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:
- Torture violates the intrinsic dignity of the human being, made in the image of God.
- Torture mistreats the vulnerable and thus violates the demands of public justice.
- Authorizing any form of torture trusts government too much.
- Torture invites the dehumanization of the torturer.
- Torture erodes the character of the nation that tortures.
- 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.