It looks like 2016 will begin in much the same way as 2015 began — with policymakers debating aspects of America’s response to terrorism dating back more than a decade.
In late 2014 and early 2015, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. The report set off a firestorm of debate over what constitutes torture — and whether the U.S. had engaged in it.
Then, in late 2015, Congress passed legislation renewing its long-held policy barring the transfer of enemy combatants held at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Gitmo), into the United States. In response, President Barack Obama argued that the administration would determine “when and where to transfer” the detainees — and suggested that he might defy the law. This rekindled a long-dormant debate about Gitmo’s past and future.
Both debates are part of the larger debate over America’s response to 9/11 — and how far that response has pushed the ethical-moral boundaries. As Christians and Americans — in that order — we have a responsibility to enter into this debate.
Concerns About Gitmo
Let’s start with Gitmo. Two days after his inauguration in January 2009, Obama directed the Pentagon to close the Gitmo detention facility “no later than one year from the date of this order.” So why is the prison still open?
First, 56 percent of the American people oppose plans to shut down Gitmo. That explains why large, bipartisan majorities in Congress — including the Democratic-controlled Congress of 2009-2011 — have repeatedly blocked the administration from transferring detainees to stateside facilities.
That leads us to a second reason Gitmo remains open. Trying to build support for transfer to stateside prisons, the president has noted, “No person has ever escaped from one of our super-max or military prisons.” But escape is not what worries most of those opposed to stateside transfer. What worries them is that once placed in the U.S. prison system, Gitmo’s lifers will radicalize other prisoners — something they cannot do from Guantanamo. It’s worth noting that an al-Qaida training manual instructs captured fighters to “create an Islamic program for themselves inside the prison.” Radicalization is a serious enough problem that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced in 2011 an initiative to thwart “terrorist use of prisons for radicalization and recruitment.”
Third, sending detainees back to their countries is the very definition of self-defeating. DHS reports that 16.9 percent of paroled detainees have returned to terrorist activities. The head of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was released from Gitmo in 2012. U.S. intelligence and military officials conclude that as many as 30 former Gitmo detainees have joined forces with ISIS and other militants in Syria.
According to the president, Gitmo is “contrary to who we are” and “hurts us in terms of our international standing.” That’s a valid perspective. But like a Rorschach inkblot, there’s another perspective.
No one wants Gitmo to be a permanent penal colony. In fact, the Bush administration wanted to close it but concluded that it was the least-bad option until the war had ended or a replacement could be found. It’s worth noting what Obama’s defense secretaries have said in reaction to his desire to close the facility:
- Concluding that “(t)here are people in Guantanamo Bay who cannot and should not be released because they will return to the terrorist fight,” current Defense Secretary Ash Carter says he’s “not confident” the facility can be closed.
- Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “refused to sign certifications that the future threat posed by the prisoners could be adequately mitigated,” according to published reports.
- Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed what he called “serious concerns” about releasing Gitmo prisoners and said he would recommend transferring Osama bin Laden into the facility had the al-Qaida leader been apprehended.
- Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for legislation “preventing any former Guantanamo detainee from living in the United States,” as Reuters reported.
These are serious men wrestling with a serious threat.
Banishing our stateless enemies to endless sentences in a hopeless place is difficult to square with love of enemy and forgiveness. But governments are held to a different standard from individuals, and hence are expected to do certain things individuals shouldn’t do — and arguably shouldn’t do certain things individuals should do.
For example, Jesus calls on individuals to turn the other cheek, “put away the sword,” and forgive enemies “seventy times seven” times. Scripture challenges Christ’s followers to not keep a record of wrongs, to die to self, and to stop worrying about tomorrow.
But a government that turned the other cheek, “put away the sword,” and offered its sworn enemies seventy times seven chances to do what’s right would be conquered, leaving its citizens defenseless. A government that didn’t keep a record of wrongs, that didn’t use force to defend itself, that didn’t “worry about tomorrow” and all the dangers it holds would expose itself and its people to enormous risks.
A government that turned the other cheek, “put away the sword,” and offered its sworn enemies seventy times seven chances to do what’s right would be conquered, leaving its citizens defenseless.
In a similar vein, Scripture calls on us “to remember those in prison,” but it strains the conscience to think that principle applies to mass-murderers masquerading as holy men. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wartime words come to mind: “We may take pride in the fact that we are softhearted, but we cannot afford to be soft-headed.”
By the way, when six Algerian detainees were put in the transfer queue, they asked to stay at Gitmo. They argued that a return to Algeria would end in torture or death, from which we can extrapolate that torture does not occur at the facility.
Definitions of Torture
That brings us to what the CIA calls enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) — and what the Senate committee describes as torture.
Among the findings of the Senate committee’s report were that CIA operatives subjected al-Qaida and associated detainees to slapping, slamming against the wall, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, involuntary feeding, liquid-only diets, water-dousing, ice-water baths, removal of clothing, prolonged standing, standing in stress positions, extended isolation, incarceration in complete darkness, threats of harm to their families, and other harsh tactics.
The question we are left with is not only whether those techniques amount to torture, but whether such techniques are ever morally justified. It may seem like a black-and-white issue, but Christian thinkers are divided over this. As Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observes, “Definitions represent the first great challenge” in this “question of torture.”
The United Nations Convention against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person.”
By that definition, elements of the CIA’s interrogation program surely crossed the line. However, would a majority of Americans say that slapping, sleep deprivation, liquid-only diets, isolation, or incarceration in darkness constitutes “severe pain or suffering”? Would a majority of Christians? Would a majority of your church?
A 2005 measure proscribes “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of detainees. However, as Mohler points out, “Some human-rights activists contend that yelling at a prisoner represents the kind of ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading’ treatment” banned by that measure.
Involuntary feeding sounds as unpleasant as it is. However, it’s commonly authorized by courts to keep prisoners and patients alive, especially in cases of hunger strikes.
The EIT that has drawn the most attention is waterboarding, a technique in which water is poured onto a detainee’s face to induce the sensation of drowning. It sounds horrible. However, many policymakers refuse to characterize waterboarding (or many other EITs) as torture because thousands of U.S. military personnel have been subjected to waterboarding in Survival Evasion Resistance Escape training. In fact, in developing guidelines for the post-9/11 interrogation program, the Justice Department relied on U.S. military training programs.
None of this is to suggest that EITs raise no moral questions. But all those “howevers” underscore the problem with defining torture.
Wrong and Right
Beyond definitions, there are several dimensions to the EIT debate. For the sake of simplicity, let’s organize them, in ascending order of importance, under three broad headings: political, practical, and moral.
Obama has unequivocally opposed EITs. He ordered them ended soon after entering office. EITs, in Obama’s view, “alienate us in the world.” According to Obama, “When we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques — techniques that I believe … were torture — we crossed a line.”
The Bush administration rejected that characterization. “We’re doing smart things to get information to protect the American people,” President George W. Bush said in 2006. “We don’t torture.” In 2011, he added, “Had I not authorized waterboarding on senior al-Qaida leaders, I would have had to accept a greater risk that the country would be attacked … a risk I was unwilling to take.”
Obama’s and Bush’s consistency on EITs is to their credit. Even so, consistency should never be confused for virtue. There are times when midcourse corrections are necessary. However, consistency is important in policymaking. Regrettably, many policymakers have not shown much consistency.
The Senate committee’s report was largely crafted by the staff of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chaired the committee from 2009 through 2014. Condemning the CIA’s tactics as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading,” Feinstein concluded that “under any common meaning of the term, detainees were tortured.”
Yet it was Feinstein who noted just after 9/11, “We have to do some things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves.”
That was the consensus in Washington after 9/11. As Sen. Jay Rockefeller explained after the capture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, “We’ll be very, very tough with him. … I wouldn’t take anything off the table where he is concerned.”
Porter Goss, former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and former CIA director, recalls how “(t)he chairs and the ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence committees … understood what the CIA was doing. … I do not recall a single objection from my colleagues.”
Adds Jose Rodriguez Jr., former director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service: “The leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees and of both parties in Congress were briefed on the program more than 40 times between 2002 and 2009.” In other words, not only were EITs “approved and determined to be lawful” by the Justice Department, as CIA Director John Brennan has noted, they had the blessing of relevant congressional committees.
It may be tempting to defend discomfort with EITs by paraphrasing Justice Potter Stewart’s wry observation about obscenity: “We know torture when we see it.” But when policymakers invoke words such as “torture,” after-the-fact judgments are not good enough.
The same rule applies to Gitmo. The Bush administration concluded it was the least-bad option for detaining captured fighters. The alternatives — letting sworn enemies of the United States loose, bringing them into the U.S. and according them constitutional protections, executing them on the battlefield, handing them off to untrustworthy regimes — were considered either self-defeating or contrary to America’s values.
The Obama administration found a way around this conundrum: drones. It’s estimated that, along with the 2,600-plus militants killed by drone strikes in Pakistan during the Obama administration, some 430 nonmilitants have been killed. According to The New York Times, the Obama administration has embraced a controversial method for determining drone-strike casualties that “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
This, too, has alienated America. The U.N. Human Rights Council has formed a special unit to investigate U.S. drone attacks.
If Gitmo is “contrary to who we are,” to borrow Obama’s language, if EITs “caused immeasurable damage to the United States’ public standing” and “created tensions with U.S. partners and allies,” to borrow the language of the Senate report, then what exactly is a drone war that metes out punishment based on guilt by association and amounts to execution without trial?
The defense that Obama has employed drones to protect the nation is fair, but then so is the defense that Bush used EITs and Gitmo to protect the nation.
There would be no need for debate about EITs, Gitmo, and drones if they were ineffective. But drone strikes have killed lots of bad guys who want to kill innocent people; Gitmo is holding lots of bad guys who want to kill innocent people; and EITs yielded intelligence that has prevented lots of bad guys from killing innocent people.
A number of former CIA directors report that the detention and interrogation program “prevented mass-casualty attacks” and thwarted al-Qaida’s plan to mount a “second wave, 9/11-style attack on the U.S. West Coast.”
They also note that the program was created at a time when there were credible reports of nuclear weapons being smuggled into New York City and al-Qaida trying to manufacture anthrax. “It felt like the classic ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario — every single day.”
While calling some of the CIA’s methods “abhorrent,” Brennan confirms that “(t)he intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al-Qaida and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day,” adding, “Detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques provided information that was useful and was used in the ultimate operation to go against bin Laden.”
Just because something is effective doesn’t make it moral, which is the most important dimension of this discussion. Theologians, legal experts, ethicists, and philosophers express a range of views on this.
“There could exist circumstances in which such uses of torture might be made necessary,” Mohler concludes.
Before her death in 2013, Dr. Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Georgetown University, wrote, “There are extraordinary circumstances when harrowing judgments must be made by those we tax with the responsibility of keeping us safe, and at those times there may be a ‘lesser evil’ kind of calculation to be made.” She took pains to use the term “severe forms of interrogation that … fall short of torture.”
Likewise, Peter Wehner of the Ethics & Public Policy Center makes a distinction between torture and “a very harsh technique” like waterboarding. “The issue of ‘torture’ itself needs to be put in a moral context and on a moral continuum,” he argues.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is less nuanced. “I think it is very facile for people to say ‘Oh, torture is terrible,’” Scalia observes. “You posit the situation where a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people. … You think it’s clear that you cannot use extreme measures to get that information out of that person?”
The Rev. Brian Harrison, professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, would seem to agree, concluding in 2005 that “infliction of severe pain” for “extracting life-saving information … remains open at present to legitimate discussion by Catholic theologians.” However, Harrison later noted that Pope Benedict XVI declared in 2007, “The prohibition against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstances.’”
Harrison’s retreat underscores the difficulty of this issue and provides a bridge to the other side.
Dr. Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, argues that “it is never right to torture another human being.” He cites the Gospel injunction to not repay evil for evil, love of enemy, and the notion “that each person is created by God … and has an inherent dignity.”
“Torture,” concludes author Eric Metaxas, “is incompatible with basic human decency. … These practices trade someone else’s human dignity for a sense, which may well be illusory, of added safety.”
“The Christian just war tradition holds that killing in a just war is permissible — even morally praiseworthy — when those killed are enemies who pose a direct threat,” explains Dr. Darrell Cole, assistant professor of religion at Drew University. “In the same way, it is morally permissible, even morally praiseworthy, to kill any terrorist in the act of terrorism. But when the terrorist is captured, he poses no further harm.”
That’s where Cole says Christians must draw the line. “To do intentional harm to a defenseless human being is a moral evil.” Cole rejects the moral-continuum methodology. “For Christians, there are no ‘emergencies’ that would justify moral acts displeasing to God.”
Pure or Poisoned
Some say the way out of this tortured debate is to cling to the idea that biblical admonitions about loving your enemy and the like are intended for individuals, not governments. Governments, as alluded to earlier, have different responsibilities and are held to different standards than individuals. As Paul writes, “Rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
However, unlike in Paul’s day, our government carries out policies on behalf of, and with the consent of, the people. Thus, as citizens of a democratic republic, we cannot put our heads in the sand and pretend we know nothing about what the government does in our name. And as followers of Christ, we cannot keep our heads in the clouds and declare ourselves above it all.
Our Lord is perfect; we are not. Neither is the nation in which we live. Washington’s response to terrorism underscores that. And all of the ugliness discussed above underscores that ignorance really is bliss. Perhaps God wants us to wrestle with these hard issues. How do we that?
First, we should be guided by Scripture.
Scripture calls on us to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. “Defend the weak,” Psalm 82 declares. “Rescue those being led away to death,” Proverbs 24 commands. “Hold back those staggering toward slaughter.” Justice done “is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers,” Proverbs 21 intones. Governments exist “to punish those who do wrong,” Peter explains.
Cole says that what he calls torture — what others call EITs — is never acceptable because “there are no ‘emergencies’ that would justify moral acts displeasing to God.” He is right that ours is not an ends-justifies-the-means faith. But it pays to recall that Shiphrah and Puah broke a commandment to save innocent life. When Pharaoh ordered them to kill newborn Hebrew boys, they disobeyed him and lied about it (Exodus 1). They faced a moral emergency, saw a continuum of good and evil, and chose to commit an immoral act in order to prevent something worse. Their story seems to caution against the sort of rigidity that concludes EITs are wrong in all cases — especially given the debate over whether EITs even constitute torture.
Innocent lives matter more to God, as evidenced by His dialogue with Abraham about saving even a few righteous men, His blessing for Shiphrah and Puah, His Passover protection of Israel, His warning about “little ones” and millstones.
The hard truth is that the imperfect means we employ to protect innocents — a lie to prevent murder, a judge banishing serial killers to super-max prisons, a president banishing jihadists to Gitmo, a cop knocking a confession out of a child predator, a CIA interrogator knocking intelligence out of a mass-murderer, a SWAT team lobbing superheated flash-bangs into a suspected drug house, a drone operator launching Hellfire missiles into a suspected terrorist hideout — are sometimes the only way innocents can be protected. “We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization,” as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote.
The heavy burdens facing our leaders should spur us to pray for them. Leading a superpower with a conscience is a thankless, endless exercise in searching for the least-bad option, which is why we need to offer “petitions, prayers, and intercession” for “all those in authority”
Cole’s response is thoughtful and compelling: “If we are tempted to do evil in order to preserve what we hold dear, then we are holding the wrong things dear.” But is protecting innocents and civilization “holding the wrong things dear”? For that matter, are EITs inherently “evil”?
That brings us to a second element that should guide our thinking: motives. “All a person’s ways seem pure to him,” Proverbs 16 admonishes, “but motives are weighed by the Lord.”
The first part of this Proverb reminds us that we humans can justify anything. The second part reminds us that motives matter to God, and He knows whether they are pure or poisoned, whether a president is motivated by a desire to protect innocents or be cruel, whether a senator is motivated by a desire to set things right or score political points. As for us, perhaps we should give both sets of policymakers the benefit of the doubt.
If the motivation is to be cruel, to exact revenge, to inflict pain for the sake of pain, then the use of EITs would amount to sin. But if the motivation is to protect innocent life — perhaps tens of thousands of innocents — then it seems that EITs could be placed on a moral continuum, people of good will could wrestle with the question on a case-by-case basis, people of faith could agree to disagree, and policymakers could employ EITs when other options have been exhausted.
That leads us to a final guidepost in navigating these issues. The heavy burdens facing our leaders should spur us to pray for them. Leading a superpower with a conscience is a thankless, endless exercise in searching for the least-bad option, which is why we need to offer “petitions, prayers, and intercession” for “all those in authority” that we might live in peace rather than terror.