Irenic Thoughts

Irenic. The word means peaceful. This web log (or blog) exists to create an ongoing, and hopefully peaceful, series of comments on the life of King of Peace Episcopal Church. This is not a closed community. You are highly encouraged to comment on any post or to send your own posts.


Who Would Jesus Torture?

Jack Bauer intergotaes his brother
A guilty pleasure of mine was to watch the early seasons of 24 as Jack Bauer saved the United States and sometimes the world from all manner of evil. Jack never flinches at using violence in the cause of peace, both enduring and dishing out torture is all in a day’s work for our hero.

As he lives through season-long days of a seemingly never-ending ticking bomb scenario in which getting at the truth can’t wait, torture is the primary weapon in his interrogation arsenal. His own brother is not immune to the Jack Bauer treatment.

If television has taught me anything then, it’s that sometimes evil must be fought by good guys using evil methods to preserve the good. 24 taught me that when the nation’s honor is on the line, torture is not only justified, but a pretty good idea.

This very issue has been in the news lately, as the Obama Administration has had to decide how to deal with the previous administrations use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Back in 2005, I wrote a religion column (Approving torture would kill the soul of U.S.) that I thought approving the use of torture would kill the soul of our country, making us more unsafe while eroding the values that make us great. I was supported in this contention by Senator John McCain, who had himself been tortured while a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Now we are faced with the aftermath of the use of waterboarding and other means of making prisoners compliant. Two issues arise: 1) How will we act now? and 2) Will we prosecute those who used torture on our nation’s behalf? I want to answer these twin questions with seemingly opposing views. I feel strongly that we should not torture and that the interrogators who did so on our behalf should be protected from prosecution. I will justify each of these statements in turn.

First, the specific techniques approved for use were referred to as SERE techniques. SERE is an acronym for “survival, evasion, resistance, and escape.” The military program, created during the Korean War and extended through the Vietnam War, exposed those at high risk for enemy capture to techniques used to get our soldiers to comply with communist propaganda.

According to Col. Steven Kleinman, an Air Force reservist and experienced intelligence officer interviewed last week on National Public Radio, the torture techniques used in the Korean War “actually compelled some of our pilots to admit to dropping chemical weapons on cities and so forth, when in fact that didn’t happen.”

The initial goal of these “enhanced interrogation techniques” was to get a serviceman to say whatever his captors wanted him to say. Kleinman who was quoted in a Senate Armed Services report told NPR, “that stands in stark contrast to intelligence interrogation, where the overriding objective is provide timely, accurate, reliable, comprehensive intelligence.”

I could, of course, produce battling quotes going back and forth between those who say the techniques are useful and those who say the techniques are unreliable as they can get someone to give false statements just to stop the torture. But that sort of argument is being made elsewhere and better.

Instead, we could look to the example of Jesus whose words and actions simply cannot be twisted to justify the use of torture. Jesus’ life and witness reveals that good does triumph over evil, but only by remaining good. Co-opting immoral means in the cause of justice, will always bear bad fruit.

Jesus himself willingly endured great suffering, rather than combatting evil with evil. In order to unleash inhuman suffering on others people, we must first demonize them. But Jesus counsels us to love our enemies, which does not make room for seeing those who oppose us as anything other than human.

Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero who was killed for standing up to El Salvador’s cruel regime saying, “There is no dichotomy between man and God’s image. Whoever tortures a human being, whoever abuses a human being, whoever outrages a human being, abuses God’s image.”

I realize by now, I must come across as hopelessly naïve. But I do believe that, for example, those who liberated Nazi death camps could not do so with warm thoughts, hugs and flowers. Violence was done in the cause of peace and I am thankful for those who fought to free Jews and others from the Holocaust.

I believe that sort of use of force in the service of a greater good is justified. And I do know that once the dogs of war have been unleashed, even the noblest fights will not always be neat and it will never be pretty.

This is precisely why we owe it to those who fight for our freedom, to keep the honor of our great nation clean. The stars and stripes on whose behalf so many have fought and died from Tripoli to the Mekong Delta and from Antietam to Faluja should not be soiled with crimes committed in defense of even the noblest of causes.

Interogators such as Col. Kleinman and FBI supervisory agent Ali Soufan, who wrote a New York Times opinion essay on why these interogation techniques are not reliable or useful, are making a different kind of case. They argue that harsh interogation techniques produce unreliable intelligence. I am arguing that using the cruel techniques of our enemies reduces us to become the very problem we seek to overthrow.

The so-called “SERE techniques” are the very means used by those who sought to bring down our country in previous wars. If we use torture to fight terrorism, we give our own approval to those who would torture our captured service men and women. We might not be able to hope that others will rise to our best level, but the answer is never to sink to theirs.

Now to my second point. We must protect those who followed orders they had every reason to believe were just and lawful. Good men and women asked to conduct the harshest of interviews need our support rather than condemnation. An interogator working in the field with the worst of the worst when told to waterboard until the truth comes out is not the place to find fault.

We also must make sure that every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine following lawful orders can never be prosecuted for following the orders. Any breach in this breaks a vital trust and undermines the foundation on which those who serve stand. No one in our armed forces should ever have to second guess their chain of command before taking action.

We all know the question “Who Would Jesus Torture?” to be a loaded one. For no one can conceive that the answer to “What Would Jesus Do” in this situation to be either to condone torture or to condemn those who carried it out when they had every reason to believe they were given just orders. Jesus would tell us to “Go and sin no more.” We can do just that by limiting our interogations to the effective means approved in the Army Field Manual and not venting frustration with previous policies on those tasked with carrying out proper orders. In so doing we will rise back to the standard all should expect of our great nation.

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  • At 7/03/2009 2:25 PM, Anonymous a catholic democrat said…

    I appreciate you writing on this. I share your concern, but am not in agreement. I am, somewhat, more unreticent. I am also quite interested on some of the references (Romero,“24”, torture), that, you made. The thesis of your essay, also, concerns me greatly. I have also put out essays on an electronic journal. I would like to add the following quotations:

    PORTIA: Ay, but I fear you speak upon the rack,
    Where men enforced do speak anything. — The Merchant of Venice III. ii. 33-4.

    On the day before Oscar Romero was martyred he said, “No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God.”

  • At 2/01/2010 12:08 AM, Blogger Chuck Darwin said…

    You have got to be kidding. You "learned" that torture is OK from a TV SHOW?!?

    Son, didn't anybody ever tell you not to believe everything you see on TV?


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