"Three Marines in Mahmudiya used an electric transformer, forcing a detainee to 'dance' as the electricity coursed through him."
International Committee of the Red Cross, February 2004

A former Iraqi general "died of asphyxiation after being stuffed head-first into a sleeping bag … at an American base in Al Asad."
The New York Times, October 23, 2005

"Al-Qatani was forced to perform dog tricks on a leash, was straddled by a female interrogator, forced to dance with a male interrogator, told that his mother and sister were whores, forced to wear a woman's bra and thong on his head during interrogation, and subjected to an unmuzzled dog to scare him."
Newsweek, November 21, 2005

The word "torture," tellingly, comes from the Latin torquere, to twist. Stine Amris and Julio G. Arenas, who have done extensive studies on the effects of torture, define it as "the infliction of severe pain (whether physical or psychological) by a perpetrator who acts purposefully and on behalf of the state" (italics in original).

The debate in our nation today concerns what measures can legitimately be taken to extract information from prisoners held by us in the "war on terror" and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As such, it is a debate about the proper use of government power in a liberal democracy. Can that power ever rightly extend to the use of any form of torture?

Few people disagree that a liberal democracy has the right and responsibility to take prisoners and interrogate them during a war or police action. This is part of the government's biblical mandate in Romans 13:1-7, a mandate to deter violations of peace and justice. Most would even agree that interrogators should have some flexibility in applying pressure to encourage prisoners to reveal information that could save lives. The question is whether torture can be included among the forms of pressure that can legitimately be employed.

As to the exact kinds of acts that constitute torture, there is no single definition, but this does not mean that the term is infinitely elastic. Almost everyone condemns the examples above. And international agreements have repeatedly sought to define torture as they have denounced it. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment." Article 17 of the Third Geneva Convention (1949) asserts that "no physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war," but, instead, "persons taking no active part in the hostilities … shall in all circumstances be treated humanely." The 1985 U.N. Convention Against Torture defines it as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person." The United States is a signatory to all of these international declarations and has historically incorporated their principles into military doctrine. For example, the 1992 (current, though under revision) U.S. Army Field Manual tells soldiers that "[Geneva] and U.S. policy expressly prohibit acts of violence or intimidation, including physical or mental torture, threats [or] insults, … as a means of or aid to interrogation."

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The kinds of acts most often classified as torture make for a dreary catalog of pain. They include physical torture, beatings, use of electric shock, employment of mind-altering drugs, sexual assault, and various other inventive ways of harming the bodies and minds of other human beings.

Torture Lite

When the current U.S. President repeatedly says that "we do not torture," perhaps these kinds of acts are what he has in mind. But since September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has, in the name of national security, attempted to carve out room for acts that brush up against the boundary line separating aggressive interrogation from torture, without (they believe) crossing over it. Called "enhanced interrogation techniques," "professional interrogation," "moderate physical pressure," or even (by outside analysts) "torture lite," these have included a variety of measures, some approved as policy by our government and others not publicly acknowledged or approved. But both independent and government investigators have discovered that such techniques have been used in U.S. detention facilities.

Among the sometimes approved measures have been prolonged standing, removal of detainees' clothing, sensory deprivation, hooding (often with smelly hoods), prolonged interrogations, use of dogs, forced shaving of beards, grabbing, poking, pushing, sleep manipulation and deprivation, and waterboarding (which refers to a variety of techniques designed to make a victim feel as if he were drowning).

Among the unapproved but practiced measures have been punching, slapping, and kicking detainees, religious and sexual humiliation, prolonged shackling, exposure to severe heat or cold, food or toilet deprivation, mock or threatened executions, and letting dogs threaten or in some cases bite and severely injure detainees.

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The abuses appear to have been particularly prevalent in CIA interrogations, among private U.S. contractors serving the military, and among the underprepared and poorly trained military police at places like Abu Ghraib in Iraq. There are also profound worries and disturbing allegations about what is going on with "high-value" detainees in CIA interrogations at undisclosed locations.

Though Condoleezza Rice has said that prisoners in U.S. custody anywhere in the world should be afforded the same protections as if they were on U.S. soil, some still wonder about the significance of these assurances—and especially about what is happening to prisoners "rendered" by our government to other countries (many known to practice torture).

Furthermore, while all "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of detainees has been officially rejected by the administration (under pressure from Sen. John McCain and others), it is not clear who defines when treatment crosses that line. It also remains unclear how much latitude those on the front lines of interrogation have, and if and how they would be held accountable if they were to cross the line. In other words, there remain a number of loopholes for torture to be practiced in the war on terror.

Yet the prohibition on torture in international law admits no exceptions. The U.N. Convention Against Torture puts it this way: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture."

The U.S. ratified this convention in 1994, before September 11, before we launched our war on terror. Despite the passage of the McCain Amendment against torture, many Americans and some leading administration officials continue to believe that acts tantamount to torture are morally permissible in the exceptional case posed by Islamist terrorism. As State Department official Cofer Black famously put it: "All I want to say is that there was before 9/11 and after 9/11. After 9/11, the gloves came off."

How should a Christian think about all this?

Let me begin by granting that the terrorist attacks of September 11 were one of the most heinous acts ever visited upon this nation, a clear violation of the laws of war and any kind of civilized moral code. Since then, terrorist acts around the world remind us that our nation, along with many others, faces a threat from enemies who do not adhere to the kinds of moral scruples we are considering in this essay.

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So I do not write to demonize those who believe that protecting our nation's security requires the use of interrogation techniques that could be classified as borderline torture. Nor do I want to get into a technical and detailed argument about particular interrogation techniques to determine if they are torture. What I want to focus on is the idea that, given the war on terror, the gloves should be taken off. Simply put, should our government have the option—even if used only rarely and in extreme circumstances—of torturing prisoners?

I believe Christians should say no, on the following five grounds.

1. Torture violates the dignity of the human being. Every inch of the human body and every aspect of the human spirit comes from God and bears witness to his handiwork. We are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). Human dignity, value, and worth come as a permanent and ineradicable endowment of the Creator to every person.

Christians, at least, should be trained to see in every person the imprint of God's grandeur. This should create in us a sense of reverence. Here, we say—and we say it even of detainees in the war on terror—is a human being sacred in God's sight, made in God's image, someone for whom Christ died. No one is ever "subhuman" or "human debris," as Rush Limbaugh has described some of our adversaries in Iraq.

Because they are human, people have rights to many things, including the right not to be tortured. Christians sometimes question the legitimacy of "rights talk," correctly so. Just because someone claims a right does not mean that it really is a right. But among the most widely recognized rights in both legal and moral theory is the right to bodily integrity; that is, the right not to have intentional physical and psychological harm inflicted upon oneself by others. The ban on torture is one expression of this right.

Is this right absolute? Using Catholic moral reasoning, Robert G. Kennedy, professor of Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, has argued that even the most widely recognized human rights, such as the right to life or the right not to be tortured, can theoretically be qualified by other rights and by the requirements of justice. Kennedy argues that "defensive interrogatory torture" (and only this kind of torture) may be morally legitimate under carefully qualified conditions. Yet he goes on to argue that "it is quite likely that most instances in which interrogatory torture is employed would not conform to these principles and so would be immoral."

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Whether we open the door to torture just a crack, as Kennedy suggests, or keep it firmly shut as an absolute ban, as I advocate, the principle of human dignity and correlated rights remains a transcendently important reason to resist the turn toward torture.

2. Torture mistreats the vulnerable and violates the demands of justice. In the Scriptures, God's understanding of justice tilts toward the vulnerable. "Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry" (Ex. 22:21-23). Primary forms of injustice include violent abuse and domination of the powerless.

One reason our legal system has so many layers of protection for the accused and imprisoned is their powerlessness. This is important in any legal system that has the power to deprive people of their liberty and even their lives. The 83,000 people who have been detained by our government and military in the last four years are, as prisoners, vulnerable to injustice. Those who have been tortured are victims of injustice.

3. Authorizing torture trusts government too much. Human beings are sinful through and through (Rom. 3:10-18). We are not to be trusted, and we are especially dangerous when in possession of unchecked power. This applies to all of us.

So it is likely that authorizing even the "lightest" forms of torture risks abuse. As Richard John Neuhaus has put it, "We dare not trust ourselves to torture." Or as Gary Haugen recently wrote, "Because the power of the state over detainees is exercised by fallen human beings, that power must be limited by clear boundaries, and individuals exercising such power must be transparently accountable."

Given human sinfulness, not only must people be told not to torture, we must also strengthen the structures of due process, accountability, and transparency that buttress those standards and make them less likely to be violated. This is what is so dangerous about the discovery of secret CIA prisons in Europe and "ghost detainees" who are located no one knows where. As Manfred Nowak, U.N. special rapporteur on torture, said at the time the cia's secret prisons were revealed, "Every secret place of detention is a higher risk for ill treatment; that's the danger of secrecy." It is not enough for U.S. government officials to say they can be trusted to act "in keeping with our values"—not without due process, accountability, and transparency. No government is so virtuous as to overcome the laws of human nature, or to be beyond the need for democratic checks and balances.

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Much ink has been spilled over how to handle the rare ticking-bomb cases, in which a prisoner has information that could save thousands of lives if only he can be made to talk by a certain deadline. Perhaps the most widely discussed proposal has been Alan Dershowitz's suggestion that we permit torture only through a "torture warrant" signed by a judge or a very high government official, such as the President himself, who would therefore bear full legal, political, and moral responsibility.

This would be better than what we are doing now. But I think any potential resort to torture in rare, ticking-bomb cases would be better handled within the context of an outright ban. The grand moral tradition of civil disobedience, for example, specifies that there are instances in which obedience to laws must be overridden by loyalty to a higher moral obligation. These are usually unjust laws, but not always. Dietrich Bonhoeffer participated in an assassination plot against Hitler, for instance, but he did not argue for rewriting moral prohibitions against political assassinations. He was prepared to let God and history be his judge. If a one-in-a-million instance were to emerge, in which a responsible official believed that a ban on torture must be overridden as a matter of emergency response, let him do so knowing that he would have to answer for his action before God, law, and neighbor. This is a long way from an official authorization for torture.

4. Torture dehumanizes the torturer. Mark Bowden, a military scholar and author of Black Hawk Down, believes that sometimes torture is the right choice. Even so, he worries, "How does one allow it, yet still control it? Sadism is deeply rooted in the human psyche. Every army has its share of soldiers who delight in kicking and beating bound captives. Men in authority tend to abuse it—not all men, but many. As a mass, they should be assumed to lean toward abuse."

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Loosening longstanding restrictions on physical and mental cruelty risks the dehumanization not just of the tortured, but also of the torturers. What may be intended as carefully calibrated interrogation techniques could easily tempt implementers toward sadism—the infliction of pain for the sheer fun of it, especially in the heat of military conflict, in a climate of fear and loathing of the enemy, and in the context of an endless war on terror. How many of us could be trusted to draw the line consistently between the permitted "grabbing, poking, and pushing" and the banned "punching, slapping, and kicking"? How much self-control can we reasonably expect people to exercise? Once the line has been crossed to torture, as Michael Ignatieff claims, it "inflicts irremediable harm on both the torturer and the prisoner."

Frederick Douglass commented famously on how holding a slave slowly ruined the character of the woman who owned him. Martin Luther King Jr. frequently said that the greatest victims of segregation were the white people whose souls were deformed by their own hatred. And Alexander Solzhenitsyn, reflecting on the Soviet gulag, said, "Our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: They are turning into swine; they are departing downward from humanity."

5. Torture erodes the character of the nation that tortures. A nation is a collective moral entity with a character, an identity that carries across time. Causes come and go, threats come and go, but the enduring question for any social entity is who we are as a people. This is true of a family, a church, a school, a civic club, or a town. It is certainly true of a nation.

Sen. John McCain, who has led the Republican charge against torture, recently said, "This isn't about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies."

In a November Newsweek article, he put it this way: "What I … mourn is what we lose when … we allow, confuse, or encourage our soldiers to forget that best sense of ourselves, that which is our greatest strength—that we are different and better than our enemies, that we fight for an idea, not a tribe, not a land, not a king … but for an idea that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights."

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No Exceptions

Long ago, German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about the perennial human tendency to find exceptions to moral rules when the rules bind a bit too tightly on us: "Hence there arises a natural … disposition to argue against these strict laws of duty and to question their validity, or at least their purity and strictness, and, if possible, to make them more accordant with our wishes and inclinations, that is to say, to corrupt them at their very source, and to entirely destroy their worth."

I believe this is the best explanation for what is happening with the issue of torture in our nation. We are tempted to follow the logic of a July 11, 2005, Time magazine cover story that said, "In the war on terrorism, the personal dignity of a fanatic trained for mass murder may be an inevitable casualty."

Yet we are queasy enough about this "inevitable casualty" that we do not want to call torture what it is. We do not want to expose our policies, our prisons, or our prisoners to public view. We deny that we are torturing, or we deny that our prisoners are really prisoners. When pushed against the wall, we remind one another how evil the enemy is. We give every evidence of the kind of self-deception that is characteristic of a descent into sin.

It is past time for evangelical Christians to remind our government and our society of perennial moral values, which also happen to be international and domestic laws. As Christians, we care about moral values, and we vote on the basis of such values. We care deeply about human-rights violations around the world. Now it is time to raise our voice and say an unequivocal no to torture, a practice that has no place in our society and violates our most cherished moral convictions.

David P. Gushee is professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, and author of Only Human: Christian Reflections on the Journey Toward Wholeness (Jossey-Bass, 2005). A longer version of this essay can be accessed at www.davidgushee.com.

Related Elsewhere:

A longer version of this essay can be accessed at DavidGushee.com.

Other Christianity Today articles on torture, cruel and degrading treatment, and prison abuse, are available in our full coverage area. The articles include:

Silence on Suffering | Where are the voices from the Christian community on cruel and degrading treatment of detainees? By Gary A. Haugen (Oct. 17, 2005)
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The Evil In Us | Prisoner torture in Iraq exposes the ordinary face of human depravity. A Christianity Today editorial (June 10, 2004)
I Was in Prison and You Abused Me | What would Jesus do at Abu Ghraib? By Steven Gertz (May 28, 2004)

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly last week examined what religious leaders, including evangelicals, are saying about torture.

Gushee is also an ethics columnist for Christianity Today. His "Do Likewise" columns include:

Bill's Big Career Move | How do we make important family decisions? By David P. Gushee (Jan. 10, 2006)
Our Missing Moral Compass | Christianity is more than an event, an experience, or a set of beliefs. (Nov. 14, 2005)

He is also an occasional columnist for Beliefnet and Religion News Service, the latter of which recently published another column by him on torture.

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