Christians and Torture: What Should You Know?

In the wake of the declassified summary of the Senate Intelligence Report (or the report of the Democrats on that committee), Joe Carter has written  about Christians and torture: “7 Things that Christians Should Know about Torture.”


Carter is Director of Communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission which is “an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention”—also known as the Southern Baptist Church. He is a Christian writing to other Christians.

His seven points are as follows,

  • Torture is clearly defined.
  • Many “enhanced interrogation techniques” fit the definition of torture.
  • Waterboarding is torture.
  • The U.S. military opposes torture, including waterboarding.
  • Mental torture is as serious as physical torture.
  • Torture is an ineffective interrogation technique.
  • Torture harms the torturers too

You will have to read the arguments and evidence that Carter collects for yourself and decide what you think. Right now it seems that most of the controversy is over his sixth claim, that “torture is an ineffective interrogation technique.”

I’m more interested in Carter’s last point—about torture harming the torturers.

The damage done by using such torture techniques is not only done to the prisoner. The New York Times notes how the torture disturbed some CIA personnel:

The torture of prisoners at times was so extreme that some C.I.A. personnel tried to put a halt to the techniques, but were told by senior agency officials to continue the interrogation sessions.

The Senate report quotes a series of August 2002 cables from a C.I.A. facility in Thailand, where the agency’s first prisoner was held. Within days of the Justice Department’s approval to begin waterboarding the prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, the sessions became so extreme that some C.I.A. officers were “to the point of tears and choking up,” and several said they would elect to be transferred out of the facility if the brutal interrogations continued.

Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles In Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, found that dehumanizing the enemy during the Vietnam war caused psychological damage to American troops:

Restoring honor to the enemy is an essential step in recovery from combat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). While other things are obviously needed as well, the veteran’s self-respect never fully recovers so long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy. In the words of one of our patients, a war against subhuman vermin “has no honor.” This in true even in victory; in defeat, the dishonoring makes life unendurable. (pg. 115)

In our attempts to dehumanize our enemy we end up becoming less than human ourselves. It would be a Pyrrhic victory to save civilization and lose our humanity.

One of the things that jumped out at me in reading the New York Times piece is that these people carrying out the torture were not in the place of someone like the fictional Detective Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastood in Dirty Harry, the first of several movies in a franchise. In that movie, Callahan agrees to pay a ransom to a psychopath to save the life of a girl he kidnapped. Callahan met the perpetrator who attempted to kill him but first boasted that he was going to let the girl die (she had been buried with limited oxygen).

Callahan manages to fight back and cause the perp to flee. He tracks him down and shoots him in the leg and then puts his foot on the wound to cause pain and get the criminal to tell him where the girl is located.

Notice that the man doing the torture had personal knowledge of the perp’s guilt and of the fact that he had a secret. He was personally involved.

But that’s was not the situation for this torture program. The agents did not have direct knowledge of their captive’s guilt and became convinced that they had no secrets to tell. So they weren’t torturing for these reasons. They were simply torturing because they were ordered to do so.

That’s not good. I’m glad that they had problems. But what if the CIA found men who had no problem torturing on orders, no matter how unlikely it seemed that any information of value would resort from the torture?

People who simply torture because ordered to do so are not heroes and they are not trustworthy.

George Orwell is famous for writing, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” But do we sleep peaceably because we trust those men? Or because we assume that they will be kept far from our neighborhoods, overseas? I don’t see how such people can be trusted as faithful protectors.

Personally, I find it strange that everyone is debating about whether or not torture is allowable for fighting “the war on terror.” It seems just as likely to me that “the war on terror” was chosen for the sake of getting to torture. We now have a government that openly acknowledges that it tortures people. For some people in power, that might have been the main goal all along.