2014 Archives

TEXAS FAITH: Is it ever justified to use torture as an instrument of American policy in a dangerous world?

Excerpt

The following is from the Dec. 16, 2014, edition of the Texas Faith blog of The Dallas Morning News. Professor William B. Lawrence, dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology, and Associate Political Science Professor Matthew Wilson, who specializes in the intersection of religion and politics, provided responses for this week's question.

December 18, 2014

By Wayne Slater

A new Senate report has rekindled the debate over enhanced interrogation, or torture – an issue of profound political, social and moral implications. We know the context: enhanced interrogation was a desperate attempt to prevent another 9-11. It worked or didn’t. It was used sparingly or wasn’t.

In retrospect, some religious voices make a clear case that torture is immoral and should never be used. Others say that even if immoral in full or in part, the 39 captives subjected to it should be viewed against the larger evil of 3,000 people killed on 9-11. . . 

What does your faith say about enhanced interrogation – about torture – as an instrument of American policy in a dangerous world?

As expected, our Texas Faith panel of theologians, clergy, activists and experts take a dim view of torture — but come to their views from various traditions that are guaranteed to provoke thought.

William B. Lawrence, Dean of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist UniversityWILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

One of the great things about the Bible is that hardly any form of human behavior is excluded from its pages. Christians might prefer not to think about slavery, rape, greed, or child abuse. But passages of the Holy Scripture compel us to do so.

And some of those passages are truly unpleasant to read. Take Psalm 139, for example. It contains verses that call upon God to “kill the wicked” and to “hate them with perfect hatred.” Take Psalm 137, where believers can find happiness by seizing the children of their enemies and smashing the “little ones…against the rock.” In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul calls his religious adversaries “dogs.” And in the New Testament letter known as Second Peter, an Apostle says his religious enemies are “irrational animals…born to be caught and killed.”

Anybody who wants to create a theological rationalization for condoning torture can find words in the Bible that will be the raw materials for doing it.

In fact, Christians have done it. The idea of “enhanced interrogation” was practiced nearly to pernicious perfection in the medieval era for several hundred years during the “Inquisition.” Instruments of torture were devised to inflict great pain by religious authorities and by political authorities who understood themselves to be acting in concert with the church. The CIA has more sophisticated technology than was available to the Inquisition in the Middle Ages. But both used the techniques of “waterboarding” as one method of torture, for example. These methods were used to extract confessions from persons who were believed to be heretics or infidels. Some victims would confess to anything in order to stop the pain. Others, believing that they were being tortured merely as a prelude to being executed, would resist confessing with their last breaths.

For centuries, Christians have condemned those acts of violence that were perpetrated in the name of God. There are three basic reasons that Christians now oppose torture. First, it treats a victim as something less than a human being created in the image of God. Second, it derives from the arrogance of power, whereby the agents inflicting torture assume to themselves that torture as a divine device. Third, whatever confessions torture may yield cannot be trusted, because the one who confesses in response to torture may be lying just to make the pain stop.

We Christians have had our own experience with inflicting, and enduring, torture. It is theologically erroneous, religiously unrighteous, and practically unreliable. Just because somebody can find a way to justify it does not make it an instrument of salvation.

Matthew WilsonMATTHEW WILSON, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

Catholic teaching condemns torture as fundamentally at odds with the dignity of the human person.  It is rejected not only as a general rule, or circumstantially, but as an intrinsic evil—that is, a practice that can never be justified and is not morally licit under any circumstances.

As a practical matter, we all know that the utility and efficacy of torture are very much in doubt.  Intelligence officials and those with interrogation experience seem to give conflicting accounts of whether torturing prisoners tends to produce useful information that would not otherwise have been forthcoming.  This very uncertainty makes torture a different moral case from other forms of defense of self or others.  “Enhanced interrogation” might cause a prisoner to reveal information that he might not have otherwise, which might actually be actionable and allow authorities to disrupt a plot that might have come to fruition and might harm innocent people.  This extremely attenuated chain of possibility must be weighed against the certainty of degradation of the human person—and loss of national moral authority—that is inevitable when government makes the decision to torture someone.  And to be clear, the degradation involved is not only that of the prisoner himself, but also of those asked to administer torture.

To ask someone to intentionally inflict severe and grievous harm and suffering on another person is to ask him to release (and indeed to cultivate) the basest impulses of his nature.  It is hard to emerge from that morally unscathed.

It also must be acknowledged that the Church’s moral teaching on this score has not always been as clear as it is today.  As the Catechism admits: “In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture.”  In modern times, however, the Church has come to categorically disavow the use of “physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred.”  No end, no matter how humane or noble, can justify the devaluation of human dignity inherent in such practices.

The American leaders who authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation” in the wake of the September 11th attacks faced incredible pressures, difficult choices, and an overriding imperative to protect the American people from harm.  It is admittedly much easier to undertake a moral evaluation of torture from our vantage point than from theirs.  That said, the teaching of my faith on this score is very clear.  The captured prisoner, however heinous his crimes may be, is created in the image and likeness of God, and thus possesses an inherent dignity and moral worth that we are called to respect absolutely.

Read the full blog.

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