April 25, 2013

David Gushee Urges America to Recover its Torture Ethic

Photo Credit: Pasadena Now

By Aaron Gaglia (@GagliaAC)

“Being able to hold onto one’s principles in times of crisis is a key mark of moral maturity both for persons and for institutions” said Christian ethicist David Gushee. “It’s precisely when we are in emergency situations that we most need our ethics and our laws.” Speaking to All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena last Sunday morning, Gushee spoke of the importance of navigating the issue of torture from a moral perspective rather than a merely utilitarian perspective.

Gushee served on the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment. This nongovernmental bipartisan task force, last week released their report on Detainee Treatment from the Clinton administration until the Obama administration. Over the course of two and a half years, this task force investigated issues related to America’s detainee policy from Afghanistan to Guantánamo Bay to CIA black sites to rendition.

The Christian ethicist highlighted two main findings of the report. First, “The most important finding of this panel is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture.”. The task force grounded their definition of torture based on various historical and legal contexts including practices the U.S. has condemned other countries for using. According to this report, the U.S. had the broadest practice of torture in the wake of 9/11 when President Bush issued a mandate “to do whatever was necessary to prevent another such attack.”

This report argues that, despite defining certain techniques as not torture, these actions are indeed torture. For example, in August of 2002 the Office of Legal Counsel released the Bybee Techniques Memo, which concluded that 10 “enhanced techniques” were not torture. Among others it concluded that “the water board,” “sleep deprivation” and “stress positions” are not torture.

Secondly, this report found that “the nation’s highest officials bear some responsibility for the spread of torture.” This report found that high officials in the Bush Administration, CIA, Department of Defense, and others authorized certain acts of torture. One of the examples Gushee cited was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s approval of such techniques of interrogation as nudity, threatening detainees with dogs, and sensory deprivation at Guantánamo Bay.

Gushee said the Task force did not directly recommend prosecution of these officials but that those who approved and engaged in torture are guilty of breaking both U.S. and international laws. Though he was pessimistic that any high level officials would be prosecuted, he advised that “[w]hatever decision is made about people from the past has to be in service of protecting the rule of law, human rights, and the best traditions of our nation.”

It is worth noting that the report found there is no evidence the U.S. is currently torturing anyone. The report found that these instances of torture are concentrated, though not exclusive, to our post 9/11 world.

As an ethicist, Gushee urged America to recover its morality, to stop thinking about torture in utilitarian terms and think about it ethically. Below is an extended quote that shows why this is such an urgent and important topic for Gushee:

“It would be like asking whether torture works in disciplining a child. Does torture work? Well, maybe, maybe better than you know just a nice talking to. But no, we don’t torture children and we don’t torture anybody. Torture is a rare example of a practice that in international law is absolutely banned. No exceptions. So the fact that we have been seduced into having a conversation about whether it might be okay sometimes represents a terrible moral deterioration in our country. Terrible. And we used to lead the way in arguing for an absolute legal ban on torture. So the fact that we have polls, ‘Should we or should we not torture? Does it work?’ is not only disastrous for our own soul as a country but has also sapped our leadership role around the world and helped to make it more legitimate for dictators and tyrants the world over to torture people in their custody. America the exceptional nation is not being very exceptional here.”

In my own view, it is indisputable that the U.S. engaged in acts of torture in the wake of 9/11, yet this issue is a bit more complex than it may appear. As a Christian with a belief that all human beings have inherent dignity and worth as image-bearers of God, we must oppose torture. Yet for many the disagreement is not over whether torture is right or wrong, but over what is considered torture and what is not. Though it is true the U.S. redefined certain acts that I would consider torture as not torture, we have to realize that there is a difference between torturous techniques and coercive techniques.

I completely agree with Gushee that our ethics must not be swayed and loosened in times of crisis. A time of crisis shows what one truly believes. Yet I would make a distinction between torture and coercion that Gushee may disagree with. I believe there are certain non life-threatening and non dehumanizing techniques of coercion which can be used to promote justice and human rights for all. These techniques must be carefully regulated because of man’s propensity towards abuse, yet when used correctly they are not tools of injustice, as torture is, but rather tools of justice.


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  • http://gregpaley.wordpress.com gregpaley

    Not sure of the source of this quote, but here it is: “Moderation in war is imbecility.” When we’re being plotted against by monsters, we can’t afford to be overly fussy about the details, and the Christian principles I try to use in my own life might work well for me, but not for the US military, especially in dealing with thugs. Personally, I don’t see that the use of torture is an issue that even needs our input as Christians, but this professor is part of the chattering classes, meaning he feels he is an expert on everything and that his opinion should count. When I read statements by people like him or the Episcopalians’ head honcho/honchette, I feel like asking them, Why don’t you focus your attention on activities that are distinctively Christian, like, you know, making and growing disciples? It’s a lost world out there, folks, and things like microbes and water boarding are not really in your job description. Other than wanting to appear Holier Than Thou, what is this all about?

  • http://twitter.com/karlkroger Karl Kroger (@karlkroger)

    Your thoughts on waterboarding?