byFaith | 1.20.16
By Alan Dowd
It looks like 2016 will begin in much the same
way as 2015 began—with policymakers debating aspects of America’s response to
terrorism dating back more than a decade.
In late 2014 and early 2015, the U.S. Senate Select Committee
on Intelligence released a report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation
program. The report set off a firestorm of debate over what constitutes
torture—and whether the U.S. had engaged in torture.
in late 2015, Congress passed legislation renewing its long-held policy
barring the transfer of enemy combatants held at the detention facility in
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Gitmo) into the United States. In response, President Barack
Obama argued that
the administration would determine “when and where to transfer”
the detainees—and suggested that he might defy the law. This
long-dormant debate about Gitmo’s past and future.
these debates are part of the larger debate over America’s response to 9/11—and
how far that response has pushed the ethical-moral boundaries. As Christians
and Americans—in that order—we have a responsibility to enter into this debate.
start with Gitmo. Two days after his
inauguration in January 2009, Obama directed the Pentagon to close the Gitmo
detention facility “no later than one year from the date of this order.”
So why is the prison still open?
First, 56 percent of the American people oppose plans to shut
down Gitmo. That explains why large, bipartisan majorities in
Congress—including the Democratic-controlled Congress of 2009-2011—have
the administration from transferring detainees to stateside facilities.
That leads us to a second reason Gitmo remains open. Trying
to build support for transfer to stateside prisons, the president has noted,
“No person has ever escaped from one of our super-max or military prisons.” But
escape is not what worries most of those opposed to stateside transfer. What
worries them is that once placed in the U.S. prison system, Gitmo’s lifers will
radicalize other prisoners—something they cannot do from Guantanamo. It’s worth
noting that an al-Qaeda training manual instructs captured fighters to “create
an Islamic program for themselves inside the prison.” Radicalization is a serious
enough problem that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced in 2011
an initiative to thwart “terrorist use of prisons for radicalization and
detainees back to their countries is the very definition of self-defeating. DHSreports that 16.9 percent of paroled
detainees have returned to terrorist activities. The
head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was released from Gitmo in 2012. U.S.
intelligence and military officials conclude that as many as 30 former Gitmo
detainees have joined forces with ISIS and other militants in Syria.
According to the president, Gitmo is “contrary to who we are” and “hurts
us in terms of our international standing.”That’s
a valid perspective. But like a Rorschach inkblot, there’s another perspective.
wants Gitmo to be a permanent penal colony. In fact, the
Bush administration wanted to close it but concluded that it was the least-bad option until
the war had ended or a replacement could be found. It’s worth noting what
Obama’s defense secretaries have said in reaction to his desire to close the
that “There are people in Guantanamo Bay who cannot and should not be released
because they will return to the terrorist fight,” current Defense Secretary Ash Carter says he’s “not confident” the facility can be closed.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “refused to sign
certifications that the future threat posed by the prisoners could be
adequately mitigated,” according to published reports.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed what he called “serious
concerns” about releasing Gitmo prisoners and said he would recommendtransferring bin Laden into the facility, had the al-Qaeda leader been
Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for legislation “preventing any former
Guantanamo detainee from living in the United States,” as Reuters reported.
These are serious men wrestling with a serious
Banishing our stateless enemies to endless sentences in a
hopeless place is difficult to square with love of enemy and forgiveness. But governments are held to a different
standard than individuals, and hence are expected to do certain things
individuals shouldn’t do—and arguably shouldn’t do certain things individuals
example, Jesus calls on individuals to turn the other cheek, “put away the
sword” and forgive enemies “seventy times seven” times. Scripture challenges
Christ followers to not keep a record of wrongs, to die to self and to stop
worrying about tomorrow.
government that turned the other cheek, “put away the sword” and offered its
sworn enemies seventy times seven chances to do what’s right would be conquered,
leaving its citizens defenseless. A government that didn’t keep a record of
wrongs, that didn’t use force to defend itself, that didn’t “worry about
tomorrow” and all the dangers it holds would expose itself and its people to
similar vein, scripture calls on us “to remember those in prison,” but it
strains the conscience to think that principle applies to mass-murderers
masquerading as holy men. FDR’s wartime words come to mind: “We may take pride
in the fact that we are softhearted; but we cannot afford to be soft-headed.”
way, when six Algerian detainees were put in the transfer queue,
they asked to stay at Gitmo. They argued that a return to Algeria would end in
torture or death, from which we can extrapolate that torture does not occur at
brings us to what the CIA calls enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs)—and
what the Senate committee describes as torture.
the findings of the Senate committee’s report were that CIA operatives subjected
al Qaeda and associated detainees to slapping, slamming against the wall, sleep
deprivation, waterboarding, involuntary feeding, liquid-only diets, water-dousing,
ice-water baths, removal of clothing, prolonged standing, standing in stress
positions, extended isolation, incarceration in complete darkness, threats of harm
to their families, and other harsh tactics.
question we are left with is not only whether those techniques amount to torture,
but whether such techniques are ever morally justified. It may seem like a
black-and-white issue, but Christian thinkers are divided over this. As Dr. R.
Albert Mohler Jr., professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist
Theological Seminary, observes,“Definitions represent the first great
challenge” in this “question of torture.”
Nations Convention against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe
pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a
person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or
a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is
suspected of having committed, or intimidating
or coercing him or a third person.”
definition, elements of the CIA’s interrogation program surely crossed the line.
However, would a majority of Americans say that slapping, sleep deprivation, liquid-only
diets, isolation or incarceration in darkness constitute “severe pain or
suffering”? Would a majority of Christians? Would a majority of your church?
A 2005 measure
proscribes “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of detainees. However, as Mohler
points out, “Some human-rights activists contend that yelling at a prisoner
represents the kind of ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading’ treatment” banned by that measure.
feeding sounds as unpleasant as it is. However, it’s commonly authorized by
courts to keep prisoners and patients alive, especially in cases of hunger
that has drawn the most attention is waterboarding—a technique in which water is poured onto a detainee’s face to
induce the sensation of drowning. It sounds horrible. However, many
policymakers refuse to characterize waterboarding (or many other EITs) as
torture because thousands of U.S. military personnel have been subjected to
waterboarding in Survival Evasion Resistance Escape training. In fact, in developingguidelines for the post-9/11 interrogation
program, the Justice Department relied on U.S. military training
this is to suggest that EITs raise no moral questions. But all those “howevers”
underscore the problem with defining torture.
Beyond definitions, there are
several dimensions to the EIT debate. For the sake of simplicity, let’s
organize them, in ascending order of importance, under three broad headings:
political, practical and moral.
Obama has unequivocally opposed EITs. He ordered them ended
soon after entering office. EITs, in Obama’s view,
“alienate us in the world.” According to Obama, “When
we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques—techniques that I
believe…were torture—we crossed a line.”
The Bush administration rejected that
characterization. “We’re doing smart things to get information to protect the
American people,” President George W. Bush said in 2005. “We
don’t torture.” In 2011, he added, “Had I not authorized waterboarding
on senior al-Qaeda leaders, I would have had to accept a greater risk that the
country would be attacked…a risk I was unwilling to take.”
and Bush’s consistency on EITs is to their credit. Even so, consistency should
never be confused for virtue. There are times when midcourse corrections are
necessary. However, consistency is important in policymaking. Regrettably, many
policymakers have not shown much consistency.
Senate committee’s report was largely crafted by the staff of Sen. Dianne
Feinstein, who chaired the committee from 2009 through 2014. Condemning the
CIA’s tactics as “cruel, inhuman and degrading,” Feinstein concluded that
“under any common meaning of the term, detainees were tortured.”
Yet it was Feinstein who notedjust after 9/11, “We have to do some things that historically we have not wanted
to do to protect ourselves.”
That was the consensus in Washington after 9/11. As Sen. Jay Rockefeller explained after the capture of
9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, “We’ll be very, very tough with
him…I wouldn’t take anything off the table where he is concerned.”
Goss, former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
and former CIA director, recalls how “The
chairs and the ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence
committees…understood what the CIA was doing…I do not recall a single objection
from my colleagues.”
Adds Jose Rodriguez Jr., former director of the CIA’s National
Clandestine Service: “The leaders
of the Senate and House intelligence committees and of both parties in Congress
were briefed on the program more than 40 times between 2002 and 2009.”
In other words, not only were EITs
“approved and determined to be lawful” by the Justice Department, as CIA
Director John Brennan has noted, they had the blessing of
relevant congressional committees.
be tempting to defend discomfort with EITs by paraphrasing Justice Potter
Stewart’s wry observation about obscenity: “We know torture when we see it.”
But when policymakers invoke words like “torture,” after-the-fact judgments are
not good enough.
The same rule applies to Gitmo. The
Bush administration concluded it was the least-bad option for detaining captured
fighters. The alternatives—letting sworn
enemies of the United States loose, bringing them into the U.S. and according
them constitutional protections, executing them on the battlefield, handing
them off to untrustworthy regimes—were considered either self-defeating or
contrary to America’s values.
The Obama administration found a way around this conundrum: drones.
It’s estimated that, along
with the 2,600-plus militants killed by drone strikes in Pakistan during the
Obama administration, some 430 non-militants have been killed. According to The
New York Times, the Obama administration has embraced a controversial
method for determining
drone-strike casualties that “counts all military-age
males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence
posthumously proving them innocent.”
This, too, has alienated America. The UN Human Rights Council has formed a special unit to investigate U.S. drone attacks.
is “contrary to who we are,” to borrow Obama’s
language, if EITs “caused immeasurable damage to the United States’
public standing” and “created tensions with U.S. partners and allies,” to borrow the language of the Senate report,
then what exactly is a drone war that metes out
punishment based on guilt by association and amounts to execution without
The defense that Obama has employed drones to
protect the nation is fair, but then so is the defense that Bush used EITs and
Gitmo to protect the nation.
There would be no need for debate about EITs, Gitmo and drones
if they were ineffective. But drone strikes have killed lots of bad guys who
want to kill innocent people; Gitmo is holding lots of bad guys who want to
kill innocent people; and EITs yielded intelligence that has prevented lots of bad
guys from killing innocent people.
of former CIA directors report that the detention and
interrogation program “prevented mass-casualty attacks” and thwarted al-Qaeda’s plan to mount a “second wave,
9/11-style attack on the U.S. West Coast.”
They also note that the program was created at a time when there were credible reports
of nuclear weapons being smuggled into New York City and al Qaeda trying to
manufacture anthrax. “It felt like the classic ‘ticking time bomb’
scenario—every single day.”
While calling some of the CIA’s
methods “abhorrent,” Brennan confirms that “The
intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al
Qaeda and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day,” adding: “Detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation
techniques provided information that was useful and was used in the ultimate
operation to go against bin Laden.”
Just because something is effective
doesn’t make it moral, which is the most important dimension of this
discussion. Theologians, legal experts, ethicists and philosophers express a
range of views on this.
could exist circumstances in which such uses of torture might be made necessary,”
Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity
School and Georgetown University, added, “There are extraordinary circumstances when harrowing judgments must be
made by those we tax with the responsibility of keeping us safe, and at those
times there may be a ‘lesser evil’ kind of calculation to be made.” She
takes pains to use the term “severe forms of
interrogation that…fall short of torture.”
Likewise, Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center makes a
distinction between torture and “a very harsh
technique” like waterboarding. “The issue of ‘torture’ itself needs
to be put in a moral context and on a moral continuum,” he argues.
Court Justice Antonin Scalia is less nuanced. “I think it is very facile for
people to say ‘Oh, torture is terrible,’” Scalia observes. “You posit the situation where
a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has
been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people…You think it’s
clear that you cannot use extreme measures to get that information out of that
Fr. Brian Harrison,
professor at the Pontifical University, would seem to agree, concluding in 2005 that “infliction
of severe pain” for “extracting life-saving information…remains
open at present to legitimate discussion by Catholic theologians.” However,
Harrison later noted that Pope Benedict XVI declared in 2007, “The prohibition
against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstances.’”
retreat underscores the difficulty of this issue and provides a bridge to the
Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, argues
“it is never right to torture another human being.” He cites the Gospel
injunction to not repay evil for evil, love of enemy, and the notion “that each
person is created by God…and has an inherent dignity.”
“Torture,” concludes author Eric
Metaxas, “is incompatible with basic human decency…These practices
trade someone else’s human dignity for a sense, which may well be illusory, of
Christian just war tradition holds that killing in a just war is
permissible—even morally praiseworthy—when those killed are enemies who pose a
direct threat,” explains Dr. Darrell Cole, professor of
religion at Drew University. “In the same way, it is morally permissible, even
morally praiseworthy, to kill any terrorist in the act of terrorism. But when
the terrorist is captured, he poses no further harm.”
where Cole says Christians must draw the line. “To do intentional harm to a
defenseless human being is a moral evil.” Cole rejects the moral-continuum
methodology. “For Christians, there are no ‘emergencies’ that would justify
moral acts displeasing to God.”
Pure or Poisoned
say the way out of this tortured debate is to cling to the idea that biblical
admonitions about loving your enemy and the like are intended for individuals,
not governments. Governments, as alluded to earlier, have different
responsibilities and are held to different standards than individuals. As Paul
writes, “Rulers do not bear the sword for no
reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the
wrongdoer” (Romans 13).
unlike in Paul’s day, our government carries out policies on behalf of, and
with the consent of, the people. Thus, as citizens of a democratic republic, we
cannot put our heads in the sand and pretend we know nothing about what the
government does in our name. And as followers of
Christ, we cannot keep our heads in the clouds and declare ourselves
above it all.
Lord is perfect; we are not. Neither is the nation in which we live. Washington’s
response to terrorism underscores that. And all
of the ugliness discussed above underscores that ignorance really is bliss. Perhaps
God wants us to wrestle with these hard issues. How do we that?
should be guided by scripture.
When Jesus freed a young boy from demons, they “begged
Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss”—a place of “torments.” Rather than sentencing
these vile creatures to a torture chamber, Jesus sent them into a herd of pigs to
This challenges us to be merciful and humane—even to our sworn enemies, even
when carrying out a just punishment.
course, scripture also calls on us to protect the innocent and punish the
guilty. “Defend the weak,” Psalm 82 declares. “Rescue those being led away to
death,” Proverbs 24 commands. “Hold back those staggering toward slaughter.” Justice
done “is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers,” Proverbs 21 intones.
Governments exist “to punish those who do wrong,” Peter explains.
Cole says that what he calls torture—what others call EITs—is never acceptable
because “there are no ‘emergencies’ that would justify moral acts displeasing
to God.” He is right that ours is not an ends-justifies-the-means faith. But it
pays to recall that Shiphrah and Puah broke a commandment to save
innocent life. When Pharaoh ordered them to kill newborn Hebrew boys, they
disobeyed him and lied about it (Exodus 1). They faced
a moral emergency, saw a continuum of good and evil, and chose to commit an
immoral act in order to prevent something worse. Their story seems to
caution against the sort of rigidity that concludes EITs are wrong in all cases—especially
given the debate over whether EITs even constitute torture.
lives matter more to God, as evidenced by His dialogue with Abraham about
saving even a few righteous men, His blessing for Shiphrah and Puah, His
Passover protection of Israel, His warning about “little ones” and
hard truth is that the imperfect means we employ to protect innocents—a lie to prevent
murder, a judge banishing serial killers to super-max prisons, a president banishing
jihadists to Gitmo, a cop knocking a confession out of a child predator, a CIA
interrogator knocking intelligence out of a mass-murderer, a SWAT team lobbing
superheated flash-bangs into a suspected drug house, a drone operator launching
Hellfire missiles into a suspected terrorist hideout—are sometimes the only way
innocents can be protected. “We take, and must continue to take, morally
hazardous actions to preserve our civilization,” as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr
is thoughtful and compelling: “If we are tempted to do evil in order to
preserve what we hold dear, then we are holding the wrong things dear.”
But is protecting
innocents and civilization “holding the wrong things dear”? For that matter,
are EITs inherently “evil”?
brings us to a second element that should guide our thinking: motives. “All a person’s ways seem pure to him,”
Proverbs 16 admonishes, “but motives are weighed by the Lord.”
The first part of this Proverb reminds us that we humans can justify
anything. The second part reminds us that motives matter to God, and He knows
whether they are pure or poisoned, whether a president is motivated by a desire
to protect innocents or be cruel, whether a senator is motivated by a desire to
set things right or score political points. As for us, perhaps we should give
both sets of policymakers the benefit of the doubt.
If the motivation is to be cruel, to exact
revenge, to inflict pain for the sake of pain, then the use of EITs would
amount to sin. But if the motivation is to protect innocent life—perhaps tens
of thousands of innocents—then it seems that EITs could be placed on a moral
continuum, people of goodwill could wrestle with the question on a
case-by-case basis, people of faith could agree to disagree, and policymakers could employ EITs when other options
have been exhausted.
leads us to a final guidepost in navigating these issues. The heavy burdens
facing our leaders should spur us to pray for them. Leading a superpower with a
conscience is a thankless, endless exercise in searching for the least-bad
option, which is why we need to offer“petitions,
prayers and intercession” for “all those in authority” that we might live in peace
rather than terror.