Taking on Torture
by Benedicta Cipolla
More than 100 Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religious leaders and thinkers met this month at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey to try to take a more public and more vigorous lead in the debate on U.S. use of torture in the war on terrorism.
Since the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal in 2004, discussion about torture has centered on human rights, international law, and judicial argument. The recently released annual report of Human Rights Watch offered sharp criticism of U.S. policy, saying, "the abuse of detainees has become a deliberate, central part of the Bush administration's strategy of interrogating terrorist suspects." And on January 19, 22 retired military leaders asked President Bush to clarify his stance on enforcing the recent congressional bill sponsored by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to ban cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of U.S.-held prisoners. The president reluctantly signed the McCain amendment in December, but the "signing statement" he issued at the time explaining his understanding of the law has raised questions about whether he reserved the right to override the torture ban.
The purpose of the January 13-15 Princeton conference was to galvanize religious opposition to U.S. torture policy and launch a national religious campaign against torture. "Nobody is standing up and saying they're for torture, but not many religious people are speaking the truth with love saying this is outrageous," said Father William Byron, research professor at Loyola College in Baltimore, who attended the conference. "We of faith communities all have a fundamental baseline commitment to the preservation and protection of human dignity, and [torture] is an assault on human dignity."
In the past two months, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, and the Union for Reform Judaism, among others, have criticized the torture and mistreatment of prisoners in American custody and expressed support for the McCain ban on inhumane treatment of prisoners overseas. But some believe these critiques must be more frequent and more forceful, especially at the grassroots level, using language that depicts torture as incompatible with a religious conviction of the sacredness of human life.
"We need to name torture for what it is -- sin," said Glen Stassen, professor of Christian ethics at the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary. "It is the sin of usurping authority and making yourself the replacement for God, the sin of dominating the powerless, the sin of violating God's creation."
"The religious community is uniquely situated to argue the question of torture in the way that's most important, which is that torture is wrong," said Mark Danner, author of TORTURE AND TRUTH and a speaker at the Princeton conference. "It's not a major theme in the mainstream religious community. The debate has largely fallen on the shoulders of the human rights community." Danner said he worries that the language of utility has overshadowed that of morality. "What would be enormously helpful is a statement of moral and ethical leadership. This is the world of very fundamental moral law that is being violated, and I feel religious leaders are well placed to speak about that."
Danner said the often cited "ticking time bomb theory" (the scenario that a terrorist holds the key to an imminent plot to unleash a nuclear attack on New York City and torturing the terrorist could theoretically avert the attack and thus save millions of lives) is not only unrealistic but also situated "in an utterly bleak world of utilitarian ethics which I think has very little relation to the world we live in." But the utilitarian argument against torture -- that it has not been proven to extract useful intelligence -- concerns Danner as well. Rather than argue about torture's usefulness, he urges those opposed to the practice to argue that it reduces human beings to mere means, which is exactly the point of the terrorism that coercive interrogation techniques are meant to prevent.
"Most secular moral philosophers will succumb to the time bomb scenario," according to Columbia University law professor Jeremy Waldron. "In inculcating the quiet, clear, firm sense that these things are absolutely prohibited and that there are some things of greater moment morally and spiritually than the good we might secure or the evils we might avert, I think the clear religious call is necessary."
"You cannot base [arguments in favor of torture] on utilitarian ethics, and that's what people are doing," said Byron. "You hear about the fear of terrorism, that desperate times call for desperate measures [and] the end justifies the means." But the question of utility tends only to obfuscate the issue from a moral perspective, according to ethicists and religious leaders. By focusing on hypothetical scenarios and claims that the war on terror represents a radically new paradigm that allows the U.S. to sidestep previously accepted norms, the focus is drawn away from the significance of the act of torture itself.
Katherine Sonderegger, professor of theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, grounded a Christian condemnation of torture in the figure of Christ on the cross. The infamous photograph of the Abu Ghraib prisoner standing with his arms outstretched, electrodes strapped to his body and a hood over his head, she said, should "burn indelibly on a Christian's heart and mind." Yet in her remarks at Princeton, she warned Christians not to locate their discomfort with torture only in the sinless Jesus. The violation of the guilty, she said, is as grave a sin as mistreating the blameless. "For Christians, we are all sinners whom God redeems. If redemption were based on innocence, all of us would be consigned to eternal rejection."