Torture Sacrifices Our Most Important Values

The Senate Intelligence Committee released a report today on the CIA’s detention program, which included the use of secret prisons and the brutal interrogation of detainees. The Washington Post has highlighted 20 key findings on the CIA interrogations. It is an ugly picture.

John McCain took to the floor of the Senate to show his support for the release of the report and to explain how these misdeeds were neither necessary, nor compatible with the United States’ highest ideals. Here are some highlights from his speech:

“Mr. President, I rise in support of the release – the long-delayed release – of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s summarized, unclassified review of the so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ that were employed by the previous administration to extract information from captured terrorists. It is a thorough and thoughtful study of practices that I believe not only failed their purpose – to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the U.S. and our allies – but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.

I believe the American people have a right – indeed, a responsibility – to know what was done in their name; how these practices did or did not serve our interests; and how they comported with our most important values.

I commend Chairman Feinstein and her staff for their diligence in seeking a truthful accounting of policies I hope we will never resort to again. I thank them for persevering against persistent opposition from many members of the intelligence community, from officials in two administrations, and from some of our colleagues.

The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless.

They must know when the values that define our nation are intentionally disregarded by our security policies, even those policies that are conducted in secret. They must be able to make informed judgments about whether those policies and the personnel who supported them were justified in compromising our values; whether they served a greater good; or whether, as I believe, they stained our national honor, did much harm and little practical good.”

“I have long believed some of these practices amounted to torture, as a reasonable person would define it, especially, but not only the practice of waterboarding, which is a mock execution and an exquisite form of torture. Its use was shameful and unnecessary; and, contrary to assertions made by some of its defenders and as the Committee’s report makes clear, it produced little useful intelligence to help us track down the perpetrators of 9/11 or prevent new attacks and atrocities.

I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering. Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.

I know, too, that bad things happen in war. I know in war good people can feel obliged for good reasons to do things they would normally object to and recoil from.

I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who used them were dedicated to securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and to protecting Americans from further harm. I know their responsibilities were grave and urgent, and the strain of their duty was onerous.

I respect their dedication and appreciate their dilemma. But I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear were neither in the best interests of justice nor our security nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend.”

“But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.

We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily.

Our enemies act without conscience. We must not. This executive summary of the Committee’s report makes clear that acting without conscience isn’t necessary, it isn’t even helpful, in winning this strange and long war we’re fighting. We should be grateful to have that truth affirmed.”


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.


Around the Web (Part 2)

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Friends of Merton by Dan Horan: “Thomas Merton continues to exercise an ‘apostolate of friendship,’ bringing people together across many divides. If you haven’t met Merton and his friends yet, I encourage you to do so.”

The Five Lessons of Good Friday by Fr. James Martin, SJ: “If we do something sinful or make immoral decisions that lead to our suffering, we could say that this suffering comes as the result of sin. But most of the time, particularly when it comes to illness and other tragedies, it is assuredly not. If you still harbor any doubts about that, think about this: Jesus, the sinless one, suffered a great deal.”

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus by Timothy Shriver: “In this man’s moments of his most extreme vulnerability, he was supported, sustained, and accompanied by one consistent friend: a woman, Mary Magdalene.”

Two Homeless People Freeze To Death Just Miles From The White House by Scott Keyes: “Though just an inconvenience for many, cold temperatures can be extremely dangerous for those with no shelter. Indeed, life-threatening hypothermia can set in even at temperatures well above freezing. Dozens of homeless people have died this winter from exposure to the elements, from New York to Chicago to California.”

A gesture of defiance by The Economist: “But in this election ordinary Afghans have sent a message: to their own politicians that stability is more important than sectional interest; to the rest of the world that their country is worthy of continued support; and to the Taliban that its claims to represent Afghanistan are hollow.”

Grisly torture photos from Syria stun U.N. officials by AP: “The U.N. Security Council fell silent Tuesday after ambassadors viewed a series of ghastly photographs of dead Syrian civil war victims, France’s ambassador said. The pictures showed people who were emaciated, with their bones protruding, and some bearing the marks of strangulation and repeated beatings, and eyes having been gouged out.”

The economic culture war over the minimum wage by Paul Waldman: “With the national debate over the minimum wage likely to intensify into 2014, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin has signed a law passed by the Oklahoma legislature that would forbid any municipality in the state from passing its own law setting the minimum wage higher than $7.25. Not only that, it forbids cities and counties from requiring employers to provide paid sick days or vacation days. Above all, this is a reminder that in many ways, the minimum wage fight is taking on the feel of a culture war. Call it an economic culture war.”

Why atheism doesn’t have the upper hand over religion by Damon Linker: “The fact is that there are specific human experiences that atheism in any form simply cannot explain or account for. One of those experiences is radical sacrifice — and the feelings it elicits in us.”

Republicans and Democrats Both Claim to Be Pro-Family. Here’s How They Can Prove It by Matt Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker: “We calculate that a child allowance of $300 per month per child would have cut child poverty by 42 percent in 2012. Such a reduction would have lifted 6.8 million children out of poverty, plus another 4.7 million parents.”

Just Friends by John Conley, S.J.: “In discovering other human beings as mature friends, we give the lie to our society’s myth that other people exist only to fulfill our economic or sexual ambition. The path to a truly humane life, one built on virtue, disinterested service and an ungrasping praise of God, is suddenly open.”

Victims of bullying live with the consequences for decades by LA Times: “Victims of bullies suffer the psychological consequences all the way until middle age, with higher levels of depression, anxiety and suicide, new research shows.”