Tuesday, February 12, 2008


The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) has issued an alert that the Senate will vote on H.R. 2082 Wednesday. Some Republican Senators have threatened to obstruct passage of H.R. 2082 as long as it contains Section 327 (the anti-torture provision).This is what they said:

The Senate will decide whether we stop the CIA's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- or as we would call them, torture. Section 327 of the Intelligence Authorization Conference Report (H.R. 2082), would prohibit the CIA from using abusive interrogation techniques (such as waterboarding) by requiring the CIA to comply with the Army Field Manual while conducting interrogations. The Army Field Manual prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
The memo urged us to call our Senators urging them to support Section 327. I did that. This vote should be a no-brainer and a no-consciencer, but after today’s debacle on FISA when eighteen Democrats traded our constitutional rights to protect the telecomms, I’m not sure. (More on the FISA disaster later!)

The presidential candidates have taken starkly different positions on the practice of waterboarding. Some have condemned it as torture; others have refused to condemn if in an extreme case millions of American lives might be saved. Are there situations in which waterboarding and other practices may be justified?

On Friday, William Schweiker, Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and director of the Martin Marty Center, wrote:

The argument for possible justification turns on several assumptions: that we could infallibly know that someone had vital information that would in fact save millions; that torture would extract this information without distortion; and, finally, that if the information was secured truthfully and infallibly, it could be put to use in good time.

None of these assumptions is warranted. Expert opinion and empirical evidence concur that torture is an ineffective means to gain reliable information. The scenario of the lone knower of the facts whose torture would save millions of lives is the stuff of bad spy movies and bad exam questions in ethics courses.

If you don’t like his conclusion, take the word of thirty-one retired generals, who on December 12, 2007, wrote a letter to the chairs of the House and Senate committees on intelligence expressing their strong unanimous support for Section 327 requiring intelligence agents of the U.S. government to adhere to the standards of prisoner treatment and interrogation contained in the U.S. Army Field Manual on Human Collector Operations (the Army Field Manual).

Ah, you say, they are retired. What more can you expect? In their letter they quote from an open letter to the troops last May from none other than General David Petraeus, who is not retired and who is Commanding General in Iraq, President Bush’s chosen leader for the new strategy in Iraq:

What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight. . . . is how we behave. In everything we do, we must observe the standards and values that dictate that we treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect…. Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary. Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone “talk;” however, what the individual says may be of questionable value. In fact, our experience in applying the interrogation standards laid out in the Army Field Manual (2-22.3) on Human Intelligence Collector Operations that was published last year shows that the techniques in the manual work effectively and humanely in eliciting information from detainees.
Cited above, Professor Schweiker said true things that could have been said by many others, but in his article titled, “Baptism by water torture,” he reminds us of how religious practices have often been tied to violence and torture, often hidden in public discourse:

Less often observed is that the practice of waterboarding has roots in the Spanish Inquisition and parallels the persecution of Anabaptists during the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. Why did practices similar to waterboarding develop as a way to torture heretics—whether the heretics were Anabaptists or, in the Inquisition, Protestants of any stripe as well as Jews and witches and others?

Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists or "re-baptizers" since these people denied compulsory infant baptism in favor of adult [believer's] baptism. The use of torture and physical abuse was meant to stem the movement and also to bring salvation to heretics. It had been held—at least since St Augustine—that punishment, even lethal in form, could be an act of mercy meant to keep a sinner from continuing in sin, either by repentance of heresy or by death.

King Ferdinand declared that drowning—called the third baptism—was a suitable response to Anabaptists. Water as a form of torture was an inversion of the waters of baptism under the (grotesque) belief that it could deliver the heretic from his or her sins.

In the Inquisition, the practice was not drowning as such, but the threat of drowning, and the symbolic threat of baptism. The tortura del agua or toca entailed forcing the victim to ingest water poured into a cloth stuffed into the mouth in order to give the impression of drowning.

So what does this history have to do with the present? Schweiker wonders in a way that might give us all chills:

Is it the purpose of the United State nowadays to seek the conversion, repentance, and purity of supposed terrorists and thus to take on the trappings of a religious rite? The question is so buried behind public discourse that its full import is hardly recognized.

In the light of these religious meanings and background to waterboarding, US citizens can decide to reject any claim by the government to have the right to use this or other forms of torture, especially given connections to the most woeful expressions of Christianity; conversely, they can fall prey to fear and questionable reasoning and thus continue to support an unjust and vile practice that demeans the nation's highest political and moral ideals even as it desecrates one of the most important practices and symbols of Christian faith.

I judge that it is time for repentance, the affirmation of new life, and the humane expression of religious convictions.

There is good reason for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to call for an end to this torture with religious roots.

Call the Senate switchboard at 202-224-3121. Don’t wait! You may miss the vote.

- Milo

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