Saturday, November 5, 2011

Post #42 - A Torturous Decision

[First published in Christian Ethics Today, Summer 2011]

You don't have to be a Christian to recognize a serious pragmatic problem with the use of torture: nothing remains secret forever. As we saw with Abu Ghraib, sooner or later, someone is careless, someone fails to appreciate the gravity of what they are dealing with, or someone makes a conscious decision to go public. Once that occurs, the P.R.fall-out is certain to be negative, and possibly huge.

You don't have to be a Christian to realize that those who oppose our country, or who are fence-sitting, or even those who have been friends in the past, may react to news of torture with anything from disquiet and dismay to overt (and covert) violence. (These are, after all, practices that most people consider abhorrent.) They may even seize upon the inflammatory information in order to recruit impressionable people to radical anti-Americanism.

(There may also be an impact on foreign military or intelligence institutions. As pointed out by Gen. David Patraeus, Gen. Colin Powell and others, our own forces, whether uniformed or clandestine, become more likely to suffer mistreatment. Whether much more likely or only slightly more likely, we cannot accurately assess, but some extra degree of risk to American personnel is nearly undeniable.)

You don't have to be a Christian to accept that our diplomats may have a more difficult job promoting human rights if our own record in these areas is less than exemplary. We saw this in 2007, when China made much of U.S. practices, in order to deflect criticism of their own record. They pointed out that "parts of the U.S. Military Commissions Act violate the Geneva Conventions," in the murky legal status and indefinite detention of persons at Guantanamo, in violation of American traditions of habeas corpus.

You don't have to be a Christian to figure out that our long-term quest for stronger adherence to rule-of-law around the world suffers just a bit every time a questionable practice is approved or justified, and then becomes widely known. We cannot persuasively sell theories of civilized governance if we seem to denigrate them in actual practice.

You don't have to be a Christian to have reservations about the actual usefulness of torture and other harsh methods. Experts on the collection of intelligence from human sources have said as much. Sen. John McCain, a former Naval aviator, was himself imprisoned and tortured in Vietnam. He has said that "subjecting prisoners to abuse leads to bad intelligence because under torture a detainee will tell his interrogator anything to make the pain stop." A science board assembled for the National Defense Intelligence College reported, "Most professionals believe that pain, coercion, and threats are counterproductive to the elicitation of good information,"

You don't have to be a Christian to feel that perhaps an officer or agent should not have to "check his conscience at the door" when he signs up. Wouldn't it provide a vital check on potential abuses if there is a point beyond which no one should go? (In theory, of course, an unlawful order can be ignored with impunity, but, in the real world, this is only actionable if there is a policy and a tradition of allowing individual exercise of conscience. Under current law, for example, their are no provisions for a person to declare themselves a conscientious objector to a particular war, or a particular practice, no matter how deeply they feel it to be morally repugnant.)

You don't have to be a Christian to be concerned about the impact that administration of torture has on the persons that are charged with carrying it out. Can we reasonably suspect that a person can on one day be asked to act as a torturer, using a torturer's implements and maintaining a torturer's callousness, and the next day be asked to be a loving, nurturing father, a responsible driver, a good neighbor, as though he can split his personality into two parts with a firewall between them?

You don't have to be a Christian to acknowledge complicity in acts committed in our name. One soldier, assigned to interrogation duty at Abu Ghraib, Joshua Casteel, described it this way: "There is no such thing as a private conscience."4 What we do derives from our society and, in turn, impacts it. As John Donne reminded us, "No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death [or suffering?] diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind...."

You don't have to be a Christian to have basic respect for human beings. Buddhists, humanists, even atheists, teach that each person has inherent worth and should be accorded dignity. Jewish tradition says "Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." What is torture but the attempted destruction of a soul?

You don't have to be a Christian to cringe at any honest recitation of what the word "torture" has denoted through the centuries. The names are colorful -- necklacing, the rack, the iron maiden, drawing and quartering, keelhauling, the pendulum -- but the reality they represent can only be met with revulsion and disgust. Indeed, these are things that if done to a cat would be a good indicator of a sociopathic personality. Yet, our kids watch it enacted on "24" by a man who is supposed to be a good guy and who works for us.

You don't have to be a Christian to be impressed by the fact that a great many church leaders have seen fit to decry its use. An emphatic denunciation has been signed by the leaders of groups from the Rabbinical Assembly to the Catholic Bishops, from the Unitarian Univeralists to the Evangelical Lutherans -- over thirty American denominations. Rich Warren said, "If we condone torture, we yield the moral high ground to our enemies and encourage anyone who hates us to stoop to using that subhuman level against us. We reap whatever we sow."

BUT...what if you are a Christian? What if you believe in the mysterious, yet marvelous, idea that each of us has been created in the likeness and image of God? What if Jesus -- who was himself flayed, beaten and pierced -- meant it, when he warned (in Matthew 25) that leaving a prisoner to fend for himself might constitute denying Him? What if it turned out to be true: "whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me?" What if eternal life is at stake? It's something to think about, isn't it?

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