Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Why Faith Leaders Must Lead in Abolishing Torture.

This morning I was, as usual, listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition.” They were beginning a series of conversations on torture. To my horror, the first guest, Alan Dershowitz, the noted Harvard Law Professor and usually a strong defender of civil liberties, argued that, while torture is always morally wrong, it is sometimes effective in interrogation and so WILL be used if officials believe they need to save hundreds of lives from terrorist attack. Dershowitz’ proposed solution is to force the president to sign a warrant for torture in such circumstances and to have a public debate over what interrogation techniques count as torture and what torture can be used and under what circumstances. This, Dershowitz believes, will end our hypocrisy about torture (claiming we never do it while obviously doing so) and reduce the amount of torture in which we engage. Read or hear the full interview here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5512634 . What was most horrifying about this was that this barbarism wasn’t being proposed by “the usual suspects” (Cheney, Bush, Atty. Gen. Gonzalez, Ann Coulter, etc.) , but by someone who can usually be counted on to defend human rights and civil liberties. Yet, Dershowitz’ reasoning was entirely pragmatic and utilitarian.

With such muddled thinking about torture, it is all the more vital for faith leaders and faith communities to take the lead in campaigning to abolish torture. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture http://www.nrcat.org/ has over 5,000 signatures so far, but it should be 500,000 by now. I urge you to sign today.

I was encouraged to find that the New York Times ad against torture included Muslim, Jewish, liberal Christian, centrist Christian, and even some conservative evangelical signatures. One signer is David P. Gushee, a Southern Baptist who is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, TN, a very conservative school. Anticipating criticism from his fellow conservatives, he wrote the following article for Religion News Service. I include it here because it does such a good job of explaining why torture is a major moral issue and why faith leaders need to step up and lead.

Saying No to Torture
David P. Gushee

This week the National Religious Campaign Against Torture released a brief statement unequivocally condemning any resort to torture (http://www.nrcat.org/). It was signed by 27 religious leaders, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant (evangelical, mainline, historic black church). Among the notable names attached to the statement are Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, former president Jimmy Carter, the Catholic Archbishop of Washington Theodore McCarrick, and evangelical leaders such as Rick Warren, Ted Haggard, and Brian McLaren. I feel honored to have been one of these 27 signatories.

I know that this nice feeling of honor will soon give way to weariness at the mud that will be slung my way by those who are unhappy with this statement and my signature. I am familiar with such criticisms:

Some say that this kind of statement is unnecessary, because our government does not torture.

Response: In violation of constitutional principle and American values, there are an unknown number of prisoners being held incommunicado in an unknown number of locations by an unknown assortment of government agencies all over the world. We really have no idea what is currently being done in the name of national security to these prisoners. This is itself is worthy of loud protest.

We do know that torture has occurred in multiple locations, not just Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, over the last several years. We know that the president had to be dragged into signing the McCain bill explicitly banning cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees, that he offered a signing statement freeing him to interpret the bill essentially as he wished, and that those revising the Army Field Manual have been considering including a secret set of interrogation techniques for “unlawful combatants.”

In sum, there is plenty of reason not to be confident that our government has given up torture or torture-like practices. As long as we do not know, we must remain vigilant.

Some say that this kind of statement says nothing about torture undertaken by other governments.

Response: The National Religious Campaign Against Torture opposes torture anywhere, by anyone, for any reason. But concerned American citizens can do little about what the government of, say, Uzbekistan, does with its prisoners. Moral concern begins at home, but it does not end there. Torture should be abolished everywhere. It is never right. Let the citizens of all nations work to end torture in every land.

Some say this kind of statement fails to support the troops.

Response: This is the ultimate cop-out argument. In fact, it’s no argument at all. Just play the “support the troops” card and everyone concerned about a particular government policy is supposed to cower in fear. Actually, what fails to support the troops is to be equivocal about torture, because it is our troops who eventually end up being forced or enticed to do moral evil when they move in the vicinity of torture. Either we morally destroy soldiers and intelligence officers by turning them into torturers or we begin recruiting sadists because we need them to do our dirty work for us. What really supports the troops is to free them from any temptation or responsibility to treat other human beings in a cruel, inhuman, degrading, or tortuous way.

Some say this kind of statement is naïve about the need for torture for national security.

Response: There is little if any evidence that torture actually enhances national security. It appears to be a near-consensus on the part of those who actually know anything about it that torture produces little if any valuable intelligence. People will say anything to stop being tortured. And if they survive torture, they (and their families, and friends, and countrymen) will hate us with an incandescent hatred, deeper than almost any other hatred in the world, because they have been physically violated. Producing more people who hate us that much does not enhance our national security.

Some say this kind of statement is a partisan attack on President Bush.

Response: My guess is that a mix of Republicans, independents, and Democrats are among the 27 signers of this statement. But the whole criticism is, again, a ruse. The campaign against torture is rooted in religious faith and the moral values that faith generates. It is also rooted in a deep commitment to American constitutional principles. If it becomes impossible to offer critique of a government policy from a moral point of view, then we will have lost the prophetic dimension of public life. And a country that loses that prophetic dimension can never reform itself, thus dooming it to moral deterioration and eventual moral collapse.

June 27, 2006 Posted by | human rights., progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, torture, U.S. politics | Comments Off on Why Faith Leaders Must Lead in Abolishing Torture.