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Why Are Christians Not Discussing the Ethics of Torture?

In 2008 I objected to President Bush’s views on “enhanced interrogation.” This is a re-working of that article.

What happens when safety becomes a god? You condone torture.

Torture of any kind (even waterboarding) must come under careful scrutiny by Christians, particularly those who would like to claim our country as a Christian nation and a moral leader in a world of moral ambiguity.

Waterboarding is torture. It is not merely “simulated” drowning. It is, in fact, a monitored drowning where the victim involuntarily gags and swallows large amounts of water. It can be done in such a way that water does not actually enter the nose and mouth, but the effect is so terrifying and the psychological impact so intense that convulsive gagging is involuntary. It is so dangerous that doctors must be present to determine whether a person has entered the final drowning spiral. John McCain and most everybody is right about this. It’s been called torture for hundreds of years by a whole bunch of different names.

President Bush, his ambitious neo-cons, and their army of evangelical lemmings were wrong.

One expert says,

Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.

Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.

Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration –usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten with its use again and again.

Call it “Chinese Water Torture,” “the Barrel,” or “the Waterfall,” it is all the same. Whether the victim is allowed to comply or not is usually left up to the interrogator. Many waterboard team members, even in training, enjoy the sadistic power of making the victim suffer and often ask questions as an after thought. These people are dangerous and predictable and when left unshackled, unsupervised or undetected they bring us the murderous abuses seen at Abu Ghraieb, Baghram and Guantanamo. No doubt, to avoid human factors like fear and guilt someone has created a one-button version that probably looks like an MRI machine with high intensity waterjets. (source)

I do not see anywhere in the Christian world-view a place for torture. God’s warriors always struck their enemies. A decisive blow. God’s warriors never, as far as I can tell, resorted to the debasing of human life and dignity to accomplish their purposes. God’s warriors simply accept the fact that sometimes there are things only God can do.

I cannot think of an instance in Scripture where God’s warriors ever tortured their enemies. Joshua rolled a stone over the cave where the five kings had fled, but that was to incarcerate them until he could properly execute them. He hanged their bodies only after they were dead.

Even the decision of the armies of Israel to cut off the big toes and the thumbs of Adoni-bezek appears to me not to be for torture, but for justice. An eye for an eye so to speak. But what the people of Israel did is not necessarily the right standard, nor is it clear that they were directed to do this by God. Nonetheless, in the main God’s people killed outright their enemies. Pagans gouged out eyes, castrated, and tortured. God’s people killed with a sudden strike. Then, if necessary, hacked them in pieces. For didactic purposes.

God’s people have always honored the dignity of people. Even enemies.

It continues to amaze me that Christians in America are so naive that they never suspect that some of the very laws they are glibly tolerating today in the spirit of red, white, and blue could very well one day be used against Christians as enemies of the state. Other countries already perceive Christian witness as psychological terror.

Is there any Christian who is going to be proud of his country if government authorized officials are waterboarding him, forcing him to gag and swallow water, in order to get the confession they want?

Are we so stupid as to trust human nature with torture? Does anyone really believe that the so-called “controlled environments” are really that controlled? Does Abu Graib not ring a bell? And if you should be a proponent of such torture, at what moment — at what split-second — does “justified” torture become gratuitous, masochistic gratification at the sight of kinetic physical torture? Even troops who have fought in combat say that they know when, in the heat of battle, they cross an invisible line, crossing over from killing to murder. Something happens in the heart. Something happens when it is too easy. Something happens when one has unchallenged power.

Our soldiers that endured waterboarding in Vietnam seem to be persuaded that it is torture. The Navy Seals used it to train their men in counter-interrogation techniques but abandoned it because it was too brutal. Hurting morale. But President Bush said it was “one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror.”

I for one am an American Christian that is not so American that I am not repulsed by the slide to barbarity that I simply do not speak out because I’m suspicious of Democrat motivation in disclosing the report. In 2008 I said this: Some tools, Mr. President, are not to be judged purely on the basis of whether or not they work. Some tools are not allowed. And if it is right for us to use, it is right for our enemies to use as well.

Laws are made because we are suspicious of human nature. Even our own. If we are empowering a few men in a dark room to determine when or not torture is expedient we are stupidly placing the reputation and dignity of an entire nation in the hands of a few characters. Characters that may have all the moral fiber of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib who were not on a remote island in a closed room, but in a “controlled-environment” with soldiers of varying ranks and authority all around. Their evil sadism and masochism was unfettered by normal military and prison protocol. Imagine giving them a license to torture.

Some things are more important than national security. National morality is one of those things.

3 Responses

  1. Bob, Isn’t this related to the classic ethical dilemma of the train headed down the tracks with a person on the rails and the bridge out on the other track? Do you take the other track and kill everyone on the train or kill the single person on the track to save everyone on the train?

    It seems to me that the torture question (while distasteful) is along these lines. If, by waterboarding an enemy of war (not some innocent bystander), a thousand people can be saved from a terrorist attack, should we do that?

    I am not comfortable answering that decisively. You seem to say No, let the thousand be killed and keep the one from being tortured? But perhaps you would answer that differently. I am not trying to put words in your mouth.

    In addition, isn’t there an element of this that attaches the waterboarding to resistance? The person being waterboarded is in control. He can stop it at any time by giving the information being sought. Again, I am not comfortable with that answer. But isn’t that how we treat other situations. When kids disobey and get punished, we point out that it is their fault, not ours as parents. We didn’t make the choice to disobey. They made that choice and if they want a different outcome, they should make a different choice. It’s not entirely analogous to be sure, but at least in principle, it seems similar. MccCain and others, heroically, did not take that option. And we, as Americans, say the Vietnamese were wrong (or the Japanese as in Unbroken). But it is not a completely one-sided thing is it? Isn’t there a matter of both sides making choices? Again, I am not sure; I just wonder.

    Another issue I wonder if it matters is that the torture is not simply pointless torture (as it was in many prison camps or POW situations). There was a point to it, namely the protection of American lives. What is permissible in the defense and protection of human lives?

    I only ask these because I think you give us a good start here, but I wonder if there is more that might be worthy of consideration in this.

    • I’ll be the first to admit that I would unhesitatingly use torture on any person if I knew it could save my family’s life. Sinful though it may be. I think the issue — in my mind anyway — is not that warfare causes us to sometimes cross a line or even that some greater moral concern may trump the immediate moral concern of a person’s pain tolerance. I think the larger issue is the codifying and the legalizing of it as an acceptable means to an end. You’re right: no easy answers.

      I like how Al Mohler tried to wrestle with this topic back in 2005. I also like how the evangelical conscience seems to be awakening to this ethical dilemma now that we are several years past the initial fright of 2001. See Joe Carter’s comments.

      I don’t have answers. I ask a question. Why are evangelicals not wrestling with this? I can’t help but think that there is some political expediency in ignoring the issue because the wrong people are bringing it up.

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