Torture Is a Moral Issue

People of faith in the United States have been working for years to eliminate harsh interrogation techniques and believe it violates theological principles.

Members of the Washington Region Religious Campaign Against Torture display a banner at the Public Witness Against Torture event in Washington, D.C. on March 10, 2008. (flickr/takomabibelot)
Members of the Washington Region Religious Campaign Against Torture display a banner at the Public Witness Against Torture event in Washington, D.C. on March 10, 2008. (flickr/takomabibelot)

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel J. Baumgartner Jr. told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that torture techniques “are used by police, priests, and teachers … They’re nothing more than interview techniques, some friendly and some not so friendly. Good cop, bad cop has been around for centuries.”

That’s definitely news to religious communities. Priests and other people of faith in the United States have been working for years to eradicate harsh interrogation techniques because they constitute torture. The degradation of other human beings is seen as an affront to God and God’s creation in almost every religious community, from Catholics to mainline Protestants, Jewish groups, evangelicals, and Muslims. According to sacred texts, human dignity is inherent within each of us and to maim or destroy that dignity is a grave sin.

People are bound by a common humanity, but denigrating fellow humans ruptures that bond and destroys the basic spiritual principle of the Golden Rule, which commands that we treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves. Torture tears this principle to shreds. It also corrupts the hearts of the perpetrators, just as it destroys the bodies and souls of its victims.

Religious groups have accordingly organized efforts to increase public awareness of torture and work for its eradication. Princeton Theological Seminary Professor George Hunsinger in 2006, for example, founded The National Religious Campaign Against Torture, an interfaith organization “committed to ending U.S.-sponsored torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” The campaign provides educational resources for pastors and lay leaders to spark congregational discussion and action. It has also raised awareness through innovative techniques such as hanging “Torture Is a Moral Issue” banners on houses of worship across the country and running a full-page anti-torture ad in the New York Times signed by religious leaders and organizations, including Eli Wiesel and the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Jewish groups are also involved; the Central Conference of American Rabbis, an organization of rabbis formed in 1889, passed a resolution condemning torture in 2005. NETWORK is a Catholic group that lobbies on Capitol Hill urging policymakers to advocate for peace and justice. Kathleen Byrne, a lobby associate for NETWORK, says, “Faith should play a core role in a believer’s political life.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has published a Catholic study guide for congregations that examines torture as a moral issue. People of faith are gathering in Atlanta this September for a National Summit on Torture that will examine how torture came to be practiced by our nation, as well as how to heal broken relationships with the Muslim world and restore America’s leadership in protecting human rights. And just two weeks ago, the United Nations International Day in Support of Torture Victims and Survivors brought together people for a 24-hour vigil during which torture survivors spoke about their experiences.

Faith communities also point to pragmatic reasons for opposing torture—it can harm our military and security interests. When we torture enemies, our own troops are more susceptible to being tortured. In a 2004 article in The Wall Street Journal, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) wrote, “While our intelligence personnel in Abu Ghraib may have believed that they were protecting U.S. lives by roughing up detainees to extract information, they have had the opposite effect. Their actions have increased the danger to American soldiers, in this conflict and in future wars.”

The Bush administration has justified its actions since 2001 by claiming that we are living in a uniquely dangerous time. To win this “battle of civilizations,” says the administration, we must be pre-emptive and ruthless, foregoing legal niceties and moral qualms that might have been suitable in the past.

Dr. Jacqueline Bussie, religion professor at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio counters this, saying, “The claim of a state of emergency is a common thread in civilization’s history. Everyone says it’s exceptional times in exceptional circumstances and so exceptional actions are necessary. Only later do people begin to wonder if this kind of reasoning promotes security or actually moves them farther away from that goal.”

Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi, for example, then the highest ranking member of Al Qaeda in U.S. custody, was secretly handed over to Egypt by the United States in 2002. After being tortured, Al Libbi confessed that Iraqi military leaders had trained members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to use biological and chemical weapons. Despite warnings from the Defense Intelligence Agency, administration officials used this information as one of the reasons for invading Iraq. Only later did the CIA admit that he “had no knowledge of such training or weapons, and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment.” With rising military and civilian death tolls, increasing fiscal commitment, and alienation from former allies, al Libbi’s “information” has greatly endangered America.

The basic fact is that torture is illegal and it does not work. It violates the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, 18 U.S.C. 2340, and The Army Field Manual. And President Bush directed that all detainees be treated “humanely” in Military Order 1 on November 12, 2001.

There is a growing consensus that harsh interrogation tactics actually undermine national interests. During the Senate hearing in June, Major Jerald F. Ogrisseg, Chief of the Air Force Psychology Services stated, “I’d seen waterboarding and never recommend it be used in training. It produces compliance with the administrator 100 percent of the time. I heard comments like, ‘If they brought me near it again, I’d have done anything to avoid it.’ We have no way of knowing if the information provided is true or not.” Ogrisseg edited A Code of Conduct, which stated, “Torture yields poor information, decreases legitimacy, and increases resistance.”

Beyond all this, practicing torture has severely impaired America’s reputation around the world. A 2006 World Public Opinion survey found that 78 percent of Germans and 56 percent of the British believing the U.S. government did a “bad job” of promoting human rights. This was a sharp increase from 1998, when only 24 percent of Germans and 22 percent of Britains held such opinions.

Such a long list of moral, security, and legal arguments against torture is what motivates communities of faith to fight current Bush administration policies.

Evangelicals, once a targeted voting block for the administration, are standing against torture. According to David Gushee, Professor at Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia and President of Evangelicals for Human Rights, fewer than 50 percent of evangelicals currently identify themselves as part of the Christian Right. In 2007, Evangelicals for Human Rights released the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture. The Declaration also had the approval of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 60 denominations and millions of individuals. The Declaration states five reasons that Evangelicals must fight torture—sanctity of life, human rights, Christian history and human rights, ethical implications, and legal structures—and recommends that policymakers uphold the Geneva Conventions and reverse any U.S. law, policy, or practice that violates the listed moral standards.

Professor Gushee says, “People know torture is abhorrent. I’m not hearing too many people advocate ‘torture’. There’s usually a softer name like ‘aggressive interrogation techniques’. Whenever people resort to euphemisms, they shouldn’t be engaged in the activity. As Christians, we have an obligation to stand up in the public square. The same reason I’m against abortion is why I’m against torture—the dignity and value of human life.”

Torture is, and should be, an overarching issue for a wide range of faith communities. It violates basic theological principles. It is ineffective. It is detrimental to U.S. national security. And it compromises our work toward the common good. Policymakers must echo the voices of American faith leaders to stop torture.

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