Can Christians engage in committing acts of torture? And if so, how is the act reconciled with the basic message of the gospel?
His home computer revealed al Qaeda plans to blow up 11 commercial airliners, one of which was to fly into CIA headquarters. After extensive and brutal torture, Murad divulged names, dates and places. The information obtained, no doubt, prevented future terrorist attacks.
Some Christian ethicists allow for this form of torture in order to obtain information. For example in City of God, the original author of Just War Theory, Augustine, condoned torturing the innocent in order to obtain information. This raises a disturbing question: Can Christians engage in committing acts of torture? And if so, how is the act reconciled with the basic message of the gospel?
Generally, there are two types of torture. “Torture lite” is a gentler and kinder procedure that encompasses psychological techniques to disorient and wear down the prisoner, like sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, withholding of medical treatment, or sitting in painful and uncomfortable positions for long periods of time.
For example, officials withheld painkillers from Abu Zubaydah (among the highest-ranking al Qaeda operatives held in custody), who was shot several times during his capture in Pakistan.
“Hard torture” includes physical and at times sadistic violence. Although no one denies that “torture lite” is employed on prisoners held by the United States at its naval base at Guantanamo, officials do deny the use of hard torture.
Still, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, noted that the United States was handing over some suspects to countries (i.e., Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) that were not adverse to employing hard torture to gain information that could then be passed along to the United States.
These transfers are a clear violation of American laws and the 1984 international convention banning such transfers. Nevertheless, these transfers have been confirmed by U.S. intelligence officials. Is it ethical to participate in torture lite to safeguard national security? What about hard torture? Should we violate international laws to obtain information? Is it ethical for the United States to obtain vital information through the hard torture conducted by allies? Can we engage in teaching our allies how to commit torture?
Take for example our own torture training camp at Fort Benning, Ga., where our military has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in commando operations, psychological warfare and counter-insurgency techniques. The training manuals produced for them by the Pentagon, and made public through the Freedom of Information Act, show that our country taught these Latin American military officers how to engage in political executions, torture, false arrest, blackmail, censorship, payment of bounty for murders, and other forms of physical abuse against enemies.
Yet we are left wondering, Who is the enemy? After all, the communist threat has subsided since the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, like Iraq, no connection exists between Latin America and al Qaeda.
According to former CIA officer John Stockwell, terrorist tactics are central to the U.S. strategy in Central America. He states, “Encouraging techniques of raping women and executing men and children is a coordinated policy of the destabilization program.” The CIA’s own training manual for the Reagan Contra war in Nicaragua encouraged the assassination of “government officials and
A U.S. Congressional Task Force headed by former Rep. Joseph Moakley concluded that those responsible for many of the government-led massacres in Latin America are trained by the U.S. Army at Fort Benning. According to former Rep. Joseph Kennedy, “The Pentagon revealed [through these training manuals] what activists opposed to the school have been alleging for years—that foreign military officers were taught to torture and murder, [in order] to achieve their political objective.”
We face a choice. Either we justify the use of torture (hard or lite), boldly and unapologetically going forth in the name of national security; or, we recognize the imago Dei (the image of God) residing in all humans—even the enemy. Radical Christianity forces us to recognize the humanity of our enemies during all levels of conflict, for if the enemy is created in the image of God, then they too have dignity and worth.
I’m left to wonder which choice Jesus would take.
Miguel De La Torre teaches in the religion department at Hope College in Holland, Mich. His column appears in the Holland Sentinel.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.