THE BLOG
12/18/2014 10:29 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

Who Would Jesus Waterboard?

Ben Franklin once wrote that "it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer." Dick Cheney, on the other hand, said: "I'm more concerned with bad guys who got out . . . than I am with a few that in fact were innocent." When asked if he was bothered that at least 25 percent of those detained and tortured might have been innocent, he responded, "I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective. . . . I'd do it again in a minute."

US law, following Franklin, has built-in protections for the innocent--the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt, the right to remain silent, and so on. US lawmakers built in these precautions because lawmakers think that these are human rights (not simply the rights of US citizens). Cheney, on the other hand, scorns the fear of the violation of the innocent.

We have recently learned (and Cheney has conceded) that innocent people were tortured. Abu Hudhaifa was subjected to "ice water baths and 66 hours of standing sleep deprivation" before being released due to mistaken identity. Gul Rahman froze to death. For 480 days Mohammed al-Asad, a Yemeni national, was stripped naked, put in diapers, and shackled to a cement wall with loud music pumped constantly into his cell; upon release, he learned that he had lost his business. And, then, of course, there's waterboarding, which Bush condoned and about which Cheney claims without irony: "Waterboarding, the way we did it, was, in fact, not torture."

A new survey shows that 69 percent of white, evangelical Christians agree with Cheney that the CIA tortures were justified. Somehow the followers of the turn-the-other-cheek, love-your-enemies, pray-for-those-who-mistreat-you Lord Jesus have come to say "Amen!" to the cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of God's creatures.

After 9-11, giving into our worst instincts is understandable but is neither morally nor legally nor theologically permissible.

Cheney denies any moral equivalences between terrorist and US tactics, but it's hard to see why. If flying a plane into a building full of innocent people is morally abhorrent, so, too is freezing people, water boarding, sleep deprivation and forced rectal feeding (anal rape, by another name). Maybe there is a difference, so let me put this another way: intending to kill and then killing innocent people is really, really, really bad; intending to torture and then torturing innocent people is really, really bad.

It's also wrong to torture guilty people. See Article 5 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." No one, guilty or not, should be subjected to torture. Of course, it's probably not as bad as torturing innocent people. So let's say that torturing guilty people is really bad.

Cheney and Bush justified torture because of the results it produced--"as long as we achieve our objective.....To get the guys who did 9/11 and ... to avoid another attack against the United States."

Such means-ends reasoning is precisely the sort of reasoning that Christians, of all people, should resist. It's not OK to lie, cheat, or steal, even if it were to produce an astoundingly good end. And it's not OK to torture anyone under any circumstances, even if torture produces an astoundingly good end. Why? Every person, in every circumstance, must be treated with respect because every person is an image-bearer of the divine. That is, every person in every circumstance must be treated as an end in themselves, not as a means to one's own ends. Christians, of all people, should be repulsed by any vicious dehumanization of an icon of God--for whatever reason. It is never right, under any circumstances to treat a person merely as a means to one's own ends.

Suppose, though, we concede the appropriateness of means-ends reasoning. Did Bush-Cheney achieve their ends?

By the way: Bush-Cheney knowingly and willfully detained innocent people in Guantanamo for years because, no surprises here, it is better to imprison hundreds of innocent people in order to detain a few hardcore terrorists. The ends justify the means.

While we have indeed captured many of the "guys who did 9/11" let us not forget how we did it. We invaded Iraq, a country which had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11 (Bush admitted that 15 out of 19 of the attackers were Saudis; none were from Iraq). In short, the plan to catch the guys who did 9/11 involved invading the wrong country, with disastrous results: invading the wrong country caused at least 133,000 civilian deaths. By any calculus, these ends do not justify the means.

What about the other end: "avoid another attack against the United States"? In the short run, we may have managed to avoid another attack against the United States. But our vicious torture policy and the invasion of Iraq have proven enormously successful recruiting tools for our enemies--more successful than the best sermons of a thousand radical imams. We have seen in the growing threat of ISIS, how the Bush-Cheney policies have played into our enemy's hands.

Finally, when we invaded the wrong country, we created a power vacuum into which ISIS could stroll with impunity. Saddam Hussein may have been a wicked tyrant but he was successful at keeping radical groups in check. By removing and then not replacing the power to keep radicals in check, we created the circumstances within which ISIS could flourish. With millions of displaced and dispirited young men in the Middle East, the Bush-Cheney recruiting tools (torture and invasion of Iraq) will likely drive more into ISIS or ISIS-like groups. While Bush-Cheney's shortsightedness produced some immediate and dramatic photo-ops, it set the stage for new tyrants--ones, unlike Saddam Hussien, determined to take over the world.

Now that we face a vastly deadlier threat than before 9/11, we learn that most Americans simply don't care about and that most Christians condone the ineffective policies and vicious practices that have placed us in this precarious situation.