Like a recurring nightmare, the argument over whether America should torture detainees has once again gained momentum in the wake of bin Laden’s killing.
Former government officials are defending torture on pragmatic grounds. Liz Cheney insists that waterboarding produced critical pieces of information that led us to bin Laden. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently said on Sean Hannity’s show that the CIA “concluded that a major fraction of the intelligence in our country on al-Qaeda came from...three people who were waterboarded.”
One might conclude by such statements that Rumsfeld is trying to vindicate his own record – or fend off prosecution. The record of torture’s ineffectiveness is clear: Experienced military and intelligence officials tell us that torture doesn’t work and yields false intelligence. There’s also no clear evidence that waterboarding led us to bin Laden. The crucial detail that eventually led American agents to the al-Qaeda leader’s doorstep — the name of bin Laden’s personal courier — was not divulged during “enhanced” interrogations, and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed actually lied about the courier’s identity to the agents who waterboarded him 183 times.
Arguments over torture’s effectiveness are merely a retread of the debate that has haunted our nation since the horrors of Abu Ghraib were revealed. But Fox News moved the discussion of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” to a disturbing new level by suggesting that if torture produces results, it is therefore moral.
Zuhdi Jasser, on the May 10 edition of Fox’s Glenn Beck, said, “We have to realize that the Judeo-Christian and in Islam we believe that there is just war...(that) morality is going to win over evil by the use of some force and coercion as transparently necessary,”and called the suggestion that the US should not use waterboarding at all “naive.”
To invoke values of the three monotheistic religions in support of this kind of cruel pragmatism is obscene. Jesus, after all, was himself subjected to torture and execution by a state that valued security and order over the sanctity of human life. Dismissing as naïve the teachings of our religions when we are faced with danger reflects a very shallow faith. But forever renouncing torture, even if it produces useful information, evinces a commitment to our values rather than mere lip service to them.
The Evangelical Declaration Against Torture states “We renounce the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by any branch of our government (or any other government)—even in the current circumstance of a war between the United States and various radical terrorist groups.” If we added the caveat…”unless it produces helpful information,” the statement would be practically devoid of meaning.
In international law, torture is classified as a crime against humanity. This classification is reserved for the most despicable offenses known to history: rape, genocide, slavery. We think of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Rwanda when we think of crimes against humanity. If we wish to avoid such company, we must unconditionally reject the commission of crimes against humanity rather than defending or rationalizing them.
When Liz Cheney or Zuhdi Jasser suggest we should embrace waterboarding, remember that such practices dehumanize our soldiers just as much as they degrade their victims. We perpetrate a great evil upon our men and women in uniform when we order them to commit that which God clearly and unequivocally condemns. Torture is not only physical, it is spiritual. We shudder to imagine our children being ordered to commit such sins.
Proponents of torture and opponents alike will find it difficult to make universal claims about its effectiveness, or lack thereof. It neither always nor never “works.” But if the key information needed to get bin Laden came from torture, we would have had him years ago -- skilled intelligence analysts and smart detective work over several years led us to pinpoint his location.
One thing, though, should be certain. Torture is immoral. It represents a stain on our great country. Those in our government and public square who defend it will be regarded by history as evil fools. And it is also a crime. It’s time for President Obama to enact laws that make his 2009 executive order banning torture permanent. It’s time to establish a Commission of Inquiry that uncovers the truth about what was done in our name. And it’s time for Christians, and people of faith everywhere, to proclaim that torture is always wrong, without exception.
Rev. Richard Cizik is the president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good and a co-author of the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture. Rev. Steven D. Martin is the executive director of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.