In Defense of Sarah Palin

While Sarah Palin’s statement that “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists” is nauseating, at least she is not keeping silent about this war crime. One of the greatest catastrophes of the War on Terror is how we have first permitted the Bush-Cheney administration to define torture out of legal existence so as to torture with impunity, and then failed to make the Obama administration and Congress hold these torturers to account. Worse than Palin’s statement is that currently the CIA is obstructing the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s definitive 6,200 page report on torture, despite Chairwoman Senator Diane Feinstein’s public excoriation of the agency for its refusal to allow the American people to know the truth.

Sarah Palin may have spoken obscenely about baptism. But those of us who are baptized into the torture and death and life of Jesus Christ have remained too silent. St. Paul exhorts us to remember what our baptism means:

“Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” Romans 6:3-5.

Jesus’ death was through torture, plain and simple. Each time a baptized Christian participates in the Eucharist, we proclaim that our life comes through the Resurrected One who is none other than the Tortured One.  This is a mystery. But what isn’t a mystery is that God did not enter our world in order to bring more torture. Rather, by his resurrection, he won a definitive victory over all torture. Instead of diverting our attention to a political has-been, we must redirect our attention to our baptism and the Eucharist, and then demand that our political leaders never again return to an official policy of torture.

While James Bond and 24 provide riveting entertainment and a mythology in which one individual can save the world through torturing, the ‘ticking time bomb’ theory is a far-fetched scenario. The evidence shows that those most likely to have high-level intelligence are the least likely to provide any useful information through torture.

But that is not to say that torture is ineffective. Quite the contrary. Torture has another more insidious purpose for which it is uniquely effective: it disconnects people from themselves, destroying their relationship with themselves, with their family, with their community, and with their society. In his magnificent book on the Chilean Church’s resistance under Pinochet, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, theologian William Cavanaugh writes, “Pain is the great isolator, that which cuts off in a radical way from one another. With the demolition of the victim’s affective ties and loyalties, past and future, the purpose of torture is to destroy the person as a political actor, and to leave her isolated and compliant with the regime’s goals…Wherever two or three are gathered, there is subversion in their midst.” Torture can destroy societies, entirely closing off normal ways of working through conflicts. A retreat into apathy may occur, or, conversely, state torture may serve as a singularly effective recruiting tool for ruthless insurgents and terrorists. When civil society is destroyed, isolation and terror remain.

In A Miracle, a Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers, Lawrence Weschler writes that there “are entire societies—entire polities—which might themselves be considered torture victims…When individuals are being tortured and everyone knows about it and no one seems able to do a thing to help, primordial mysteries at the root of human community come under fundamental assault.” Weschler details the torture methods used by authorities in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay during the so-called Dirty Wars: sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, isolation, mock execution, forced medication, temperature extremes, and psychological manipulation—the same techniques that US authorities would later use in the War on Terror (the rest of the world does not take seriously the attempted distinction between “enhanced interrogation” and “torture”). The United States, by being drawn into a situation in which violent assault on the personhood of others is justified and held up as a positive ideal, has become a tortured/torturing society itself. This harm extends far beyond the individual harm done to one admitted terrorist (waterboarded 186 times) or to dozens of detainees in Abu Ghraib.

We must also recognize that our government’s ability to cooperate internationally to protect the common good has been damaged. Because our government aggressively helped to dismantle a common consensus in international law—that the prohibition against torture is a preemptory norm always and everywhere to be enforced—it has lost significant standing to hold grave abusers of human rights to account. Nowhere is this more apparent than Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Starting in 2002, Syria was one of the most common destinations for US-captured suspects to be interrogated in its extraordinary rendition program, and its uniquely brutal torture was an open secret. Now, Assad has plunged Syria into the abyss of a uniquely brutal civil war. In May of 2011, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb was tortured to death. This was a “red-line” event for the Syrian opposition to Assad. But international action against Assad did not materialize when the preemptory norm being violated was just torture and intervention could likely have spared much suffering. Three years on, the world remains immobilized as it watches the death toll rise above 150,000 and more than 2 million Syrians flee their homeland. There is evidence that the Assad regime has tortured and executed about 11,000 detainees. In the past few days, video has emerged of a rebel group, ISIS, too extreme for al-Qaeda crucifying Muslims it deems treasonous. We cannot remain resigned to this state of affairs.

Rather than mock Sarah Palin, we must recognize that we have the power and responsibility as baptized Christians to confront torture and to rehabilitate our ability to act for good in the world. Martyred Salvadoran Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuria reformulated St. Ignatius Loyola’s classic questions, and requested that all of us ask “What have we, as a world, done that all these people should be crucified? What are we doing about their daily crucifixions? What can we do to bring the crucified people down from the cross?” We can’t let the media, academics, lawyers, and even friends and family members get away with contorting the truth about torture. Torture is not an effective method to prevent terrorism. It is a powerful way to destroy the bodies and spirits of people created in the image and likeness of God. But the last word is hope and resurrection—abundant life and an end to both waterboarding and crucifixion.