Torture -- why it matters
Why the Torture Abuse Scandal Matters
to the Eisenhower Foundation
October 24, 2005
George Hunsinger, the McCord Professor of Systematic Theology at
Princeton Seminary, gathers a variety of reports of the continuing
American use of torture and the Administration’s refusal to limit it
significantly. He calls for four steps to challenge this, saying that
"Nothing less is at stake in the torture crisis than the soul of our
Of all the scandals that currently beset us, there is one that history is
likely to judge most harshly, namely, the official authorization of torture
abuse by the Bush administration. As the Abu Ghraib photos have shown with
unforgettable horror, serious violations of international law have followed
in its train. Let us be clear that torture is not just one issue among
others. It is a profound assault on the dignity of the human person as
created by God. It is therefore inherently evil. It violates a person's
body, and terrorizes his mind, in order to destroy his will. The strongest
of presumptions stands against it -- not only legally and morally, but also,
from a religious point of view, spiritually. At the same time, authorizing
torture poses a direct threat to constitutional government. As Columbia law
professor Jeremy Waldron has urged, the issue of torture is "archetypal." It
goes to the very heart of our civilization. Whether torture is permitted or
prohibited is a question that separates tyranny and barbarism from the rule
Recently the PBS program Frontline televised a report about how secretary
of defense Donald Rumsfeld and General Geoffrey Miller "Gitmoized" the
interrogations of detainees in Iraq. The program included many interviews
including the story of US Army interrogator Spc. Tony Lagouranis (Ret.). The
former military interrogator stated:
Well hypothermia was a widespread technique. I haven't heard a lot
of people talking about that, and I never saw anything in writing
prohibiting it or making it illegal. But almost everyone was using it when
they had a chance, when the weather permitted. Or some people, the Navy
SEALs, for instance, were using just ice water to lower the body
temperature of the prisoner. They would take his rectal temperature to
make sure he didn't die; they would keep him hovering on hypothermia. That
was a pretty common technique.
A lot of other, you know, not as common techniques, and certainly
not sanctioned, was just beating people or burning them. Not within the
prisons, usually. But when the units would go out into people's homes and
do these raids, they would just stay in the house and torture them.
Because after the scandal, they couldn't trust that, you know, the
interrogators were going to do "as good a job," in their words, as they
Such shocking practices are now so widespread -- ranging from GuantÁnamo,
to numerous prisons and bases throughout Iraq, to Afghanistan -- that the
lie has been given to the "few bad apples" theory promulgated by the Bush
administration. In a speech last week, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief
of staff to Colin Powell, said that top officials -- up to and including the
president -- had in effect given a green light to soldiers to abuse
detainees. "You don't have this kind of pervasive attitude out there," Col.
Wilkerson insisted, "unless you've condoned it." As the testimony by Spc.
Lagouranis suggests, this attitude has continued well after the Abu Ghraib
revelations right down to the present day. And let it not be forgotten that
the department of defense finally admitted to the Red Cross that "70-90
percent" of the Abu Ghraib prisoners were entirely innocent.
"In our contemporary world," states Michael Posner, executive director of
Human Rights First, "torture is like the slave trade or piracy was to people
in the 1790s." He continues: "Torture is a crime against mankind, against
humanity. It's something that has to be absolutely prohibited." Posner's
organization is suing secretary Rumsfeld over the prisoner abuse issue. But
we are left with a troubling question: Why can't our government make it
clear, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that torture and any other inhumane
treatment of prisoners is wrong, without exceptions, and that it will not be
tolerated under any circumstances?
Yet our government has gone to great lengths to narrow the legal
definition of torture in order to widen the permissibility of the degrading
treatment. The administration's torture memos, as developed mainly between
2002 and 2003, are now infamous. As Anthony Lewis wrote: "The memos read
like the advice of a mob lawyer to a mafia don on how to skirt the law and
stay out of prison." While some of the worst memos have now been repudiated,
the climate of permissibility and uncertainty that they fostered still
The administration is against torture, and yet it refuses to renounce,
without equivocation, the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of
detainees. In the authoritative language of international law -- codified in
the Geneva Conventions, the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the
Convention Against Torture, and other documents legally binding on our
government -- the ban against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is not
separated from the ban against torture. The two proscriptions are one. The
disturbing innovation of the administration has been to produce new
documents that disrupt this unity. Other forms of abuse are distinguished
from what counts as "torture" in order to make them permissible.
The policy that results is radically inconsistent. Officially, our
government opposes torture and advocates a universal standard for human
rights. Yet, at the same time, it has allowed ingenious new interrogation
methods to be developed that violate these standards. They include stress
positions, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, mock burials, induced
hypothermia, sexual humiliation and desecration of religious objects. These
practices, which should never be permitted, are no less traumatic than the
infliction of excruciating pain. They degrade everyone involved -- planners,
perpetrators and victims.
The McCain amendment recently attached to the Defense Appropriations Bill
attempts to bring this inconsistency to an end. Despite passing in the
Senate by the overwhelming majority of 90-9, it was vigorously opposed by
the administration. Moreover, it may not survive in conference with the
House. If it does survive, the president has threatened to veto the entire
appropriations bill. Why should the president so adamant on this point? What
in God's name is happening to our country?
Detaining suspects indefinitely without charging them is not easily
reconciled with democracy. Worry about such methods is migrating across
political and religious lines. What the government is authorized do to the
few, it can eventually do to the many. A government that takes off its
gloves, cautioned British statesman Edmund Burke, will not soon put them on
again. "Criminal means, once tolerated," he wrote, "are soon preferred."
The public is increasingly uneasy about what we should have to sacrifice
for our safety. In his letter to Sen. McCain, a young US Army Captain, Ian
Fishback, gave eloquent voice to these concerns. He described how, despite
his dogged inquiries, for nearly a year and a half, he could get no clear
answers from his superiors about the impermissibility of abuse. Having
served in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, and having stressed that he has
personally witnessed the torture of detainees, Capt. Fishback posed what he
called "the most important question that our generation will answer:"
Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism
inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights.
Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our
courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our
ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at
the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals
in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never
really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even
the smallest part of the idea that is "America."
Four steps must now be taken to clarify that our government has truly
First, Congress must remove the false partition placed between the
military and intelligence services. In 2004 the Senate was right to
pass, nearly unanimously, new restrictions for the Pentagon, the CIA and
other intelligence services. But congressional leaders in both houses later
buckled under White House pressure and scrapped the language governing
Whichever agency of our government may be resorting to torture and abuse --
the military or the intelligence services -- is of absolutely no
significance. Trying to differentiate between them does nothing to insulate
us from the absolute evil that is torture. Yet it is this very loophole that
may now be codified into law. The White House is fighting for a gutted
version of the McCain amendment that would permit torture by establishing an
exemption for the CIA.
Second, Congress must outlaw "extraordinary rendition," a euphemism
for torture by proxy. It means that detainees are secretly transferred to
countries where torture is practiced as a means of interrogation. Although
made public only through shocking cases, such as those of Maher Arar, who
was deported to Syria by the United States, and Mamdouh Habib, an Australian
citizen who was sent to Egypt before being held at Guantanamo, it has become
a mainstay counterterrorism tool.
Does it need to be said that "disappearing" people without any kind of due
process is contrary to everything America stands for, not to mention our
laws and treaties? The reasons for a detainee's arrest and his guilt or
innocence are irrelevant. No sound moral or legal argument can be made that
enabling torture through rendition is permissible.
Third, Mr. Bush should make a clear statement that the cruel, inhuman and
degrading treatment of detainees is tantamount to torture. He should
declare it to be unacceptable in any form and under any circumstances. He
needs to state beyond a shadow of doubt that America will not be complicit
in abusive interrogations. Leadership from the Oval Office would go a long
way toward resolving the torture abuse crisis.
Finally, as called for by virtually every major human rights
organization in the world, America needs a special prosecutor. Our
reputation has been so badly damaged by Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib
that no other remedy will do. The existing investigations are not enough
because they have not been truly independent. Organizations such as the
American Bar Association, Amnesty International and the highly respected
International Commission of Jurists in Geneva have all insisted that an
independent investigation is imperative.
Nothing less is at stake in the torture crisis than the soul of our
nation. What does it profit us if we proclaim high moral values but fail
to reject torture and abuse? What does it signify if torture is condemned in
word but allowed in deed? A nation that rewards and protects those who
promoted torture is approaching spiritual death.
I conclude with these words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
A time comes when silence is betrayal. [People] do not easily assume
the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war.
We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited
vision, but we must speak. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond
the darkness so close around us. We are called upon to speak for the weak,
for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls
"enemy," for no document from human hands can make these humans any less
our brothers and sisters.
Some blogs worth visiting
Mitch Trigger, PVJ's
Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where
Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and
views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both
personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!
You can post your own news and views,
or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.
for Life" website
Long-time and stimulating blogger John Shuck,
a Presbyterian minister currently
serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton,
Tenn., writes about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized
and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and
Click here for his blog posts.
Click here for podcasts of his radio program, which "explores
the intersection of religion, social justice and public life."
John Harris’ Summit to
Theological and philosophical
reflections on everything between summit to shore, including
kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology,
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens
neighborhood of Ridgewood -- by a progressive New York City
Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon
board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in
Voices of Sophia blog
Heather Reichgott, who has created
this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:
After fifteen years of scholarship
and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the
voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy,
students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers
and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God
in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God
through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through
articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and
Got more blogs to recommend?
send a note, and we'll see what we can do!