Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Traditional Torture Values

Some people have the mistaken impression that Christians are inflexible and unable to change with the times. The debate over the bill to clarify what techniques the CIA and our military can use in interrogating prisoners and what constitutes torture illustrates just how "with it" Christians can be. As the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition shows us, sometimes in order to maintain your traditional values you need to change with the times. Sheldon is extremely upset with John McCain and angrily warned him that his unpatriotic efforts against the President's prisoner treatment reform bill would cost him evangelical support in 2008 because he seems to be wedded to outmoded ideas that just don't wash in the 21st century. "Our rules for interrogation need to catch-up with this awful new form of war that is being fought against all of us and the free world," Sheldon told his affiliated churches. "We must redefine how our lawful society treats those who have nothing but contempt for the law and rely on terrorizing the innocent to accomplish their objectives. The lines must be redrawn and then we must pursue these criminals as quickly and as aggressively as the law permits."

Now it might seem surprising for one of America's leading advocates of "traditional values" to argue that we need to "catch up" to the modern world and that moral "lines" need to be "redrawn." And usually when he talks about "redefining" something it is in opposition to homosexuals redefining marriage. But in this one case the Rev. Sheldon believes that modernizing is actually the only way to get back to the traditional values of the past, sort of like going back to the future or vice versa. "This debate is, at its very core, about preserving the traditional value of prosecuting injustice and protecting the innocent," he explained.

Unfortunately, the terrorists, with their newfangled ways, don't stop being dangerous once we've nabbed them. "As it stands right now, the military and intelligence experts interrogating these terrorists are in much greater danger than the terrorists," said Sheldon. "Civil suits against our military personnel are tying their hands as they try to get vital information which will save the lives of our young military people and the innocent." So the only way to protect our soldiers from dangerous and painful litigation is to give them the freedom to hurt the terrorists first.

Now let me just state at the outset that like President Bush I am opposed to torture except in certain circumstances when it's really, really necessary, which is why I am a member of Blogs Against Torture. I agree with the President that "torture anywhere is an affront to human dignity everywhere." But liberals have got us all so confused with their convoluted notions of what torture is so we need to get back to traditional torture values. If we let the liberals and activist judges define torture down, the next thing you know our secret prisons will be like country clubs and the terrorists will take over our country and impose their ideas of morality on us, which, except for the stuff about homosexuality and a few other things, we vehemently disagree with.

The Evangelical Outpost held a symposium of very thoughtful conservative Christian ethicists who responded to an article by Charles Krauthammer that criticized McCain's bill outlawing torture. Most reluctantly agreed that, although they would like to oppose torture in principal, they had to admit it just might be necessary sometimes. Kenneth Magnuson said that "there is a need for continued debate on this matter" and lamented that "the entire discussion is necessitated by the miseries of human life brought about by sin and evil." Albert Mohler regretfully admitted, "In fighting this war it is inevitable that we will look down and find dirty hands, even in doing what we would all agree is a lamentable necessity." John Jefferson Davis cautioned that torture should be permissible "only under extraordinary and exceptional conditions." And Daniel R. Heimbach concluded, "After setting proper boundaries for moral use, we should without apology defend obligation to exercise justified coercion within proper restraints."

But while some of these ivory tower types hemmed and hawed about torture, for most of us on the religious right, the line between what is torture and what is not torture and when it is justified will be very clear just as soon as we have redrawn it back to where it should be. The blog Viewpoint tackles Michael Kinsley's criticism of Charles Krauthammer's main argument in favor of torture, the "ticking time bomb scenario," characterizing it as "embracing the slippery slope argument, disdaining nuance, and reveling in simplistic absolutes." Ray Grieselhuber is tired of the "Sunday school baby talk" of people like McCain and believes "it’s exactly this thought process that undermines our ability to think objectively about conflict." One of the co-sponsors of the forum Joe Carter, in an eloquent "Open Letter to the Religious Right," states very firmly, "I can't make excuses for us on this one anymore: We have to take a firm stand against torture. Yes, there is a debate about what exactly is meant by that term. So let's define it in a way that consistent with our belief in human dignity. And then let's hold every politician in the country to that standard. Our silence is embarrassing." Jeremy at Parableman agrees to a certain extent, but wants to leave just a little wriggle room: "The religious right should be firmly against torture in general, but I don't think we should concede it as an absolute. It's rare in this life that torture is morally ok, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's always immoral. It's worth keeping that in mind in case those rare cases do occur. Of course, Christians shouldn't think torture is in itself immoral anyway, at least if they believe in hell." So if God were totally against torture He wouldn't have provided a place for gays and Muslims to be tortured after they were dead.

Christian blogger Dennis Ingolfsland at Recliner Commentaries is also firmly on the side of "humane treatment of prisoners--in general" although he worries that "The next thing you know, we’ll hear that these poor terrorists have been denied such basic necessities of life as high-definition cable TV, sleep-number beds and La-Z-Boy recliners!" Ingolfsland believes that Christians as individuals should not torture people but he doesn't think Jesus would have any problem with Christians who torture as agents of the government, which all Christians should obey. "As a Christian soldier or guard, I would never take it on myself to take vengeance or personal anger out on the prisoners," he writes in a comment to this post. "In fact, on a personal level, I would probably go out of my way to be kind and compassionate to the prisoners. On a professional level, however, for those acting officially under the legal authority of their government, I do not think it is a violation of Jesus' teachings or Christian principles to use reasonable force or violence, if necessary, to discipline, maintain order or to interrogate criminals or terrorists." In other words, Christians who are just following orders can spiritually wash their hands of responsibility for their actions so they don't have to worry about being sent to God's torture chamber after they die. Pastor Louis Marsh agrees there is a distinction between what the "government" does and what individuals do and in answering the inevitable question of how a Christian can participate in un-Christian things a government might do to fight terrorists, he proposes a very simple moral answer: "I think that in the end what this all comes down to is choosing the lesser of two evils," which would be to do what is necessary to fight the terrorists.

La Shawn Barber, in a post humorously titled, "Torture Is Good" says that she supports torture "only as a last resort" and clearly defines it: "What do I mean by torture? Withholding food, depriving prisoners of sleep, letting them thirst a little bit, irritating them with foul odors and extremely loud sounds, offending their sensibilities, religious or otherwise, that kind of thing. Based on the definition of torture, what I support is not torture." In other words she supports the kind of torture that she says is not really torture. She concludes by turning the tables on liberals, asking, "Why do some Americans hate their country?" Just in case she needed to clear up any ambiguities left by that post, she says in another post that she believes in "Total War" (but "only as a last resort") and that torture is a necessary "tool of war." Since Jesus didn't repudiate the wars of the Old Testament, she thinks He must believe in Total War, too, which means, therefore, Jesus must be in favor of torture. "Either as Christians we buy into the whole "Sword of the Lord" concept, condoning government to practice "total war" -- or we are compelled to practice complete pacifism," she says. "Trying to have it both ways, as politicians and Christian intellectuals are prone to do, cruelly costs everyone more in lives and suffering both in the short and long term." By taking a very clear stance on torture, La Shawn is trying to spare people from unnecessary suffering.

Jan LaRue, the counsel for Concerned Women for America, is very concerned about torture. She is firmly opposed, for example, to torturous Senate hearings, calling the confirmation hearings for Alberto Gonzales for Atorney General "an exercise in torture" and remarking on the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh to the Court of Appeals, "Water-boarding couldn't be this bad." She was also appalled by the goings-on at Abu Ghraib, pointing out, these methods of interrogation betrayed an unhealthy influence of pornography. Like the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board, LaRue believes that pornography is much more dangerous than violence. "We don't need any more 'turn-ons' like Abu Ghraib," she said.

Jan LaRue is on the right track when she likens the kinds of torture she finds particularly distasteful to pornography. Essentially, what the prisoner treatment reform bill does is apply a very old legal standard to torture that has traditionally been applied to pornography. This legal standard was first applied by Justice Potter Stewart in the 1964 obscenity case Jacobellis v. Ohio. In a concurring opinion Justice Stewart wrote that while pornography is difficult to define, "I know it when I see it."

This bill takes away the power of activist judges to define torture and gives that power to President Bush, who certainly "knows it when he sees it." Unlike Senator McCain, President Bush has actually had long experience with making decisions about what does and does not constitute torture. When Bush was president of the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon at Yale, his frat was disciplined for hazing new pledges by branding them. In his first public statement on these issues, the future President Bush pointed out that these weren't "physically and mentally degrading acts," as the disciplinary board claimed but were "insignificant," comparing them to cigarette burns. In addition to this experience with grappling with these questions, I think we can all be assured that his Christian background and the very clear ethical position of the Christian right on torture will enable him to apply traditional torture values in a way that shows why we are a moral beacon for the rest of the world.

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Jeremy Pierce said...

Gays and Muslims? In the future you might want to read what people actually say before you start casting aspersions that go against what they spend a lot of time and care to say. I don't see anything in the Bible that restricts hell to gays and Muslims. I don't see anything in my post that even mentions them, as if someone being gay or being Muslim were definitive of rejecting the offer of relationship with God. It's true that some people seem to have a strange focus on their pet sins without acknowledging the sins they commit themselves, but couldn't you at least acknowledge that I spent a couple paragraphs arguing against that exact perspective? Instead, you seem to want to pretend that I'm holding the view I ended my post by opposing.

Anonymous said...

Can anybody explain how these Christians are NOT engaging in moral relativism, i.e., the ultimate moral evil that they decry liberals engage in?

Anonymous said...

I just love Christian "morality".

They admit that God is a torturer, but this doesn't make God bad, oh no, it makes torture OK.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Reasonable Liberal: What do you mean by moral relativism? If it means that something is right simply because the individual says it's right, then of course this isn't moral relativism. Anyone who has a higher standard of morality that comes from God is not a moral relativist of that sort.

Maybe you just mean consequentialism, which some political conservatives and Christian apologists sometimes wrongly call relativism. But that's not what this is either. See my comments on my post in response to Jonathan. There's a perfectly deontological way of reading the justification of torture in extreme cases that isn't consequentialist.

As for hell, that's a subject that really ought to be dealt with in depth. People who have little toleration for the idea that God will hold let people spend eternity in the torture of continuing in their own evil are not going to accept that Christian doctrine regardless of what you call it. That subject needs a full treatment of the problem of evil, and I'm not going to get into that in a comment thread on someone else's blog simply because of some offhand comments.

It's not as if this objection is some new thing that Christians would be surprised to hear, though. There's a huge literature on the moral justification for something like the traditional view of hell, and any argument against it should take that huge body of work into account rather than simply assuming something is wrong because it involves something we don't like.

Anonymous said...

Yes, by all means let's sit down and discuss under what circumstances torture is okay. Then we can get a basin of water and wash our hands afterwards.

Anonymous said...

Classic. Instead of answering the question about moral relativism, it depends on what "moral relativism" is.

Other Examples: Bush - it depends on what "torture" is; it depends on what "non-grave" violations of the Geneva Conventions are; Clinton - it depends on what "sexual relations" are.

Christianists often engage in moral absolutism. Such as, God hates gays. (I'm simplfying slightly.) Anything varying from such absolutism is what I meant by moral relativism. No need to obfuscate by discussing the origins of Evil and the justification for Hell.

You suggest "torture" should be used in extreme cases. Is this what Bush has done?

We have tortured many Gitmo detainees whose only evidence against them was that some warlord in Afghanistan got paid by us for their "intelligence" about who was "Taliban" and who wasn't. Naturally, many warlords turned in whoever their enemies were, instead of the Taliban. We have also moved thousands of people (I read up to 14,000) through secret military prisons where we tortured many of them. We've outsourced the torture of people we didn't feel comfortable torturing ourselves to countries like Syria.

Were all of these extreme cases? I'd say no. But the truth is, Bush doesn't want us to find out. That fact that many Christianists believe we have done no wrong, despite that Jesus was tortured, and/or that the torture we have done is for the greater good, so it's sad but okay that a few innocent Muslims were tortured along the way, is an example of moral relativism.

Wikipedia on moral relativism:

Anonymous said...

You don't wash your hands after merely discussing the issue of torture. Wash your hands if you've been pulling some finger nails, sure, but after discussing when torture is acceptable, what you need to do is learn a musical instrument and play with our own personal chamber orchestra in your apartment.

Don't be a liberal. Learn from the experts.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who isn't willing to break the law to torture someone for the good of their country isn't a real patriot anyway.

And anyone who isn't sure enough of what's good for their country to face imprisonment might as well be a liberal. Only a bunch of wusses would hesitate to torture someone just because it's against the law.

Dennis said...

Jon, you wrote, "In other words, Christians who are just following orders can spiritually wash their hands of responsibility for their actions so they don't have to worry about being sent to God's torture chamber after they die."

Jon you have misunderstood my position. I am absolutely NOT saying what you think I'm saying.

In fact, if a Christian soldier, police officer or corrections guard is ordered to torture the inmates, that Christian may have to refuse to obey the order and face the conquences.

While some Christians (Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, etc.) think that no Christian should ever serve in the military or on a police force, I am not one of them. When soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do (regarding works of repentance) he did NOT tell them to resign, refuse to fight or go AWOL as I would have expected.

Anyway, my point was our God loves justice and hates injustice. If a Christian policeman is lawfully enforcing justice, for example, by arresting a criminal, that policeman need not "turn the other cheek" if the criminal fights back or pulls a gun.

Similarly, if you see a man raping a woman, the "just" thing to do is not "turn the other cheek" but to stop the rape--even by force if necessary.

When Jesus tells us to "turn the other cheek" I am convinced that this was just another way of saying that we are not to take personal vengence against an enemy.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Reasonable Liberal, if you're not interested in making careful distinctions then I'm not sure we can even have a reasonable discussion.

There are different ways people have used the term 'moral relativism'. It is not a dodging move to ask what you mean by a term. It is a clarifying move, because different ways you respond would require different kinds of response. Different views can go by the same name, and I'd say different things about different views.

You defined relativism as the denial of absolutism, but you didn't say what absolutism is. You gave an example, but it's not even an example about ethics. "God hates gays" is a descriptive statement, not a prescriptive one. Ethical statements are prescriptive. So I'm not sure what ethical view you're calling absolutism.

Philosophers generally define absolutism as the view that moral statements apply to every instance of such an action. If lying is wrong, then it's wrong no matter what. Most people I know do not think killing is always wrong. They think killing in self-defense is sometimes ok. Does that make them relativists? Hardly. It means they're not absolutists about the wrongness of killing. They might believe that and still think the same moral rules apply to everyone. It's just that those rules indicate that different situations require different things. An unmarried person is not being unfaithful by seeking after a new love interest, for instance, whereas such an act would be wrong for me since I'm married. That is not relativism, even though it is a denial of absolutism about seeking after a new love interest.

A relativist allows for something to be right for me and wrong for you merely because we have different views on that thing. A relativist would say that torture is ok for someone who thinks it's ok or for someone whose culture says it's ok, while it's wrong for those who disagree.

Jon Swift said...

I must say I find it very refreshing that we can discuss torture like civilized adults.

OutOfContext said...

Christ Almighty what a thread. I feel like raising my pinky while I'm tipping my mug of bourbon. What's next, a discussion of how many terrorists can dance on the head of a pin? To paraphrase Dick Cheney, these kind of debates only encourage the enemy. Moral clarity should not take so many words. How do I know if your with us or against us if I can't understand what the hell your talking about?

Kim Gongre said...


Did they not teach you in Sunday School two wrongs don't make a right?
Kindergarten maybe?
Did 9/11 change the Golden Rule?

I guess in all your twisted religious maneuvering to fit your own fear based agenda you either did not get that lesson or you have simply rationalized it away.

Either way, when you meet your maker you will find out if that bullshit reasoning you have decided to follow holds to speak.

Sadly, I have my doubts you will ever find the part of your Soul that KNOWS better here on the physical side of creation.

Some Souls here reflect to us that which we choose not to be and in that service at least both you, your preacher guy and the terrorist are useful.

How we treat the least among us is the true measure of our progress, it is not becoming like them and then calling it something different.

God is not fooled by that and I think you would do well to realize that fact.

Glad to see you have been coming round The Peace Tree via my site stats. Careful though, some peace might rub off on ya! I hope so anyway.

Anonymous said...

We've established that Christianists are not engaging in moral relativism depending on how one defines "absolutism" and "relativism." I think we've gone as far as we can go on a blog. There's wiggle room for both of us! But thank you for responding to my comments.

Jeremy, you seem to have thought about this alot so I would like your honest opinion on whether you think Bush's torture policy has been limited to the 'extreme' cases you suggest.

As a reasonable liberal, I too can imagine situations when torture is appropriate. In my view, the debate should be over which techniques are appropriate, and I think there should be accountability when we screw up (e.g., fire Rumsfeld). But we haven't been having that debate.

Anonymous said...

You are a member of Bloggers Against Torture and then you post this??????

I don't get your rationale. Bloggers Against Torture is not "like President Bush I am opposed to torture except in certain circumstances when it's really, really necessary nor would any other blogger on that list support this statement:

"So the only way to protect our soldiers from dangerous and painful litigation is to give them the freedom to hurt the terrorists first."

No Bloggers Against Torture is against all torture, under any circumstances.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Reasonable Liberal, I have no idea where the threshold is. I'm fairly sure that there's a threshold above which torture would be ok, and these would be somewhat extreme cases. I don't know if I can say where that is. It does seem to be reachable more easily with killing than it does with torture, meaning there seem to be more cases when killing is ok than there are cases when torture is ok. But I wonder if the reason for that is because it's not as rare that killing is the only way to stop someone from doing real evil, where it's much less often that that's the case with torture.

To answer your question, I'd need to know what they knew (or had good reason to believe) ahead of time about the kind of information they thought they could get by this, the number of lives that might be at stake, the larger-scale global issues at stake, the likelihood of actually getting the kind of information that would achieve those things, and the level of guilt and complicity on the part of the people being interrogated. I can't say I know any of those things, which is why I'm agnostic on these particular cases.

The level of pain and discomfort is a factor, so I don't think it's irrelevant, but people seem to be acting as if it's the only factor. That's where I disagree. My point has simply been that merely stating that this is torture doesn't mean it's automatically immoral to do it. I don't think that's true. I do think torture is generally wrong, perhaps almost always wrong. I've heard enough about these cases that I can't be sure that any of it was wrong, even if the presumption is against it. The questions people are raising are worth raising, but I'm just not sure people are raising them in the right way. The assumptions people are making seem to me to be insensitive to the complexity of the moral issues here.

My view on this is that I don't know what I would have done if I had been in the president's position. Maybe I would have concluded that it would have been wrong to do what he authorized, but maybe I wouldn't have. Maybe I would have done it and then afterward thought I shouldn't have. Maybe I would have done it with great reservations but concluded even afterward that it was the right thing to do. I just don't feel as if I'm in a position to make that judgment.

Anonymous said...

I hope all this does nothing to water down the principle, certainly enshrined in English law, that torture is most definitely illegal if both parties enjoy it.

benmerc said...

I just read most of the post and some of the comments: "I give" "I give"
(Who says torture doesn’t work?)

On less then a more serious note, just because a bunch of knee-jerk chicken-shit legislators (about 80% of everyone in both House and Senate) have and or are about to give G.W.Bush a new set of certified stainless steel nail pullers, does not mean we all have to lose sleep.

Just think, in a few years when this "regime" is finished, America will relent to a kinder and gentler breed of torturing Administration (barring another extremely rude terrorist impact, then all bets are off!)

It will be back to soft plastic screws, rubber hammers and the like for the hired help down at the CIA, and we will all be able to sleep nights again.

Also, we may resume our standard national arguments in how to properly engage in our war mongering. That would bring up debate such as; do we use cluster bombs or not? Irradiated bullets and or bunker busters? It is hard to choose, so many “defense“ systems to pick from. But, at least most Americans know what a “bunker buster” is and have a much invalidated opinion on it. Who the hell knows what water boarding is? Sounds like some new kind of GenX punk Olympic sporting event.

Daniel said...

That we torture is evidence that we 'civilised humans' are worse than savages. Even non-human animals don't torture.

Best we have a nuclear war, wipe the slate clean. Perhaps the next lot of evolving creatures might have a few redeeming features.

P.S. Shame about the other species though!

Anonymous said...

Sorry to take so long in finding your blog here mr swift.. I thought I'd mention the fact that the debate isn't about wether or not torture is morally ok, or even if it's morally acceptable. It's merely wether or not the representatives of a our free democratic republic, should be engaged in it on our behalf.

The debate has nothing at all, to do with torture done by foreign powers, such as the European Union, or the Peoples Republic of China, should they or their voters choose to have such methods employed.

I hardly think that religious christians , or non religious christians, or others, have a particular moral conundrum facing them.. they should be able to merely vote their values or beliefs on an issue, as members of a representative form of government.. just like they might on going to war in the first place, marriage, abortion, and so many other popular issues.

Teresa said...

There were no fingernails being pulled off of terrorists by these CIA agents. These CIA agents were following strict guidelines and procedures in questioning these terrorists. The Bible talks about retribution and justice. I believe that the enhanced interrogation techniques were used for that purpose in realtion to standing up for the 3000 innocent lives that were murdered on 9/11. The United States was acting in self-defense because of the Sept. 11 attacks, which makes the CIA's actions, which were authorized by the government, completely acceptable and just. There is a huge difference in using certain necessary means in order to prevent evil from occuring than purposefully causing evil and killing people all across the World. I find it quite disturbing that people who oppose the use of EIT's against terrorists think that they have the moral high ground, but yet they would allow innocent human beings to die just to say they didn't use torture, or the techniques. These people would rather stand up for evil murderous terrorists but would simply allow vast numbers of innocent people to die all in the name of morality. I don't see how that's keeping your hands clean. By explicitly avoiding participating in what could be necessary to prevent another terrorist attack, on some level these people standing up for terrorists may also share in some of the culpability if another attack(God forbid) occurs.

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