The issue of torture is very much on the mind of Congress, the Defense Department, and the White House these days. A $440 billion defense bill currently making its way through House of Representatives has an amendment attached written by Senator John McCain—someone who learned about torture while a prisoner of war during the Vietnam era.
The language in the amendment prohibits “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody. McCain is specifically concerned about the treatment of prisoners in the Middle East and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Senate has already passed the bill by a margin of 90 to 9.
Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, the Defense Department wants to adopt standards for handling terror suspects which includes language from the Geneva Conventions. This language is almost identical to that in Senator McCain’s amendment. If adopted, U.S. troops would be prohibited from engaging in “cruel, humiliating, and degrading” treatment.
The White House is opposed to both Sen. McCain’s amendment and the Defense Department proposal. President Bush threatened to veto the defense package if the language limiting interrogation techniques was left in the bill. And as for the Defense Department proposal, aides to Vice President Cheney argue that the standards would tie the government’s hands in combating terrorists.
It is difficult to understand why this is such a controversy. Experts in the field argue that torture is not an efficient way to obtain information from prisoners. People under duress or in pain will say anything to make the pain to stop. But besides the practical concerns of whether or not torture is effective, is it moral?
Of course, the counter argument is not without persuasive power. If we in fact violate a few human rights of a few terrorists and the end result is that we save lives, doesn’t the end justify the means?
Thinking this way may make some sense, especially in the wake of the September 11 attacks. However, the actual practice exacts a heavy toll on our humanity. An article that appeared in The Nation two years ago suggests some haunting parallels between terrorism and torture.
“Proponents of each practice maintain that the end justifies the means. They explain away violence by framing it as a necessary ‘last resort.’ And they obscure the human impact of that violence by refusing to register the humanity of their victims.”
In short, it is impossible to engage in an act of torture, for whatever reason, without first jettisoning our own humanity. Conscience, empathy, pity, mercy—all of these are left at the door. And sometimes they are hard to find after the session is over.
There have been questions raised about our war on terror, whether or not it meets the criteria for a just war, particularly the conflict in Iraq. But if we feel we must wage a war then let us fight the good fight. Torture does not become a great nation. It is a sign of weakness, not strength.
Torture also does not become a nation that aspires to be called “a Christian nation.” After all, who would Jesus torture?
But even with Christian particulars left aside, we have in our history an idealistic vision of the value of human life and a commitment to fairness and justice. A great nation that aspires to these ideals does not resort to torture to protect itself.
Or, as Jesus might say, what does it profit us if we gain the whole world but lose our national soul?
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.