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

Waterboarding as Torture in U.S. Law

The former Bush/Cheney administration and its apologists in the media continue to claim that it is an open question as to whether “waterboarding” (immobilizing a person, pouring water over his/her face and breathing passages, suffocating him/her and leading him/her to believe he/she will die) is torture and forbidden in U.S. law.  The question is ridiculous.

  • Waterboarding (as it is now called) is one of the oldest known forms of torture. In the 1500s it was used in the Spanish Inquisition.
  • In 1898, an American soldier (Captain Edwin F. Glenn)  used the technique (then called the “water cure”) on a prisoner captured in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.  When reported, Americans were shocked and protests led to Elihu Root, U.S. Secretary of War (now called Secretary of Defense) ordered Glenn court-martialed in 1902 and imprisoned.  A general under whose command this and other tortures occurred was court-martialed and removed from the army.
  • During WWII, both the Gestapo and some Japanese soldiers used waterboarding as a form of torture.  The Japanese were tried after the war and at least one hung by U.S. forces for waterboarding U.S. Airman Chase J. Nielsen.
  • Waterboarding was declared illegal by U.S. generals during the Vietnam War.  When a journalist photgraphed an American soldier helping two South Vietnamese soldiers waterboard a captured North Vietnames soldier, and published in the Washington Post in 1968, it caused outrage across the United States.  The soldier was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged from the U.S. army.
  • In 1983, Texas sheriff James Parker was sentenced to ten years in prison and his deputies to four years apiece for waterboarding prisoners.  When his case came up for clemency years later, then Gov. George W. Bush refused to pardon Sheriff Parker, specifically stating that no one is above the law.

In 1988, U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment, or Punishment of 1984.  It was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1994.  Since the U.S. Constitution classifies all treaties that the U.S. signs and ratifies as sharing the Constitution’s status as “highest law of the land,” then the U.S. must follow the Convention Against Torture’s provisions, including those which demand prosecution of those who authorize and those who implement torture.  It also forbids the U.S. to ship people to other countries that practice torture (“rendition”) and the Bush administration was guilty of that, also.

The reluctance of the Obama administration to try those responsible is rooted in several factors:

  • Such trials would be highly controversial.  The Washington Post published a poll today showing that Americans are about evenly divided over whether or not to have such trials.  Although law enforcement is not decided by popularity, the Obama administration has to  pass many pieces of legislation that will take all the public support he can muster.
  • The Republicans have already hinted that if the Obama administration tries anyone in the Bush administration, they will consider it “engaging in criminalizing policy differences” and they will investigate Democratic administrations when they get back in power.

But the consequences of refusing to try these cases could be even worse:

  • Members of the Bush administration could be indicted by the International Criminal Court or by the courts of other nations under the “global jurisdiction” where human rights violations are concerned.  This would put the Obama administration in the awkward position of either arresting and extraditing former Bush officials, including, maybe the former president himself or of defying international law.  If nothing else came of that, it would, at the very least, impede Obama’s attempts to rebuild America’s alliances abroad.  It also undermines his attempts to re-set our relations with the Muslim world.
  • Failing to prosecute violaters of human rights, no matter how highly placed, invites human rights abuses on Americans traveling abroad, whether civilian or military.
  • If members of the Bush administration travel abroad, they could be arrested and prosecuted by others with potential for a huge international incident.
  • Failure to prosecute violaters of human rights in the Bush administration makes it likely that a future administration will repeat these practices.  In fact, by calling them “policy differences” GOP torture apologists are already hinting that they will restart torture when their party wins the White House, again.  And their horror at the release of the torture memos as “exposing to our enemies the limits of American practices” seem to indicate they will try other practices in their place (electric shock to  the genitals?  bamboo shoots under fingernails? ).

Not too long ago (before 11 Sept. 2001), this was not controversial.  No one argued for the U.S. using torturing. Nor did anyone argue that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were not really torture.  This was not a liberal vs. conservative, left vs. right, or Democratic vs. Republican issue.  So, the current debate means that America has lost its way morally.  To that extent, the use of these torture techniques by the Bush administration and the fact that Americans find the use of torture or prosecution of torturers controversial, means that the terrorists have won–at least in part. Trying torturers, no matter who they are, is necessary for us to regain some degree of moral clarity.

April 26, 2009 Posted by | human rights., torture | 7 Comments

Now Perry WANTS Federal “Intrusion?”

I can’t resist pointing out this utter hypocrisy.  Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) has stirred up a neo-secessionist movement among far right Republicans in his state and elsewhere because he thinks federal laws are “intrusive.” (Yeah, and your segregationist Southern governor predecessors thought the federal civil rights laws were “intrusive” too. We’ve been here too many times before.) BUT, now that he’s facing swine flu outbreaks from Mexico, Perry is asking for help: specifically anti-virals from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.  Um, Gov. The CDC is a FEDERAL agency.  Don’t you think such aid would be “intrusive?”

I’m sorry, but we can’t just want to be part of a nation when it suits us.  We can, of course, dissent from national policies we believe to be wrong. We can be vocal in our dissent from those policies. I was vocal in my disagreement with invading Afghanistan and Iraq, with the torture,  the spying on citizens without warrant, the suspension of habeas corpus, etc.  I remain a vocal dissenter of Obama’s refusal to try torturers, his Afghanistan policy, his continuing of Bush’s blurring of lines between church and state, etc.

Dissent is a vital function of liberty of conscience and is a fundamental right and necessity of a free society.  Long may it be practiced by conservatives, liberals, etc. in EVERY state.  But dissent is not flirting with secession.

One cannot decide to be American for the things one likes and secessionist Texan (or Alaskan, etc.) for the things one doesn’t like.  If you want the aid that comes from the CDC  (or hurricane relief, etc.), then you take the responsibilities, too. 

If the federal government under Obama were REALLY the tyranny that Perry and his teabagging band of fellow nutcases think it is, it would demand that the TX legislature rescind its “sovereignty” declaration and impeach Perry before it gave any help with swine flu.  But, guess what, Gov.? That won’t happen. The CDC help will be there.  And no one will even mention your seditious language or wait for you to be grateful.  Why? Because we ARE one nation and those are OUR citizens who are threatened, not just Texas residents.  We’ll be helping out KS, and OK, and CA and anywhere else that this shows up, too.  Plus, we’ll probably give aid to Mexico where this began to help them and us.  And it won’t surprise me if Mexico thanks us before Gov. Perry does.

We AMERICANS through our government will give the aid to our fellow citizens (and to our neighbors, the Mexicans). And when we are done, Gov. Perry will probably go back to planning to attend a 4th of July tea party where he runs down his country, again.  But I hope everyone in this nation sees this blatant hypocrisy for what it is.

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX), LOSER OF THE WEEK!

UPDATE: Guess what, Gov. Perry? Guess what, Americans?  Today, the U.S. government, that “intrusive, oppressive” federal government, declared a public health emergency because of the swine flu pandemic outbreak. But the Centers for Disease Control would have had more money available to help than it will, now.  Why? Because REPUBLICANS stripped $900 million in pandemic disease preparedness from the stimulus/recovery package! Yep! Just as the Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) mocking of “something called volcano monitoring” meant that Alaska was less prepared for the eruption that is harming its citizens still, so the GOP objection to this “pork” means that the nation is less prepared for fighting the swine flu than we would otherwise be.  Nice.

It was Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), one of only 3 Republicans to vote for the stimulus/recovery package, who insisted on stripping this from the bill.  She argued, correctly, that this money does not directly stimulate economic recovery.  However, the reason House Democrats originally included it should be obvious:  A pandemic during an economic downturn would be more devastating than in a healthy economy.  A pandemic can lead to workers being ordered to remain in their homes to avoid spreading the disease. It can lead to the shuttering of workplaces or transportation in order to slow or stop the spread and, of course, it can lead to massive public health intervention.  So, RESPONSIBLE planning in a recession would allocate funds for a pandemic to prevent further slowing of the economy.  Now, of course, we don’t have that.  By the way, Sen. Collins brags about having stripped the stimulus bill of that money on her website! 

  And Gov. Goodhair, secession-loving Perry? You can thank Sen. Collins if the CDC is not able to intrude as effectively in TX during this emergency.  FORTUNATELY,  most of that pandemic preparation money was passed in March as part of the Omnibus funding (leftover from last year because the GOP wouldn’t allow a real budget to be passed last year) that passed the senate on voice vote.  So, we’re not quite as screwed as we would be otherwise, but I am tired of Republicans playing with people’s LIVES for political points: from levees, to bridges, to volcanoes, to pandemics–preparation for disaster is VITAL.  And think LONG AND HARD, Goodhair, over how much harder your job would be if you were not TX governor, but President of the Republic of Texas.  Then you’d have to beg for the good ol’ USA to give you foreign aid to help with this flu.

GET IT THROUGH YOUR THICK SKULLS: We need government to do things, to be a stable civilization.  For government to work, it needs money.  That means taxes. You don’t get something for nothing.  FORTUNATELY, that flu pandemic money was included in the budget–but only in the House version. So, it has to survive the reconciliation process. And that’s the 2010 budget!

April 26, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Styles of Moral Reasoning/Modes of Moral Discourse

With this post, we come to the final dimension of the 4-dimensions of moral discernment, according to Glen Stassen, Christian ethicist and my mentor.  Although this series has not proved popular (based on the few comments), I will nevertheless index it and place it on the Popular Series page for easy reference for future readers. That’s because of the importance I attach to this topic. I will undoubtedly refer to this series in future discussions of ethical issues.

The top right box in the 4-dimensional chart  denotes one’s “style of moral reasoning” or “mode of moral discourse.” I saved this dimension for last precisely because in far too many textbooks on moral philosophy (ethics) ALL the discussion is here and the other dimensions of moral discernment are neglected–as if people were disembodied reasoners.

Generally speaking, moral reasoning takes one of two BROAD forms:  deontologicalforms of moral reasoning focus on whether a particular moral action is intrinsically “right” or “wrong” and usually right and wrong are deontological categories.  The most famous Western philosophical version of this is German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  Kant argued that actions were either right or wrong regardless of consequences.  He argued that one could deduce unbreakable moral rules from a universal categorical imperative. (However, Kant formulated the categorical imperative in two very different fashions. He thought they were just two different versions of the same thing, but not all have agreed. Some have affirmed one version without affirming the other.)  1. To be moral, an action must be universalizable, i.e., one must be willing that everyone should do it.  Examples: One can affirm that everyone should tell the truth, but one cannot affirm that everyone should lie, ergo lies are always immoral and special pleading for one’s own self is wrong.  2. An action is moral if it never treats persons merely as means to an end, but always treats persons as ends in themselves.  A Kantian would say that torture is wrong, no matter any ticking time bomb scenarios, because it treats the one tortured as a mere means to an end. A Kantian who also believed that fetuses were persons from conception onward (once again, we see how the different dimensions intersect–here the basic convictions dimension influences the style of moral reasoning) would argue against abortion in all circumstances because such a Kantian would see all abortions as treating unborn persons as means to an end. (On the other hand, a Kantian who did not share that metaphysical view of fetal life, may come to a very different conclusion.)

Almost all forms of arguments for universal human rights are deontological to some degree or another. These often grow out of the natural rights tradition with its roots in Medieval nominalist philosophy and going through the -Leveller Richard Overton (c. 1599-1644) to the later John Locke(1634-1704). In a different fashion, the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is also rooted in a natural rights form of deontology.

In theology, Divine Command approaches to ethics tend also to be deontological in approach. Something is moral because God commands it. Something is immoral because God forbids it. Period.  (This takes varied shape from Calvin to Barth.)  Natural law approaches tend also to take deontological shape. 

By contrast, teleogical approaches to ethics look to goals or outcomes.  The most famous modern version of teleological ethics is utilitarianism.  An action is Good (“good” and “bad” are teological terms as “right “and “wrong” are deontological terms) if it leads to the most happiness for the most people with the least unhappiness for the least people.  Utiltarianism is associated with the British lawyer Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) and his disciple, the civil  libertarian John Stuart Mill(1806-1873).    More recent famous utilitarians include Australia’s Peter Singer (now at Princeton University)  and the pioneer of modern medical ethics, Joseph Fletcher(1905-1991).

Because American society is highly pragmatist (focusing on “what works”), there is much utilitarian thinking in American public moral reasoning–e.g., the arguments between those who claim that torture is ineffective as an information gathering tool (e.g., most American military commanders and FBI interrogators) and those who claim (e.g., Dick Cheney) that torture is effective in interrogation and therefore justified in saving lives by foiling furture terrorist plots.

(This is  a good place to point out that few people are consistent in their style of moral reasoning?  I often notice conservatives denounce utilitarian reasoning when it comes to stem cell research, but embrace it when it comes to torture.  Many liberals are mirror images–embracing stem cell research despite the destruction of embryonic life because of the potential good, while denouncing torture no matter if it is effective or not.  There may be consistent ways to consider both ends and means, but most people simply are not being consistent in their mode of moral discourse.)

A very different form of teleological ethics focuses not on the end or goal of an action (in terms of consequences), but of the end or goal of a person or community.  This kind of teleology asks about the purpose and goal of the moral life. The ways to that end are found in the practices and habits that form the person or community in certain virtues, i.e., moral qualities of excellence such as honesty, courage, wisdom, peaceableness, kindness, etc.  Almost all religions take some thought to the virtues, to moral character formation.  In Paul’ s Epistles, they are listed as “fruit of the Spirit.” (Paul also has vice lists–immoral qualities he wants churches and their members to avoid).  We similar concerns in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.

Note: This does not mean that all religions teach the same thing morally.  The shape of the virtues is narrative dependent, i.e., dependent on the shape of the story being lived out. (We are back to basic convictions, again.) Do different moral and religious systems mean the same thing by particular virtues given the same name?  It’s a difficult question that is highly contested in current philosophical, theological, and interfaith discussions.  Example of a major difference:  The ancient Romans greatly valued the virtue of courage–but courage was usually seen in terms of ARMED RESISTANCE TO AGGRESSION.  Thus, the nonviolence of the early Christians was often viewed as cowardice.  We see similar differences today in the debate over whether talking with enemies (which Jesus commanded) is a sign of weakness or strength in foreign policy.  However, I am among those who claim that this need not mean that no communication can happen between moral systems:  some Roman soldiers recognized the courage of the Christian martyrs–and it sometimes led to conversions.

Another critical variable in this dimension of moral discernment is the level on which one is discussing. I don’t mean intellectual level, but level of concreteness.  Situationists believe every moral act must be judged separately, usually with guidance from only a very broad rule of thumb, such as “love” or “compassion.”  Legalists focus on the level of moral rules.  If they are Christians, they tend to see the Bible as primarily a rulebook.   Principlists do not neglect moral rules, but when moral rules conflict, they reach back to the broader principles behind the rules.  E.g,, behind the rule “thou shalt not kill,” one might find the principle “Respect for human life.”    Still broader are those who function at the paradigmatic level, or the level of basic convictions.  Behind the principle, “respect for human life,” for instance, might be the basic conviction that all humans are created in the image of God and/or that all humans are persons for whom Christ died.  This is a narrative or ground of meaning level, again.

Often in moral discourse persons talk past one another because they use different levels of moral reasoning.  One is speaking in terms of rules, while another is speaking in terms of principles, and a third is outlining a broad theological or philosophical narrative paradigm.

I should note that these descriptions are fairly male-dominant.  Feminist theologians and philosophers (as well as female psychologists like Carol Gilligan) have noted that women’s moral reasoning is somewhat different–though whether this is cultural or genetic or what is a huge debate that I am NOT qualifed to answer.  Basically, women tend to be more relational in moral thought.  If posed a moral dilemma, men will often weigh conflicting moral principles “like math problems with human variables.” Women do not.  They seek win-win solutions rather than either-or answers to dilemmas.  They tend to reason morally in ways that keep families and communities together.  The moral world is a world of relationships, a web.  Few ethics texts, whether philosophical or theological, written by men, have yet to attempt a deep integration of feminist perspectives.

With this we have examined the critical variables in the 4 dimensions of moral discernment or judgment.  I want to emphasize again that EACH dimension influence every other dimension.  Further,  “history is the laboratory of ideas” and our encounters with the realities/outcomes of particular moral judgements acts as a “feedback loop” to influence every variable of all the dimensions–whether to reinforce previous conclusions or to challenge and modify them.  Hopefully, people and communities seek to grow as moral agents–to learn from mistakes, errors, sins.  The biblical name for such a “feedback loop” is “repentance.” 🙂

April 26, 2009 Posted by | convictions, ethics, moral discernment | 4 Comments