Torture and the cross

Finally, today, the executive summary of the Senate’s torture report was released to the public. It’s available here.

I’ve not gathered up the courage or the stomach to read it but from what I’ve read, the CIA  used torture much more widely, indiscriminately, and ineffectively than previously reported. Andrew Sullivan’s liveblog makes for interesting reading as he includes commentary from tweeters and from voices on the left and right.

Of everything done by the US in the war on terror–the wars, the indiscriminate killing, the destruction of people’s lives, the lies, the assault on civil liberties–what has affected me most profoundly is the use of torture. To subject human beings to such pain and suffering in the hope of getting useful information is counter-intuitive. The report documents just how ineffective torture was in the war on terror. That many continue to defend it is mind-boggling.

In my last term as a college professor, I taught a course on the witch hunt in early modern Europe. We read a wide variety of sources including handbooks for witch hunters, the accounts of interrogations, and trial records. I remember a student asking as we discussed the case of one accused witch, who implicated her neighbors after being tortured, why anyone would believe the testimony of someone who had been tortured. The year was 2009. I reminded him and the rest of the class about the contemporary debate about torture. He got very quiet, very quickly.

My own scholarly research was on dissident religious groups in early modern Europe. I read trial records, interrogations, and the like of hundreds, perhaps thousands of individuals who were suspected of holding heterodox religious beliefs. Many of them were tortured. Some of them persisted in their beliefs, some of them denied them, many of them seemed to search for the words to say whatever they thought their interrogators wanted to hear, if for no other reason than to end their suffering.

The Enlightenment comes under attack for many things, but one of its great achievements was to bring some order and reason to the judicial process and to assert some very basic human rights. There was a time, not too long ago, when the community of nations condemned the use of torture. There was a time, not so long ago, when the US condemned torture. But now we make use of it and our President, our President!, seeks to suppress the evidence of torture and refuses to bring those who perpetrated these acts to account.

Perhaps most offensive to me is the fact that many, perhaps most American Christians, seem not to care that the US has used torture. We worship a God who became human and dwelt among us, a God who was crucified, a form of capital punishment that is essentially execution by torture. We Episcopalians promise at our own baptisms, and at every baptismal service we attend, “to respect the dignity of every human person.”

By definition and practice, torture denies human dignity. Reading accounts of “rectal feeding” is gruesome evidence of what happens when interrogators no longer see the people they are questioning as human.

Perhaps we Christians would begin to understand what it’s all about if we began to use a waterboard as the symbol of our faith instead of the cross

Torture, execution, and murder

There’s a pathetic irony that I posted yesterday about Sarah Palin’s outrageous equating of torture and baptism, and today we learn that the State of Oklahoma “botched” the execution of an inmate for murder.

The description of that travesty is here

There’s been a lengthy legal tangle about Oklahoma’s execution plans, centering on their use of previously untested drugs.

It’s easy for us in other states to pass judgment on Oklahoma’s efforts but I think their (and other states’) efforts to find an acceptable means of capital punishment says a great deal about our national culture. There are methods that are effective: hanging, the electric chair, the guillotine, even firing squads. The Romans used crucifixion. But apparently state governments find such tried and true methods repugnant, so they want to use a cocktail of deadly drugs. But pharmaceutical manufacturers have refused to allow the use of their products. I suspect the governor of Oklahoma and the courts would be reluctant to use a more effective form of capital punishment, for the Supreme Court might deem it “cruel and unusual.”

Most of us would want to deny our own culpability in Oklahoma’s actions today but it is our legal system, our Supreme Court, that allows this sort of of inhumane actions to take place in the name of the people of our states and nation. We are all to blame.

Torture, Baptism, and the Cross

Over the weekend, Sarah Palin succeeded in outraging Christians on both left and right with her statement that “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” That her comments brought about a round of applause at the NRA convention is evidence of the complete moral bankruptcy of conservative politics and the profound lack of understanding of Christian history and theology.

It just so happens that today, April 28, is the tenth anniversary of the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. That ten years later, some Americans still believe torture is morally acceptable and consistent with American ideals is repugnant. That people who call themselves Christian can advocate its use and compare it to the rite of initiation into Christianity is beyond belief.

Less than two weeks ago, Christians remembered the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Crucifixion was execution by torture, excruciating painful, done for no other reason than to strike terror in the hearts of Roman subjects.

Others have written about Palin’s sacrilegious statement. What’s particularly ironic is to think about torture and baptism in terms of the New Testament:

Therefore we have been baptized with him into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so that we too might walk in newness of life–(Romans 6:4)

Our Savior, Jesus Christ, was a victim of torture. For Christians to applaud, to laugh, at a comparison of torture and baptism is to be like those Roman soldiers who mocked and scorned Jesus.

Even if our President, Department of Justice, and the Court of Public Opinion refuses to bring to account all those who committed or advocated torture, we as a nation, we Christians will have to account for the evil that was perpetrated.

The Nation wonders whether we’ve learned anything in the ten years since Abu Ghraid

Respecting the dignity of every human person and the refusal to be complicit in torture

I have posted a great deal over the years about US use of torture. As an Episcopal priest, I have also posted several times about our baptismal covenant, and the vow we make in it “to respect the dignity of every human being.”

As a priest, I also struggle with how our liturgy connects with people’s daily lives. Do they find in our worship help in making sense of the moral and ethical decisions they face? Does our worship help them find meaning in their lives? I wonder about those questions and occasionally, as in today’s sermon, I explored how the rituals of Lent may or may not be meaningful to most of those who attend our worship services.

Of course, I never know and can often not tell what sort of impact either or worship or my sermons have on those who attend. I was amused today when greeting some visitors to learn that they had attended one previous service at Grace, a year ago, and they remembered my sermon–they remembered that I had once worked for a seafood processing company. So we don’t know the sort of impact our words and our worship have.

But then I came across this story of Lt. Stuart Crouch, who refused to prosecute prisoners at Guantanamo who had been tortured. He talks about his anguish as he learned the “harsh interrogation” techniques used on prisoners. But what cemented the decision for him was one Sunday when he attended a service at an “Anglican” church, where a baptism was celebrated:

I was wrestling with these—with this legal issue and with this ethical issue. And then, ultimately, you know, one Sunday when I was in church, it all kind of came together. I describe myself as an evangelical Christian. I was attending a church service in the Anglican tradition, and it was a baptism of a child. And anybody who’s ever been to one of these services knows that at the end of the baptism all of the congregants in the church stand up, and the pastor goes back and forth with basically the tenets of the Christian faith. And one of those tenets was that we would respect the dignity of every human being. And it was at that time, when I was professing that on Sunday, begged the question to me, if this is what you believe as a Christian, then how does that inform how you’re going to act the other six days of the week? And that really, for me, was the moral point that I came to of what I had to do next.

And what I did next was I went and met with the chief prosecutor for the Office of Military Commissions. I told him my legal opinion. I told him my ethical opinion. And then I stated in—you know, I have a moral reservation at this point that what’s been done to Slahi is just reprehensible, and for that reason alone, I’m going to refuse to participate in the prosecution of his case. Shortly, within a couple of days, I reduced that—those positions into writing. I provided them to the chief prosecutor. And then, after a few days, I was told to transfer that case to someone else and for me to get busy on my other cases.

Our liturgy is not “just ritual” or rote, or cute things we do on Sunday. The liturgy matters. It helps orient us theologically and ethically, and occasionally, it can be a powerful witness all by itself, to the justice and mercy of God. Sometimes it can be a sign of God’s reign in the world. Thanks be to God!

Torture and Zero Dark Thirty

I won’t see the film but I’m interested in the debate over its depiction of torture. In the New York Review of Books, Steve Coll writes:

Official torture is not an anathema in much of the United States; it is a credible policy choice. In public opinion polling, a bare majority of Americans opposes torturing prisoners in the struggle against terrorism, but public support for torture has risen significantly during the last several years, a change that the Stanford University intelligence scholar Amy Zegart has attributed in part to the influence of “spy-themed entertainment.”

Even if torture worked, it could never be justified because it is immoral. Yet state-sanctioned, formally organized forms of torture recur even in developed democracies because some public leaders have been willing to attach their prestige to an argument that in circumstances of national emergency, torture may be necessary because it will extract timely intelligence relevant to public safety when more humane methods of interrogation will not.

There is no empirical evidence to support this argument. Among other things, no responsible social scientist would condone peer-reviewed experiments to compare torture’s results to those from less coercive questioning. Defenders of torture in the United States therefore argue by issuing a flawed syllogism: the CIA tortured al-Qaeda suspects; those suspects provided information that helped to protect the public; therefore, torture was justified and even essential.

Andrew Sullivan is relentless in exploring the film’s perspective on torture. Here’s what he says about the filmmakers’ choice not to depict the debate over the morality and efficacy of torture, even within the Bush administration, and between the CIA and FBI:

One has to wonder whether any morally serious director would have chosen a morally-neutral approach to torture if she were portraying torture practiced by, say, the Iranian terror state, or by Nazis or Communists? The techniques are exactly the same. Is not taking a stand as you present such evil itself an endorsement? My sense is that Bigelow and Boal talked to some of those war criminals who did the torture and since torturers have to find some way to justify their acts, and because they are modern Americans fighting terror, the director simply did not have the courage to confront them with the fact that they belong in jail and hell for what they did.

From Jane Mayer:

I had trouble enjoying the movie. I’ve interviewed Khaled El-Masri, the German citizen whose suit the E.C.H.R. adjudicated. He turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, an innocent car salesman whom the C.I.A. kidnapped and held in a black-site prison for four months, and who was “severely beaten, sodomized, shackled, and hooded.” What Masri lived through was so harrowing that, when I had a cup of coffee with him, a few years ago, he couldn’t describe it to me without crying. Maybe I care too much about all of this to enjoy it with popcorn. But maybe the creators of “Zero Dark Thirty” should care a little bit more.

Torture’s back in the news, and in our culture

A 60 Minutes interview with Jose Rodriguez in which he defends the use of torture has largely passed unnoticed by the mainstream media. But Andrew Sullivan continues to force us to pay attention to crimes perpetrated in the name of the US.

Here’s Sullivan on why Rodriguez destroyed tapes of torture interviews:

watching live-action tapes of waterboarding would have brought the reality of torture – and the rank incompetence and brutality of the torturers – into stark relief. It would have destroyed any remnants of Bush’s and Cheney’s reputation and America’s moral standing in the world. It would have forced the American people to realize that their leaders really were and are war criminals.

Sullivan on the 60 Minutes interview itself, quoting Lesley Stahl: “we used to think waterboarding was a war crime.” Yes we did, when the Nazis and Khmer Rouge did it. Moral people think its a war crime when Americans do it, too.

And the argument that torture helped to get evidence used in the assassination of Osama Bin Laden is also refuted by the CIA and by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The investigation by Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee (The Republicans wouldn’t participate) has concluded “there’s little evidence that our so-called enhanced interrogation techniques produced key intelligence.”

Robert de Neufville comments:

We should not continue to look the other way. We may no longer be torturing people. But now we have established a precedent that we can torture with impunity. Torture doesn’t work, but if we aren’t honest with ourselves about it, we will inevitably torture again.

Greg Sargent wonders whether a President Romney would reverse Obama’s executive order forbidding its use.

Torture In the Game of Thrones:

I raise the issue of torture regularly because it is a religious issue.

William Cavanaugh, the author of the brilliant Torture and the Eucharist has this to say about torture:

Torture is a part of the Christian past. From a Catholic point of view, the Church does indeed have penance to do for the Inquisition. But how? I propose that the way to do penance for the Inquisition is to speak out and resist torture as it is practiced now.

The examination of conscience that would precede such penance would require rejection of the many ways that we try to distance ourselves from realization of our own sins. Chief among these in this case is the attempt to put distance between ourselves and torture by relegating it to the past or to the remote Other. Confession of our sin would require not simply the admission that torture has been done in our name, but the confession that only God is God, and not any nation-state that claims to save us from evil.

Christians worship a God who was tortured to death by the Empire. It is this God who saves by saying “no” to violence on the cross. Our penance, then, would take the form of resisting the idolatry of nation and state and its attendant violence.


Waterboarding was torture–until Bush and Cheney said it wasn’t

I don’t often blog about things that might seem political, because there are many others who do. Occasionally, however, items come to my attention that demand a theological response. This is one of them. The US’s resort to torture in the wake of 9/11 is outrageous. Of course, the Bush Administration claimed that waterboarding wasn’t torture, and in the wake of that claim the Mainstream Media quit using the word torture. Now a Harvard study backs up what had been anecdotal evidence. The salient quote (from Andrew Sullivan):

Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding. From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27).

By contrast, from 2002‐2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.

A spokesperson for the  New York Times responded with the following statement:

“As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture. When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves. Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture.”

The Times spokesman added that outside of the news pages, editorials and columnists “regard waterboarding as torture and believe that it fits all of the moral and legal definitions of torture.” He continued: “So that’s what we call it, which is appropriate for the opinion pages.”

White is white, except when it’s black.

And torture should matter to every Christian for two reasons. First, because our faith is dependent on the act of torture; crucifixion is nothing more than execution by torture, and as I’ve said before, one of the first things Constantine did after legalizing Christianity was to outlaw crucifixion as means of capital punishment. The second reason is because of all of the torture done over the centuries against Christians and in the name of Christianity. It took a very long time, nearly two millennia, for Christians to learn that faith could not be coerced, and that confessions gained under torture were of no use. One of the most chilling moments I ever had as a teacher was in my last semester at Furman. As we were discussing court records of witchcraft interrogations and the outlandish confessions extracted by means of torture, one of the students asked, “Why would anyone use torture?” Why indeed?