubt that it is the majority. No, the majority find their reasoning for violence in the violence that we have perpetrated against them. That image I shared earlier, that I saw on Facebook, was posted by a Christian. I’d like to offer this image in response:
As I said above: violence begets violence. Torturing prisoners only creates within a desire for revenge. Our desire for post-9/11 revenge has only created a million more terrorists, as our violent reprisals have only served to scatter the seeds of anger and resentment.
Now, beyond the myth of innocence, let’s examine the materialistic, temporal-view of life that this argument requires one to hold, contrary to the theological worldview required by Christianity.
“We tortured individuals to save the lives of the innumerable masses.” What does it mean to save someone’s life? In general, the idea being expressed is that they have been spared a terrible fate, one that would likely result in severe injury, or more likely, loss of life. However, as a Christian, we have to admit that any “saving” that we can do in this regard is only temporary. Death is inevitable. Saving someone’s life really isn’t saving them because they will still die, at some point. Even Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead in John 11, died again.
Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. Hebrews 9:27-28
We are all destined to die once—unless God intervenes, as with Lazarus. Our salvation, in its truest sense, will not be fully realized until Christ comes to usher us into a new world, a world free from the curse, where life reigns and death doesn’t exist. In fact, it’s not just death that Christ wants to save us from but also the fear of death:
But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone….Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. Hebrews 2:9, 14-15
The fear of death can motivate men and women to great acts of heroism, as they fight back, in self-defense, against an attacker. As a public school teacher, I have been charged and trained to fight against anyone who should enter my classroom with violent intent. And yet, the fear of death can turn “regular” people into monsters who will hurt anyone who stands in their way of security and safety. Jesus frees us from the fear of death by “saving” us—raising our souls from the dead, implanting within us a foretaste of resurrection. See, one of the most neglected elements of Christian theology is the promise that eternal life is not going to be a bunch of disembodied spirits sitting on clouds. Our bodies will also experience resurrection, but not like Lazarus, like Jesus. We will be physically restored to life, a glorified, perfected physical life that will be lived with God in “Heaven-on-Earth.”
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Revelation 21:1-5
God’s end game is to create a new world, a world wherein He resides with us forever, on Earth. In view of that, is all of this violence and inhumanity worth it? In the end, the best results that torture offers us is information that might prevent a terrorist attack, which we can use to prolong—not save—someone’s life in this fallen world.
My fellow Americans, do you want to be known as a people who tortures other human beings? Is this what America will stand for? Will the red and white stripes of our flag eventually come to symbolize the blood of the tortured and the willful ignorance of the citizenry?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, how can we better communicate our opposition to the inhumanity and wickedness of torture? For we must oppose it as barbaric, as a desecration of God’s image bearers—fallen, though they and we are—we cannot allow what is so clearly and unacceptable use of force against other human beings, who are no more worthy of God’s wrath than we were before we met Christ.
[Image of soldiers found on Facebook; Possible original here]
[Original drone images from The Sleuth Journal—This is not an endorsement]
Judge Evan Wallach, Waterboarding Used to Be a Crime ↩
Succeeding quotes from Scott Shane, “Report Portrays a Broken C.I.A. Devoted to a Failed Approach” ↩