Giving Torture the Silent Treatment

I don’t anticipate to strike up as much debate as did our last post did (a review of Ben Stein’s Expelled), but I hope that you find it nonetheless interesting. I must admit that, given my general ignorance about what is going on in the world (at least until we started Consanguinity), I had heard very little about torture. I remember at least one conversation about it with a friend at work, but even then, I didn’t really know what he was talking about. Although I don’t wish to focus on the recent instances of torture committed by the United States in this blog–there is simply too much to condense here–I am operating under the assumption that the following is the case: ever since September 2001, US military abroad has become increasingly permissive about interrogation techniques, and in multiple instances, citizens of foreign governments have been tortured by men and women representing our country.

The most fascinating thing to me about this issue, though, is that I had really heard nothing about it. David Gushee suggests that the Evangelical Right has tried to play this down in order to provide full support for the War in Iraq (i.e. torture is being justified, because it aids the swiftness of finishing the war, or something like this) and to increase national security. In his book, The Future of Faith in American Politics, David Gushee insists that torture is fundamentally wrong and that we, as humans, have the right to be detained without being tortured. It troubles him, and me, that the Evangelical Right has supported (even wavered) on this moral position. Gushee tries to explain why it has come up as he writes:

Long ago, German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about the perennial human tendency to find exceptions to binding moral rules when these 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, corrupt them at their very source, and entirely to destroy their worth.’ (138; Kant’s quote is taken from Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals)

That is to say that when we set up a moral standard, the natural temptation is to weaken it, rationalizing it in any way that we can, because it is simply hard to be consistently moral.

Moral arguments aside (for now), the greatest argument against US-implemented torture is that the US is a signatory to all of the major human rights declarations against torture (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Third Geneva Convention-Article 17 (1949), the UN Convention Against Torture (1985)), and not as a nominally assenting bystander, but as a major proponent and advocate for human rights (126). The stance we have proclaimed to the world on torture is not what we have been practicing. As a nation, we have a responsibility to live up to our word, lest all faith in our honesty go out the window.

From this point on, I wish to summarize Gushee’s moral argument against torture. He makes six distinct points, which I have quoted below. I will briefly explain each of them:

  1. Torture violates the intrinsic dignity of the human being, made in the image of God.
  2. Torture mistreats the vulnerable and thus violates the demands of public justice.
  3. Authorizing any form of torture trusts government too much.
  4. Torture invites the dehumanization of the torturer.
  5. Torture erodes the character of the nation that tortures.
  6. Torture risks negative consequences at many levels.

1. Torture violates the intrinsic dignity of the human being, made in the image of God (130).

We, as humans, were made in God’s image; inasmuch as we consider others to be God’s handiwork, we must realize that they are precious to him, regardless of how morally corrupt they might seem, or how destructive of actions they take. Although some argue that there are limits to how far this natural right applies, it does seem clear, as Christians, that it is the rule, and the foundation from which we should build our moral framework on torture.

2. Torture mistreats the vulnerable and thus violates the demands of public justice (131-2).

The Bible preaches frequently against taking advantage of the weak and oppressed. As Jim Wallis points out in his book God’s Politics, it is actually one of the main themes of the Bible, with regard to relative frequency. When someone is imprisoned, he is at his greatest vulnerability. They should experience love and care from our hands, not injustice. God never sides with the oppressor, but the oppressed.

3. Authorizing any form of torture trusts government too much (132-3).

“All like sheep have gone astray…” None of us is immune to temptation. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 10:12 that we should be extra careful not to stumble when we think we are standing firm in our faith. In the same way, people–fallen people–simply cannot handle the power to torture prisoners. What will stop them from giving in to excessive violence? In support of this reason, it has been shown that secret detention facilities are more likely to treat their prisoners worse, since there is no accountability.

4. Torture invites the dehumanization of the torturer (133-4).

Gushee provides an excellent quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize for making the world aware of the horrors that the Soviet Gulag commited in their labor camps. He wrote “our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: they are turning into swine, they are departing downward from humanity” (134). The tortured suffers bodily harm; the torturer suffers spiritual harm.

5. Torture erodes the character of the nation that tortures (134-5).

As Americans, we have a collective moral identity and character to uphold. Torture simply stands in the face of the identity we inherited from our forefathers. Do we really wish to reject their example in exchange for a new, grimmer one?

6. Torture risks negative consequences at many levels (135-8).

Gushee is hesitant to even embrace the utilitarian terms that justifying torture necessarily assumes, but he does so to meet his opponents on their own moral ground with more arguments against torture. People who are tortured may talk (and lie, or make something up) just to end the torture. Also, terrorists are only motivated to commit more horrific acts of violence against our nation because of what we are doing to them. Furthermore, Gushee lays aside (for the most part) the ticking bomb scenarios that torture proponents like to use, claiming that they are really only a thing of the movies, not of reality. If such a case should arise, however, the necessary action (torture) should be committed Jack-Bauer stlye without the support of the government.

It was mortifying for me to read about what happened recently at “Abu Ghraib, Gabgram Air Base in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and apparently in CIA “black sites” in various unknown locations,” but perhaps the most shocking thing about it was that I hadn’t really heard about it before (123). Why hasn’t the Evangelical community responded more openly against torture? It just seems wrong.


6 Responses to Giving Torture the Silent Treatment

  1. jonolan says:

    A few admittedly sad points:

    1) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is NOT a treaty or binding agreement of any sort. It was never designed to be such. Eleanor Roosevelt, Chairperson of the original committee who drafted the declaration was explicit about it’s lack of binding nature.

    2) The Geneva Convention’s prohibition against torture only applies to “lawful combatants” a status that most subjects of US interrogation methods did not qualify for.

    3) The US only acceded to the UN Convention Against Torture with the understanding that we would only not violate our 5th, 8th and 14th amendments.

    I’m not trying to say your moral arguments are wrong. I’m saying your legal arguments are so. The 2003 Supreme Court decision, Chavez v. Martinez even supports Bush’s decision.

  2. James says:

    Jonolan, I appreciate your correction. I actually don’t know that much about history (except ancient history, and even there I’m lacking). I was citing Gushee as a source, but it sounds like he, too, had some extra research to do. I’ll have to look into this further before I can really provide a decent response.

    …after looking up some info on the UDHR, it sounds like Eleanor Roosevelt actually had higher goals in mind as chairperson of the drafting committee. Although she denies its binding nature, she did say

    It is a Declaration of basic principles of human rights and freedoms [….] This Universal Declaration of Human Rights may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.

    This does not exactly reinforce a legal argument exactly, but it does reinforce a historical US stance against torture, which was my main point anyway.

    …furthermore, after more looking, it seems that your statement about the Third Geneva convention only applying to “lawful combatants” seems to be hotly debated, although I am by no means an expert on international law. The term was codified, however, by US law in 2006 under the Military Commissions Act.

  3. jonolan says:

    The issue with the Geneva convention is that the Geneva Conventions do not recognize any lawful status for combatants in conflicts not involving two or more nation states.

    When dealing with terrorists and insurgents, you’re not dealing with nations and therefore – legally – the Geneva Convention does not apply.

    It’s not so much that things are illegal as that they are outside the clear scope of existing international law.

  4. John says:

    James, I wanted to weigh in on the subject.

    First of all, be careful of what and who you read. Just doing a little bit of ‘Googleing’ on the internet I found out that David Gushee is part of the ‘Baptist World Alliance’ group that the Southern Baptist Convention decided to not become a part of in 2004. See this article:

    Also, I am completely against torture (as I define it-too much to go into here), but what about the “24” scenario? IF a terrorist has placed an atomic bomb in a major U.S. city and it was going to explode in 24 hours would you want the “Agent Jack Bauer” person to make him talk? To do whatever is necessary to get the information?

  5. James says:

    I guess I wasn’t entirely clear about the “24” scenario. What I meant to say is that in such a scenario, instead of having a policy that would formally allow torture, the “Jack Bauer” person, whoever would be in such a position to know that significant damage would occur if the information weren’t extracted from a prisoner that is known to have the necessary knowledge to stop the attack, that he (Jack Bauer) should take the responsibility on himself (as Jack Bauer usually does in “24”). Such actions may be morally justifiable, but not an entire nation endorsing torture.

  6. Silent Syndicate, Ancient Landmarks, Mysterious Places, Aliens…

    […]Giving Torture the Silent Treatment « Consanguinity[…]…

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