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Dr. David P. Gushee

Dr. David P. Gushee

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Loyalty and Passion in the American Christian Torture Debate

Posted: 11/17/10 01:44 PM ET

The following was adapted form a talk given in Atlanta for the Evangelical Theological Society Dialogue.

I understand that our purpose here is to discuss the ethics of torture. More concretely, I will address the question of whether it was morally justifiable for the United States government, for the purposes of national security in what was then called the "War on Terror," to employ "enhanced interrogation techniques" sometimes classified as torture.

This brings to mind a story.

In August 1550 the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas was summoned by King Charles V of Spain to debate Catholic theologian Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda on this question: "Is it lawful for the king of Spain to wage war on the Indians, before preaching the faith to them, in order to subject them to his rule, so that afterwards they may be more easily instructed in the faith?" The judges included 14 of the most eminent theologians, lawyers and government officials of the entire Spanish kingdom.

The contestants, who disagreed sharply over the matter they were discussing, never appeared before the council at the same time. Sepúlveda summarized his case for the affirmative in three hours. Las Casas came the next day and made the case for the negative by reading a prepared manuscript over five days, until the judges couldn't take it anymore. (And that was not all. There was a second round of this disputation, which lasted more than a month in the spring of 1551.)

Why do I tell you this story? Three reasons. First, because I have just been writing about Las Casas for a new book. He is a hero for me, and figures like him have been formative in shaping my Christian ethics. Second, if this 190-minute session seems long to me and to you, we can all be grateful that we are not in 16th century Spain. Finally, I mention this story because it strikes me as having some obvious parallels to the discussion we are undertaking today.

Those parallels include:

*Both cases involve the question of the use of force by the state to accomplish its valued ends;

*Both cases have sometimes evoked reasoning that mixes legal, factual, moral and even religious claims, including the use of Just War Theory;

*Both cases were debated by churchmen with an interest and commitment to what would today be called public policy, in debates that were of interest to both church and state;

I would suggest one final parallel:

*Respectfully but clearly, I must say that both cases are morally repugnant. I believe that one day our Christian descendants will look back on our early 21st century Christian debates about torture with the same sense of repugnance that they have when they consider the Las Casas-Sepúlveda debates of 1550. They will wonder how torture could even have been an open question.

But the debates of 1550-1551 happened. And the debate about torture has happened. Today, we make another go at it. This is a kind of retrospective. We are looking back on an argument that riveted the nation about four years ago. With the Bush Administration long gone, it might seem there is no need to continue this old conversation. But the issue remains alive, opinion remains divided, and you are all here today to hear us talk about it, so here we go.

I will offer my paper in two rounds. I will do so by first summarizing the case for "enhanced interrogation techniques" as practiced for several years by the Bush-Cheney Administration. My core source here will be the massive 2010 book by former Bush official Marc Thiessen, Courting Disaster. I have chosen this book because it is recent, it is thorough, it is warmly endorsed by both Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, it is written by someone with inside information and direct contact with the principal figures involved and it clearly represents the views of that part of the administration most ardently supportive of the "tough" interrogation policies.

After summarizing Thiessen's claims, I will offer rebuttals.

In a brief concluding section, I will move to the meta-ethical level, reflecting on what can be learned about the church, the discipline of Christian ethics and Christian engagement with U.S. public policy through this analysis. It is there that I will speak to issues of methodology, passions and loyalties.

You will notice two methodological moves from the beginning.

First, I will stipulate that the issue I am considering is not an abstraction called torture, but instead the moral justifiability of known and documented Bush-Cheney interrogation practices that were called by that Administration "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EIT). I loathe the term and believe it be to a euphemism for torture.

However, I will accept for purposes of discussion the existence of the term, and will stipulate that it included, as officially approved individual techniques or in combination, the following: the "suffocation by water" practice known as "waterboarding," continuous solitary confinement and indefinite incommunicado detention, hooding and other forms of sensory deprivation, extended sleep deprivation and use of ear splitting loud music, "wallings" (or "beatings by use of a collar," involving detainees being propelled forcefully against walls), face and belly slapping, grabbing, beating and kicking, confinement in a box, prolonged standing in stress positions, prolonged forced nudity, exposure to cold temperatures and cold water, prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles, threats of various kinds, forced shaving and dietary deprivation/manipulation.

For our audience today, it is these specific governmentally authorized practices that I want you to have in mind. Ethics is done better in the concrete than the abstract. Therefore I will call these concrete practices periodically to our attention.

In a confidential February 2007 report from the International Committee of the Red Cross to the CIA Inspector General which leaked to the press, these techniques were named, and their use on 14 specific "high-value" detainees then being held at the US facility at Guantanamo Bay documented. (Various combinations of these techniques were used on far more than these 14 men.) The following summary evaluation of how to classify these acts was offered by the Red Cross, the body among whose official duties in international affairs is to monitor compliance with the Geneva Conventions and the treatment of prisoners of war:

The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel inhuman or degrading treatment.

The authority of the Red Cross on such matters is sufficient that this report in itself gives reason for high Bush-Cheney administration officials to fear prosecution for human rights violations, including torture. But again, rather than debate terminology, I will merely stipulate that our topic is the arsenal of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" employed by the Bush Administration, confirmed by Marc Thiessen, documented in Administration memos that have now been publicly released and described in this 2007 Red Cross report.

Second, until the end of the paper I will not entertain or make a religious argument of any type. I am doing this as a thought experiment. I want to see if specifically Christian reasoning makes any real difference in the moral debate about torture.

Summary of Thiessen's Pro-"Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" Case

Marc Thiessen's 484-page book offers every conceivable argument for the counterterrorism policies developed and employed by the Bush Administration. Sifting through the many hundreds of claims made in the book yields what in my view are the following major assertions:

1. Enhanced interrogation techniques were necessary and effective.

They were deployed to break hardened terrorists who had been trained to resist less coercive interrogation techniques such as those traditionally employed by the U.S. military and the FBI. In a large number of significant cases these new techniques succeeded in gaining valuable intelligence. This intelligence enabled U.S. officials to better understand the internal structure, operations and strategy of al Qaeda. It also was pivotal in leading to the disruption of several specific terror plots targeting U.S. interests overseas as well as in the United States. Less coercive methods had not gained this kind of information in the past and were not effective in gaining this information after 9/11. The new techniques contributed greatly to the fact that there have been no successful terror attacks on our soil since 9/11. They have therefore made us safer. We continue to benefit from their residual effects even though they have been mistakenly rolled back in recent years by law and Obama executive branch policy.

2. Enhanced interrogation techniques were legal.

By definition, this claim means that those acts approved as enhanced interrogation techniques were not torture, because torture is a felony under U.S. law.

Thiessen's legal claims involve several different kinds of arguments. He says first that they were legal because they did not violate U.S. statutory law, such as the 1996 War Crimes Act, which makes torture a felony offense. The reason we know that they did not violate the War Crimes Act is primarily because this was the ruling offered by the authoritative Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the Justice Department in memos upon which the CIA and the Administration relied in developing and implementing interrogation policies from early 2002. If the OLC declared the specific acts authorized by the Bush-Cheney Administration to not constitute torture, this is authoritative.

To the argument that the treatment of detainees violated the standards of the Geneva Conventions, notably Common Article 3, which bans "outrages upon personal dignity" and "humiliating and degrading treatment" of prisoners of war, Thiessen offers two main retorts. The first is that the Bush Administration was correct in concluding that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to members of non-uniformed terrorist organizations. They apply only to uniformed military personnel. The second, made in passing, is that these Geneva standards are "vague and undefined." Thiessen notes but does not rely on the more aggressive claims made in the (in)famous 2002 John Yoo/Jay Bybee "Standards" memo, in which the OLC authors argued for expansive Commander in Chief powers, including the claim that the Constitution would permit the president to trump torture laws if necessary for national security.

Thiessen does acknowledge the existence of events that occurred in interrogation or imprisonment contexts during the Bush-Cheney years that were unlawful in that they violated the limits clarified by the OLC and established by the CIA and the Pentagon for actual interrogations -- or were simply abuses, such as what occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The fact that investigations and sometimes prosecutions were undertaken of those who violated the legal standards, in his view, can be adduced as evidence for the lawfulness of the approved techniques and a general commitment to the rule of law on the part of the Bush Administration.

3. Enhanced interrogation techniques were tough but humane.

Thiessen concedes that these techniques, named by the Red Cross as "in many cases ... constitut[ing] torture," were "tough." He concedes that they were "unpleasant." But he also echoes an interrogator's claims that they were "very respectful," that they did not gratuitously inflict pain and that they were undertaken by highly trained interrogation personnel monitored by medical professionals. He goes further to claim that at least one high value detainee, Abu Zubaydah, actually thanked his interrogators for the enhanced interrogation techniques used on him. On the basis of conversations with interrogators, Thiessen claims that the reason for Zubaydah's gratitude is that al Qaeda operatives were taught that they were morally obligated to resist to the limits of their endurance, but that after they had reached those limits they were permitted to speak the truth to their captors. Therefore the use of enhanced interrogation techniques actually lifted the burden of resistance off the shoulders of al Qaeda members, which was a relief to them.

4. Enhanced interrogation techniques were and are supported by the American people.

Thiessen reports the results of Pew Research Center polling over the last four years. Pew has framed its questions in terms of actual support for "torture" rather than EIT. In the April 2009 poll, 71 percent of Americans say that "torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists is justified (that included 15 percent who answered "often," 34 percent who answered "sometimes," and 22 percent who answered "rarely"). Only 25 percent answered "never." He cites a variety of other polls that reached similar results. The "never" torture group has not reached higher than 36 percent in any recent poll. Thiessen concludes that most Americans agree with the policies developed by the Bush Administration and employed by the CIA until they were (mistakenly) terminated.

5. Enhanced interrogation techniques were consistent with our nation's highest moral values and ideals.

Thiessen quotes some Bush Administration officials, such as former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, who do accept that there was something of a tradeoff between the value of enhanced security and the value of upholding our highest moral ideals. But former Vice President Dick Cheney is also quoted to suggest that EIT was actually the proper moral choice. Cheney claims that it would in fact have been immoral to forego the opportunity to collect intelligence using these tough techniques. Failure to do so, he says, would have violated the oath of office that both he and the president had taken. Cheney does not use tradeoff language to describe these policies.

6. Enhanced interrogation techniques bear no real resemblance to torture as practiced by totalitarian regimes or the Spanish Inquisition.

Critical comparisons of Bush-Cheney EIT to the torture techniques employed by odious regimes such as Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Pol Pot's Cambodia or the Spanish Inquisition are important enough to Thiessen that he feels compelled to raise them and respond. Therefore his book includes lengthy descriptions of these techniques, including especially their version of water tortures, which he wants to distinguish clearly from what he understands to be the quite different techniques employed by the United States in the Administration he served.

Rebuttals

Let me offer the following brief assessment of each of these claims. Again, I am bracketing all specifically Christian analysis or commentary at this time.

1. Enhanced interrogation techniques were necessary and effective.

Whether "enhanced interrogation techniques" were necessary is a matter of dispute among intelligence professionals. Throughout his book, Thiessen quotes a large number of high-ranking Bush Administration officials who make the claims that these techniques were necessary because less coercive techniques did not work. Of course, they were and are deeply committed to such a belief, and in some cases they may face legal action if those claims were to be negated in a court of law.

Among the interrogators who have become fairly well-known for rejecting these claims are Ali Soufan and Matthew Alexander.

Ali Soufan, a retired FBI agent with extensive field experience as an interrogator, has claimed that his interrogation of high value detainee Abu Zubaydah had resulted in actionable intelligence, such as discovering the identity and mission of now-convicted terrorist José Padilla; and that thereafter, when he was taken off the case and CIA waterboarding was performed on Abu Zubaydah, the flow of intelligence stopped. Thiessen claims that Soufan is incorrect in these assertions. But Soufan's claims were supported by the CIA Inspector General's 2004 Report, the 2008 Department of Justice's Inspector General Report and the Department of Justice's 2009 Office of Professional Responsibility Report.

Matthew Alexander (pseudonym), who played a key role in tracking down Iraqi terrorist leader
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, says this intelligence was achieved "using interrogation methods that had nothing to do with torture." Other former interrogators and intelligence officers from the military, FBI and CIA have made similar claims about some of their own work. Alexander is a loud and visible opponent of EIT and torture.

Whether enhanced interrogation techniques were effective in disrupting terrorist plots is also hotly disputed. Certainly there have been cases in which leads supposedly offered through EIT were based on false information. One such case was that of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi who had confessed under EIT that Iraq had trained al Qaeda in the use of weapons of mass destruction. This was then used as justification for the subsequent invasion of Iraq. Al-Libi's confession is now known to be false.

The U.S. Intelligence Science Board, sponsored by the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon's Counterintelligence Field Activity, in 2007 reported that there is almost no scientific evidence to back up the U.S. intelligence community's use of controversial interrogation techniques in the fight against terrorism, and that some painful and coercive approaches could actually hinder the ability to get good information. The general tenor of the results of this authoritative study is indicated by the following comment: "There is little or no research to indicate whether [coercive] techniques succeed. ... [B]ut the preponderance of reports seems to weigh against their effectiveness. ... Psychological theory ... and related research suggest that coercion or pressure can actually increase a source's resistance and determination not to comply (emphasis in the original)."

As to the claim that enhanced interrogation techniques have made us safer, in part, that depends on the disputed factual claim just discussed. It also depends on a very difficult calculation of the long-term implications of the use of such harsh and tough techniques, especially on the U.S. moral standing in the world. Sometimes this is described in terms of U.S. "soft power," including the power of our good name and any good will (or bad will) generated by our actions. The perception of straying from the moral high ground affects the opinions of others about the United States and therefore affects our interests.

2. Enhanced interrogation techniques were legal.

Thiessen and I concur that torture is a felony in violation of the War Crimes Act. We do not concur in the judgment that because the Office of Legal Counsel in a series of memos ruled that specific interrogation techniques were lawful, that they were indeed lawful. More precisely, I concur with former Bush Administration State Department legal adviser Philip Zelikow in his secret memo from 2005 that the OLC's interpretation of the Constitution and the War Crimes Act was not a reasonable interpretation. Zelikow has since described the actions authorized as torture. I conclude that the way the Bush Administration was able to label its menu of enhanced interrogation techniques as not constituting torture was by narrowing the definition of torture in an illegitimate way. That itself may be unlawful, and it certainly does not render the authorized actions lawful.

As for the Geneva Conventions, I simply side with the Supreme Court in its 2006 ruling in the Hamdan case that contrary to what the Bush administration advocated, the customary laws of war apply also to the War on Terror, which includes the Geneva Conventions, as these have been incorporated into the ordinary laws of war and the statutory Uniform Code of Military Justice. The basic principle is that the president is not simply permitted to set aside U.S. legal obligations due to the supposed exigencies of the War on Terror.

As to Thiessen's acknowledgment of events that occurred in interrogation or imprisonment contexts during the Bush-Cheney years that were unlawful in violating even the (unreasonably) narrow limits as interpreted by the OLC and then established by the CIA and the Pentagon for actual interrogations, I say that history demonstrates that when regimes open the door to cruelty and torture they have rarely proven able to prevent its spread beyond the contexts and techniques originally intended. The fact, acknowledged by Thiessen, that at least 100 prisoners died in American custody, as well as the fact of well-documented abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, such as religious and sexual humiliation, supports my claim.

3. Enhanced interrogation techniques were tough but humane.

I am grateful that Thiessen concedes that the "suffocation by water" practice known as "waterboarding," continuous solitary confinement and indefinite incommunicado detention, hooding and other forms of sensory deprivation, extended sleep deprivation and use of ear splitting loud music, "wallings" (or "beatings by use of a collar," involving detainees being propelled forcefully against walls), face and belly slapping, grabbing, beating and kicking, confinement in a box, prolonged standing in stress positions, prolonged forced nudity, exposure to cold temperatures and cold water, prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles, threats of various kinds, forced shaving and dietary deprivation/manipulation, were "tough" and "unpleasant." I find it hard to take seriously the claim that they were "very respectful." I doubt that there is a survivor of harsh, tough, enhanced interrogation techniques anywhere in the world who would claim that they felt respected in the process. I doubt that there is any one of us -- to speak of the Golden Rule for a moment -- who would believe that it would be very respectful to have such experiences inflicted on oneself, or on one's son or daughter.

The claim that the techniques were developed and undertaken by highly-trained interrogation personnel has been disputed numerous times. It is now well known that the CIA interrogation strategies were based on work done by psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen in the Air Force's Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) program. Thiessen acknowledges the role of the SERE program in developing EIT. The CIA contracted with the two psychologists to develop alternative, harsh interrogation techniques. Neither of these men had any experience in conducting interrogations; they simply reverse-engineered the SERE techniques. It was on this dubious basis that CIA interrogators were trained to use dubious techniques they had never employed before.

As to the claim that the sessions were monitored by medical professionals, including physicians and psychologists, this appears to have been true; but the professional associations of both groups have reaffirmed their absolute rejection of any legitimate involvement of medical professionals in these practices.

As to the claim that Abu Zubaydah and other al Qaeda operatives were actually grateful to have the moral burden of continued resistance off their shoulders, it seems extremely hard to believe. But if it is true, I would simply ask this question: if they were permitted to provide information when they "reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship," what does that say about the nature of the suffering we inflicted upon them?

4. Enhanced interrogation techniques are supported by the American people.

I accept the fact that after 10 years of Fox's 24, with its hourly torture scenes, and after just about as many years of being told by respected government officials that "enhanced interrogation techniques" are crucial to national security, a majority of Americans are unwilling to rule it out. The polls are reasonably consistent. I do not agree that this says anything valuable about the legality or morality of torture. It does say a lot about the power of media and leaders to degrade a nation's morality.

5. Enhanced interrogation techniques were consistent with our nation's moral values and ideals.

Let's postulate for argument's sake that X percent greater security on a given day in 2005 was purchased at the cost of edging closer to or over the moral line that separates tough interrogation from torture. Thiessen quotes some Bush Administration and Pentagon officials who explicitly state their willingness to buy this incrementally greater security at that price, as well as some who were not. If one takes the tradeoff view, then EIT would be described as the right thing to do despite being inconsistent with our nation's highest moral values and ideals.

But Dick Cheney makes the stronger claim that EIT was actually the moral choice, because it would be immoral to forego the opportunity to collect intelligence using these tough techniques. The error in this reasoning is the reduction of morality to enhanced security, as if there are no other considerations involved in morality. Vice President Cheney has lost the tradeoff here.

I also note in passing that the weakness of the language of "moral ideals" is one reason why I never use the phrase. "Ideals" are a Greek rather than biblical concept, and their very airy perfection and unreachability makes it all too easy for us to sacrifice them in the world of the "real" as we understand it at the time.

6. Enhanced interrogation techniques bear no real resemblance to torture as practiced by totalitarian regimes or the Spanish Inquisition.

For my money this is the most rhetorically interesting move Thiessen makes, and in some ways the most problematic. I believe he is successful in showing that, yes, the interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush Administration were not as severe as those employed by Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Pol Pot's Cambodia or the Spanish Inquisition. But this loses some of its force when we ask whether we really want to be involved in practices that bring to mind those tyrannical regimes and force such comparisons. This is a race to the bottom, and even the winner of such a contest loses.

Second, I can only ask the reader to compare the thorough descriptions offered by Thiessen of the various water tortures employed by these various police state regimes and of the waterboarding techniques we authorized and used. It's in chapter 4, called "You Did the Right Thing." After quoting long stretches of the 2005 Steven Bradbury OLC memo which describes approved water suffocation techniques in excruciating detail, Thiessen says, "Any American who reads these words should take enormous comfort and pride in the care taken by the Justice Department and the CIA to ensure that the detainee is not harmed during the procedure." On the contrary, precisely as an American, what I see is a bureaucratic and legalistic euphemizing and cleansing of a technique historically employed by some of the world's most abusive regimes. Thiessen wants me to feel comforted and proud. Instead I feel dirty and ashamed. I take no comfort at all.

Christian Reflections

I was initially intending to write an entirely separate section of this paper on specifically Christian grounds for arguing for and against torture, or the Bush-Cheney "enhanced interrogation techniques," which included the "suffocation by water" practice known as "waterboarding," continuous solitary confinement and indefinite incommunicado detention, hooding and other forms of sensory deprivation, extended sleep deprivation and use of ear splitting loud music, "wallings" (or "beatings by use of a collar," involving detainees being propelled forcefully against walls), face and belly slapping, grabbing, beating and kicking, confinement in a box, prolonged standing in stress positions, prolonged forced nudity, exposure to cold temperatures and cold water, prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles, threats of various kinds, forced shaving and dietary deprivation/manipulation.

Those who have followed my work, such as my 2006 Christianity Today article, or our 2007 "Evangelical Declaration Against Torture" will already be familiar with the kinds of Christian ethical arguments I and my colleagues have made against torture. The Declaration worked its way from a foundation in the God-given sacredness of each human life through a defense of human rights to a rejection of then-current Administration policies as a violation of both. You may also be familiar with the kinds of counterarguments made by those who have criticized that declaration or my other writings about torture. In a 2009 presentation at the Society of Christian Ethics, I grouped opposition to my arguments related to torture under 10 primary headings:

1. Those who oppose Bush counterterror and detainee policies are politically motivated "leftists."
2. Those who oppose these policies are pacifists-in-disguise who do not support the legitimate use of force to defend our country.
3. Torture is a much worse problem around the world, and especially on the part of the very terrorists we are capturing. That is where those worried about it should focus their attention. Failure to pay proper attention to such problems reveals that opponents are at least anti-Bush, if not anti-American.
4. The evangelical anti-torture movement is divisive within the Christian community and should be dropped on grounds of Christian unity; besides, there are far more important concerns facing us.
5. The struggle against Islamist terrorism is a new kind of war requiring new means.
6. Terrorists are not protected by international law and its conventions.
7. Those in the anti-torture movement have failed to define torture adequately.
8. Just War Theory permits considerable coercion in defense of national security, the protection of which is government's primary responsibility.
9. Any argument made about torture that is not offered within Just War Theory's canons of argumentation is by definition invalid. Our work approaching torture via a sanctity-of-life argument is overly emotive and even irrational.
10. Some argue that torture (narrowly defined) should be banned and not employed; others argue that it should be banned in principle but possibly applied in emergency circumstances with later accountability.

Arguments 1, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 10 are either suggested or addressed directly by Thiessen. I spared you some of that, but most of these claims are present, and I have sought to address his most substantive arguments. Argument 2 is untrue factually. Argument 4 is a red herring; differences of conviction within Christianity on moral issues exist, different people rank moral issues at different levels of significance and to take a position on a disputed moral issue is not a violation of canons of Christian unity.

Arguments 8 and 9 related to Just War Theory are really the only serious arguments that have been made from an explicitly Christian perspective against the view taken in EDAT or in some of my other work about torture. I am quite confident that we will hear Just War Theory arguments employed today. So let me take just a minute to comment at a meta-ethical level on the role of Just War Theory in Christian moral argument.

I respect Just War Theory. I see its value. But much of my work over the last several years has led me to deep suspicion of its continued employment as the default paradigm for all Christian moral reasoning about war and peace. As long ago as 2004, I argued that there was a fracture in Just War Theory between those who seem to find in it warrant for every American war and every tactic employed in every American war, and those who do not. More recently in my work on the sanctity of life, understood broadly, I have seen historical examples of Just War Theory being deployed to justify every possible ridiculous battle during the Middle Ages, often in the name of Christ. This is not to mention the Crusades themselves, which were justified on just war grounds, or the wars of conquest in the New World, which had a whole lot of Crusade mentality going while also being justified on just war grounds. It may be appropriate for more than a little "hermeneutics of suspicion" to be employed in relation to the employment of Just War Theory, even on the part of those, like myself, who do not rule out the moral legitimacy of some uses of force by the state.

Just War Theory is one form of Christian tradition, borrowed and adapted from the classical world, handed down through Catholicism, borrowed and adapted further by evangelical Protestants, borrowed and adapted further again in U.S. military tradition and practice and in international law. It has value; rightly interpreted, I think its value would include its ability to generate a total rejection of torture. That is how it has been interpreted by such stalwart just warriors as James Turner Johnson of Princeton.

But Just War Theory is not divine revelation. It is not scripture. It carries no intrinsic authority. Its capacity to help Christians discern right from wrong in the issue of war is limited. It is a form of moral reasoning about war. But human moral practices are shaped by more than our named and official forms of moral reasoning. Just War Theory in itself does not appear capable of preventing Christians from being swayed by their loyalties to nation or party or president, or by their passions of anger and grief and fear, such as those that swept our nation after 9/11. We are more than reasoning creatures, and the way we use our reason reflects our deepest loyalties, passions, trusts and fears. I believe those led us astray after 9/11.

The pro-EIT arguments of a Marc Thiessen, faithfully channeling Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, amount essentially to a utilitarian justification of a euphemism for torture in the name of national security. I think that most Christians who have supported EIT or torture itself have done the same thing but have dressed it up a bit with some Just War Theory. I think that distinctively Christian categories of thought have had little to nothing to contribute to the perspective of those Christians who have supported either EIT or torture.

These days in Christian political theology and ethics there is something of a recovery of a distinctive entity called the church. Stanley Hauerwas was a pioneer here. He has been followed more recently by all kinds of really fine theologians and ethicists who are trying to help the church recover its distinctive calling, identity and witness. These are good developments.

For decades, Christian moral thinkers have tagged along and tried to play the nation's political games in the way the nation's politicians and theorists played them. This has been true on the right and the left. We have offered a decorative veneer of legitimation to our favored party and politicians. We were helpful to Caesar as long as we delivered for Caesar some political cover or some access to a favored voting bloc. And in return we got the illusion of access to power.

But the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church has a different Lord, a different sacred text, a different mission, a different history, a different politics, a different accountability than does the American state or any other one.

I am glad that on the issue of torture I have encountered numerous fine American citizens who are fully able to discover solely in the laws, traditions, interests and values of America grounds for total opposition to torture by any name. I think these purely "secular" resources are and ought to be sufficient for public moral opposition to torture. But I also see certain vulnerabilities in American moral resources and reasoning per se, notably the risk under conditions of fear that we will follow Dick Cheney in reducing all morality to the question of what will provide 100 percent security for the American people.

It is here that a church that knows who it is and whose it is ought to be able to feel the stirrings of its distinctive identity, calling and mission. We are just a different kind of people than this. We just need to remember who we are.

In the face of the question of whether we who follow Christ can support the "suffocation by water" practice known as "waterboarding," continuous solitary confinement and indefinite incommunicado detention, hooding and other forms of sensory deprivation, extended sleep deprivation and use of ear splitting loud music, "wallings" (or "beatings by use of a collar," involving detainees being propelled forcefully against walls), face and belly slapping, grabbing, beating and kicking, confinement in a box, prolonged standing in stress positions, prolonged forced nudity, exposure to cold temperatures and cold water, prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles, threats of various kinds, forced shaving and dietary deprivation/manipulation, I find myself driven back to a community that once thought like this:

"For since we ... have learned from His teaching and His laws that evil ought not to be requited with evil, that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another, an ungrateful world is now for a long period enjoying a benefit from Christ, inasmuch as by His means the rage of savage ferocity has been softened, and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow-creature." -- Arnobius (ca. 300), Against the Heathen, ANF 6:415.

Or maybe this:

"There is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect who should do something more than heathen men or publicans, one who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well...Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith." -- Cyprian (200-258), Epistle to the Carthaginians.

It would be nice to hear a bit more of that part of our tradition as we, once again, Christian brothers and sisters, debate the fine points of the ethics of torture.

 
 
 

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