Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Tag: torture

Torture, American Exceptionalism, and Chronological Snobbery

C.S. Lewis used to talk about what he termed Chronological Snobbery, that is, the belief that the art, practices, culture etc… of an earlier time are inherently less valuable or evolved than those of the current era. This attitude, of course, crops up a lot at every point in history. Unless we’re incurable cynics we like to focus on the good things going on in our time, and explain away the bad. It goes against the very modern narrative of continual progress to suggest that there may actually be some ways in which we are less moral or less well-equipped than our forebears.1 One of the ways this comes out in the era of the New Atheists and the like, is the condemnation of religion as a source for the world’s ills. Two events in the history of the Christian west in particular bear a great deal of scrutiny and are repudiated, with reason: the Crusades and the Inquisition.

Obviously I’m not going to defend the actions that folks are condemning when they condemn the Crusades and the Inquisition.  The sorts of things people have in mind are fundamentally wrong, whether such actions actually color the whole of either set of events. Moral outrage is not a very nuanced emotion, in large part because it cannot be, and still lead to the sort of cleansing that is needed. An ironic thing came to my attention this evening though, as I read the newest edition of the Atlantic Monthly (January/February 2012). One of the articles in the magazine is entitled “Torturer’s Apprentice” and discusses the use the United States has made of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” I’ve written about issues of torture and Christian belief in the past, and shared resources, here and here.

Our continued justification of torture-by-another-name, as well as other behaviors we would never tolerate from another nation if directed toward us, are attributable to a particularly negative aspect of American Exceptionalism (and no, I am not a person who believes that everything that would fall under that category is necessarily wrong or evil.  I would argue there are definitely good aspects related to the unique character of the United States). I’ve argued in the past that this negative form of exceptionalism, which sees the United States as always being in the right, is in part bolstered by a national narrative that can only exist because of the Civil War and the creation of a shadow side in the form of the American South. Because the United States was purified through blood in the fighting of a morally good war to free people from slavery, somehow it affirms the God-given rightness of all that we do. Ironically, many of those raised in what Flannery O’Connor rightly called the Christ-haunted South (as distinct from Christ-centered) are the most supportive of such a narrative.  On the other hand, I think that Southerners are often in a better position to question the dominant narrative of the spotless moral record of our nation, since there are aspects of our own history–communal and familial–that, when dealt with honestly, force us to weigh our past as a morally mixed bag of both good and bad.

All that is to say, these two factors combined: generalized chronological snobbery overlaid with an unjustified presumption of moral superiority2, lead us to assume that some things done in our name are not wrong because they are done in our name.  Case in point from this article in the most recent Atlantic.  It is not out online yet, so I will simply type the portion I’d like to highlight, but I encourage you to purchase the magazine and read the article in its entirety:

As it happens, the Inquisition invented that defense [i.e. the defense that the number of time someone was waterboarded actually meant ‘pours’ rather than ‘sessions’ and was therefore not as bad as it looked]. In theory, torture by the Church was strictly controlled. It was not supposed to put life in jeopardy or cause irreparable harm. And torture could be applied only once. But inquisitors pushed the boundaries. For instance, what did once mean? Maybe it could be interpreted to mean once for each charge. Or, better, maybe additional sessions could be considered not as separate acts but as ‘continuances’ of the first session. Torture would prove difficult to contain. The potential fruits always seemed so tantalizing, the rules so easy to bend.

 

The public profile of torture is higher than it has been for many decades. Arguments have been mounted in its defense with more energy than at any other time since the Middle Ages. The documentary record pried from intelligence agencies could easily be mistaken for Inquisition transcripts. The lawyer Philippe Sands, investigating the interrogation (which used a variety of techniques) by the United States of a detainee named Mohammed al-Qahtani, pulled together key moments from the official classified account:

 

‘Detainee spat. Detainee proclaimed his innocence. Whining. Dizzy. Forgetting things. Angry. Upset. Yelled for Allah. Urinated on himself. Began to cry. Broke down and cried. Began to pray and openly cried. Cried out to Allah several times.’

 

The Inquisition, with its stipulation that torture and interrogation not jeopardize life or cause irreparable harm, actually set a more rigorous standard than some proponents of torture insist on now. The 21st century’s Ad extirpanda is the so-called Bybee memo, issued by the Justice Department in 2002 (and later revised). In it, the Bush administration put forth a very narrow definition, arguing that for an action to be deemed torture, it must produce suffering ‘equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.’ To place this in perspective: the administration’s threshold for when an act of torture begins was the point at which the Inquisition stipulated that it must stop.

So, the next time someone bashes the Inquisition, perhaps we should tout their humanitarian credentials…

 

  1. Of course, this is not to deny that there’s a whole other swath of people who believe that things were better in the past simply because it was the past, but we’ll leave them to the side for the moment, and talk about these issues in another post. []
  2. This is not to deny that there are areas where a sense of moral superiority is justified–it simply has to be recognized that it is not uniformly deserved–that’s just honesty []

Nothing to do with the faith: Torture and Paternalism

Crucifixion detail, Fra Angelico

Crucifixion detail, Fra Angelico

A while ago I found an article in my Google Reader with the following in the first paragraph:

“The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.”

The survey cited by this CNN article was conducted by Pew Research and indicates that regular church goers are 12% more likely to support the use of torture (in what circumstances is beside the point) than non-church goers.  The Creedal Christian thinks that “Perhaps this sheds some light on why many of the unchurched think Christians are hypocritical and that the Church is irrelevant and/or espouses unacceptable values.”  I think he may be correct.  It also demonstrates that that Church in the United States is not doing the job we’re called to…. unless you believe the job of the church is to inculcate an unhealthy nationalism and concurrent means of self-justification.  And there is a difference between nationalism and patriotism.  Unhealthy nationalism is the sort of thing that leads to the belief in the “my country right or wrong” principle while true patriotism leads to a commitment to serve your country in part by calling it back to its truest ideals.

There has been a lot of response to this survey, not the least of which has pointed out that the margin of error was nearly enough to account for the discrepancy between church goers and non-church goers.  Additionally, the sample was fairly small, with under 800 people surveyed.  But regardless of whether more church going Americans think torture is justifiable or not, shouldn’t our concern be centered on the fact that far fewer Christians, if any, should believe this way than the general public?

Since these findings were released, there has been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about it.  One of the better essays I’ve seen is from The Scriptorium, and is entitled “If Torture, then Evil,” a selection of which you can read below:

A government decided to execute a prisoner who threatened its control of a region. It did not just kill the man, but selected, as usual, a means calculated to do the most pain and prolong the suffering. His torturous death is recorded in the Gospels and should give every Christian pause in supporting any form of torture. Torturing any man, even the most base, may not elevate the victim, as it did with the Son of God, but it almost certainly debases the torturer to the level of the Romans who killed Him.

Torture of any human being is incompatible with the Christian faith.

This should have been obvious, but like many hard and inconvenient moral lessons it was not. Christianity grew in cultures that used torture frequently and so had cultural assumptions inconsistent with their faith. Like most evil things, torture is justified by the good that can come of it. Most bad things are tempting because of alleged goods, but Christian experience shows that any gains from torture are not worth the cost to the souls of men and cultures.

Because there are times when torture seems like a good idea, Christians followed the practice of most ancient cultures and sometimes used it when they gained power. However, it was always a difficult decision for Christian civilizations to make and always had critics amongst Christian theologians and philosophers. The practice was modified and prisoners were given greater rights. The longer Christians thought about the practice and experienced the results, the broader the disdain and condemnation for it.

Eventually, a consensus developed in the traditional Churches that torture was a temptation to do evil, a snare of devils to corrupt souls, and a delusion that promised good, but only certainly did evil.

The condemnation of torture is part of the culture of life so central to the Faith. It is sad to see some Christians use arguments and lines of reasoning to justify torture that are similar to those used to justify abortion.

Traditional Christians disdain those who mutilate the corpses of enemies, because it dishonors the Image of God. How much worse is it to mutilate the living body or the immortal soul of a man?

Most Christians are not pacifists. They will honor the choices of a man who declares himself their enemy by fighting him in fair combat. Once he is a prisoner, they will honor his God-given free will by allowing him to preserve his conscience. Christian nations developed rules regarding interrogation that allowed prisoners to preserve their dignity and God-given choices. A Christian can kill a man who is asking for it, but he will not warp and twist his body and soul when the fight is done.

Sadly, Christian history reveals that the “good reasons” for torture tempted many Christian leaders to torture in order to do some hoped for good. We don’t have to guess at the bad results or the later condemnation of history for our short-sighted pursuit of immediate gain over our deepest principles.

Men have always been tempted to torture to get information to “save the city.” However, experience showed that saving the physical city by destroying its values was never a good bargain. At the very least, a nation that ordered torture had to turn some of its own sons into torturers. There has proven no way to compartmentalize such men after the alleged good they did was done.

A nation that turns its bravest and best into torturers instead of warriors has dishonored itself. There are worse things than losing a war and that is one of them.

{Read it all}

Recently other Christian leaders have been commenting on the use of torture, notably Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention who recently stated that he believed waterboarding to be torture and that “There is no room for torture as part of the United States’ intelligence gathering process, in [his] view.”

genoways-00

The Water Torture

Last week, however, I heard a voice of American pop-evangelicalism speak in contradiction to Mr. Land.  As I listened to local radio pundits discuss the release of the torture memos by the administration, and debate the merits of prosecution, a listener called in and began his statement with the words “I’m a born again Christian, but that has nothing to do with my response to this question.  Yes, I would torture.”  I could only laugh and mentally thank the brother for being such a wonderful witness to the faith by prefacing his comment with that statement.  I’m sure our Lord, along with George Washington, is proud.

So, how can so many Americans who claim to be Christian be OK with torture?  The answer is simple: they are using a simple form of pragmatic or utilitarian moral reasoning to come to their conclusions and not ethical reasoning based in the Christian tradition or scriptures.  I’ve written about this issue before in reference to some comments made by Elizabeth Edwards about embryonic stem cell research.  In that post, I commended a comment made by theologian Stanley Hauerwas as a memorable tool to quickly determine whether something passes the smell test for Christian ethics.  Evidently Hauerwas was once asked to discuss the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, and to reply to the arguments of someone who spoke in favor of such research.  Inevitably, as is always the case in such discussions, the hoped-for goods that could possibly, maybe, someday come from such research where trotted out as justification and defense.  Hauerwas cut the gordian knot with the remark, “If it were discovered that foetal tissue were a delicacy, could you eat it?”  As well as being memorable, the remark highlighted the distinction between the sort of default utilitarian thinking that governs much of our ethical decision-making in this country, and traditional Christian morality which sees an evil perpetrated in the service of a good as nothing more than an evil which taints any good that might come from it.  In contrast, the sort of superficial utilitarianism that governs public discernment of such matters is usually predicated on a calculus of “if we do this then we will save X number of lives.”  The problem with such thinking is that it neglects two important aspects of life: sin and tragedy.  Utilitarianism often neglects the sense of the tragic because it refuses to see a necessary decision as a possitive evil.  Likewise, it often refuses to consider notions of sin because it sees anything done in the service of utility as necessarily a good.  These reactions are two sides of the same coin, the first of which I wrote about here.

Of course, none of this means that the United States is obliged to abide by a Christian ethic, but at least we should expect Christians to strive to do so.  It is, of course, a difficult thing to do, and can bring about disagreement (expected and welcomed), uninformed criticism (bearable) as well as giving rise to a sort of patronizing paternalism (very irritating) that sees Christians as the naive and eccentric relative who must be protected from their own fantasies.  Be that as it may, at least our response in such a situation might have something to do with the state of our immortal soul.  In other words, maybe being born again ought to have something to do with how we answer this question as Christians.

At least it's not Water-boarding: Nerd Torture

I’m a nerd. I readily admit it. I have nerd pride. Part of having true nerd pride is being able to laugh at being a nerd. Tonight, as Anna and I watched the latest episode of “The Office” on Hulu, I saw a fantastic example of what can only be called “nerd torture.” You see, there’s been an ethics seminar at Dunder Mifflin; one of the issues that arose during the seminar was something called “time theft,” which is the idea that employees who spend a little too much time at the water fountain etc… are actually “stealing time” from their companies.

Well, true to his character, Dwight was the most intent on attacking anyone who was doing “personal” things on company time, so John decides to time exactly how much personal time Dwight takes during a given day. Hilarity ensues, including the section where John tortures Dwight–an alpha nerd–in an attempt to get him to break and misuse his time. You can see how all the misinformation, errors and intentional twisting of various fantastic worlds really gets at Dwight. That’s hard core nerd torture. Enjoy (click below to see the clip)

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