What torture says about America

Andrew Sullivan has a pretty stark way of framing an issue. In the case of the policy of using torture against enemy combatants, he compares the United States’ policy as investigated by the Red Cross to that of the Gestapo’s. It’s pretty sobering.

“Bush and Cheney were, in fact, more brutal in their ‘enhanced interrogation’ than the Gestapo was. And note that I am not engaging in the slightest hyperbole here. I’m not saying that the US is Nazi Germany in any way. I am saying that the torture program used by Bush and Cheney follows exactly the specific methods used by the Gestapo. This is not in any historical dispute, although the irony of using the exact same phrase for the exact same methods is one reason the Bushies dropped the term.

We also have a very specific legal precedent. When the US captured officials who had done to prisoners exactly what the last president did, the US prosecuted them, found them guilty and executed them. The price Cheney pays is a fawning interview on CNN.

That’s who we are. That’s what we’ve become.”

Read the full article here with links to the Gestapo document and the Red Cross’ report.

We’ve not covered this question in detail on The Lead since our focus is more on news about the Episcopal Church. But there’s a fundamental moral question here that Sullivan, a Republican, is asking and which deserves some deep thought by people of faith. Some of the churches in Germany were among the strongest supporters of their government in days leading up to World War 2.

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  1. Some more about torture and a free society and terrorism here

  2. Richard III

    It may be too late to do so but I’d like to see TEC pass a resolution at General Convention in July condemning torture by our government in the strongest terms possible, that the rendition of a person to a foreign country that tortures people on our behalf and the operation of secret overseas prisons is not acceptable – ever. I’d also like to see it include a repudiation of such policies by the Bush Administration and a reaffirmation by the Obama Administration that it will not engage in such behavior again.

    —-Richard Warner

  3. Peter Pearson

    There are a number of decisions, actions, and policies of the last administration that I believe would warrant an investigation at the very least. Unfortunately this kind of suggestion, when made by others, has been dismissed as the ramblings of crazy people, political extremists, and neurotic conspiracy theorists. I do not consider myself any of these. Perhaps I am not alone?

  4. Zachary

    This is an important conversation for the church to have. A prominent theologian once said that the people in Germany who supported the Nazis were good, decent, hard-working people. The church is not about being ‘decent and hardworking people’ but about discipleship, repentance, and grace. We are the visible sign of Christ in the world as we live out our baptismal covenant with renewal in the Eucharist. The issue of torture is utterly repugnant to the body (church) that has as our head the tortured savior.

    (Editor’s note: Thanks, Zachary. We need your full name next time. )

  5. Torture is both a desecration of the image of God and a clear war crime under international law. Both Bush and Cheney should be prosecuted, along with DOJ, CIA, and DOD officials, as well as members of the armed services, who were/are complicit in these crimes. The Church’s goal should be to make this a nonpartisan issue. It should be taken off the table, so that it would be unthinkable for a politician of either party to condone it. Vigorous prosecutions are the only way to do this. John McCain could play a real leadership role here, if he so chose. One should not assume that Obama will keep his hands clean, though his public actions so far have been encouraging. There is a real vengeful bloodlust that warps the moral judgment of the American people. We tend to think that a “just cause” suffices to justify any sort of atrocity. Even the most permissive Christian teaching on war requires just means and torture isn’t one of them.

    We need to do everything we can to create a bipartisan consensus against torture.

  6. John B. Chilton

    The Post says these methods were used against senior members of al-Qaeda.

    ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/16/AR2009031602615.html )

    The former administration those prisoners provided high value intelligence.

    My point of view is that the use of the methods have to be weighed in terms of whether there is a realistic potential that there will be intelligence generated that could save a large number of lives. One must look at the tradeoffs. You can’t say it’s repugnant to look at tradeoffs — they exist and they involve the lives of real people.

    This is perspective taken by Richard Posner in “Not a Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency”. There is much to unpack in such a position: are there alternative means of obtaining the live-saving information in time, is the information likely to be generated truly of value, are the methods limited, and – yes – does the use of the methods make matters worse in terms of the community’s safety.

    It is a position that is morally defensible. And it is one that the pragmatic President Obama would, I think, take if he was faced the choice of using them to prevent an event like, say, 9/11.

    Ultimately we are talking about the church taking a position on public policy. I would just remind us that the post-Watergate reforms that built information-sharing walls between our intelligence organizations resulted in the intelligence failure that was 9/11. We have to look at the potential consequences of policy recommendations for the community.

  7. John,

    With all due respect, that’s a nice bit of consequentialist reasoning, but how is it Christian? At best, a Christian could say that, other things being equal, one must save the maximum number of lives. But things aren’t equal. We are talking about the deliberate and Satanic attempt to unmake the mind and body of a creature of God, made in the image and likeness of God. There is no tradeoff possible, and the position you are advocating is in fact morally repugnant. Even on consequentialist grounds, it can be shown that torture is counterproductive. But to weigh something of infinite worth in a utilitarian calculus is to have abandoned the standpoint of ethics. Even on a just war theory, to torture a prisoner is to neglect the requirements of ius in bello. Moreover, to consider torture as a possible means is to have abandoned the love of enemy and the normative structures of doctrine and practice that make this commandment intelligible. The natural law of self preservation may arguably make something like just war theory defensible. I can’t see how to get to where you are going without opening the door to every kind of atrocity and war crime, so long as it can be shown to save a sufficient number of lives.

  8. Jesus died by torture under the Empire of his day and we want to nitpick about the ethics of occasions for using torture? We really don’t have that option. We have an example. We may not be able to follow it, but it is quite clear.

    Jan Adams

  9. John B. Chilton

    Speaking of consequentialism:

    France, echoing the reaction of some aid agencies, said it “voices extremely sharp concern over the consequences of [the Pope’s comments [on condoms]]”. “While it is not up to us to pass judgment on Church doctrine, we consider that such comments are a threat to public health policies and the duty to protect human life,” foreign ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said.

  10. Clint Davis

    The government officials of the United States are charged with protecting the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic as the first and foremost duty, even above the protection of American lives. An armed and vigilant citizenry is expected to do some of that self-protection ourselves. It is the difference between being a Citizen vs. being a Subject. Besides, time and time again it has been proven that the information gained during torture is suspect at best, and useless at worst.

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