By David Gushee
The week of Sept. 11, 2008, I had the privilege of hosting a national summit on torture at Mercer University in Atlanta. (To learn more about the program called “Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul,” and what happened there, see www.mercer.edu for news summaries.) In this column I want to reflect on what the torture summit meant to me and where our movement will go from here.
The combination of military, legal, national security, and religious speakers have convinced me that the practice of torture by the United States marks the first major American scandal of the 21st century. It is a governmental scandal, necessitating investigations, accountability and policy change for at least the next several years.
But it is also a religious scandal, involving the compromised loyalties of a majority of American evangelicals.
Here is the basic story that was told at the conference:
After 9/11, top officials in the United States government, driven by the vice president, concluded both that long-standing legal and moral constraints on torture needed to be set aside to prosecute the “war on terror,” and that the executive branch must be free to pursue this effort with as little congressional and judicial review as possible.
Systematically cutting dissenting voices out of the policy-making process, Dick Cheney and his “war council” crafted a policy that set aside or weakened human-rights protections provided in the Geneva Conventions, in the law and traditions of the U.S. military and in domestic laws explicitly banning torture. A series of secret legal memos were written — primarily by a small cadre of ideologically driven lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel — that provided the dubious legal permission for the executive branch to pursue these policies.
These memos narrowed the definition of torture so as to permit a number of cruel and inhumane interrogation techniques that aroused extraordinary alarm among senior military and civilian officials within the government once they were discovered. But the die was cast.
These techniques were employed at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo, Cuba, where terrorism suspects captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere were held. They migrated to Iraq and then showed up in Afghanistan.
Worse techniques were employed by nations, such as Egypt and Syria, to whom we outsourced some of our prisoners. We still do not know fully what has happened at the so-called “black sites” and ghost prisons — clandestine detainment centers run by U.S. intelligence agencies. But it is highly unlikely that treatment was or is better there, given the administration’s insistence on the need for “enhanced interrogation techniques” by the CIA even today.
It appears that the weakening of human-rights protections not only permitted cruel techniques that were explicitly authorized, but also created a degraded environment in which unauthorized sadism and cruelty ran rampant. For example, according to original research done by graduate student Michael Peppard and presented at our conference, religious desecration and humiliation of sacred Muslim objects and practices appears to have been widespread at Guantanamo, at least for a time.
Not that this is the bottom line, but it must be noted that these cruel techniques were employed against hundreds or thousands of prisoners who were either innocent of any terrorist activity or had no particularly valuable information to give up. Many of the people we are holding at Guantanamo were sold to us by bounty hunters in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan and never have been charged with any wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, we were reminded at the conference of a number of cases in which detainees tortured in other conflicts from around the globe told their captors anything they could think of that would make the torture end, as most of us would do in the same situation. This yielded worthless information and misdirected our intelligence efforts in pursuing false leads.
When the secrets are all out and the documents are all released, prosecution of government officials who authorized torture will be a real possibility unless foreclosed by pardons. Even then, international criminal prosecutions are possible. In the meantime, we have compromised our values, forfeited our claim to the moral high ground, damaged our most important alliances, implicitly authorized torture by other governments and created or deepened an everlasting hatred toward our nation by those most affected by our actions — all for a negligible intelligence benefit.
The American human-rights community, including many groups represented at our summit, will continue to press for policy changes to be adopted immediately by the new president and Congress. (See www.campaigntobantorture.org to sign on to the major policy principles we are promoting.)
There is a serious chance that these principles will be accepted, given the general policy stances of Sens. McCain and Obama on torture. But nothing can be taken for granted — especially in light of the disturbing results of the poll of Southern evangelical Christians that Mercer University and Faith in Public Life released at the conference.
Perhaps the most shocking number is that only 22 percent of white Southern evangelicals say that torture is always wrong. Fifty-seven percent say it is often or sometimes justified. The sliver of good news from the survey is that, when presented with the option of affirming the Golden Rule principle — we should do nothing to our detainees that we would not want done to our troops if captured — opposition to torture increased strongly across all demographic groups.
I was shocked to hear that only 28 percent of all those evangelical Christians we polled said that their faith provided the primary source to which they turned when thinking about the morality of torture. Most cited common sense or life experience.
Southern evangelical Christian leaders apparently have failed to communicate an understanding of the Christian faith and its moral demands that would prohibit believers from embracing the torture of their fellow human beings in the name of national security. This emerges from a faith community whose Founder was tortured and murdered by the state, and most of whose original leaders were also tortured and murdered by the state. What an incredible collective amnesia! Who would Jesus, Peter, John and Paul torture?
Not long ago I was in northern Georgia at one of those ubiquitous interstate gas stations. Interspersed among the tacky trinkets and mugs was a T-shirt with the slogan, “Waterboarding is my favorite sport.”
I wonder if the creator of that T-shirt goes to church?
We are indeed in a fight for our national soul. That fight begins in the church, whose complicity with torture is far more scandalous than any government wrongdoing.