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GOTT-October 07, 2006

The Soul of Our Nation

Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation.

So reads the National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s “Statement of Conscience,” which you can read and, if you wish, sign on-line here. (Also: There is an ad showing several well-known and widely respected signers of the statement posted here.)

Those who agree with that statement realize what bleak days these are for the soul of our nation in light of (“in the darkness of”?) the recent passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (a.k.a. the detainee treatment law).  In a comment to another post here at GOTT, I expressed despair right after the bill passed the Senate: “It’s over.”  George Hunsinger responded with a call to action: “It’s over and it’s not over. The fight is now entering a new phase. There will be immediate judicial action. These are days of conscience and urgency.  If you want to get involved, visit the website of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.”

Prof. Hunsinger is right, of course, that this is no time to give up.  Dark days are often the times when it is most important to push on.  And I certainly urge anyone inclined to do so to visit the NRCAT website and get involved.  Say no to the Despair of resignation and inaction.

But the despair (or at least something like despair) of recognition (and the despair that leads to prayer) seem very appropriate.  We should note the state of our nation’s soul.

If it’s in the courts that some of the worst possibilities of this shameful law are avoided, then, welcome as that development will be, it will say little about the state of our nation’s soul.  In the political process, where the actors are most responsive to the will of the people, the darkness won, at least for now.  If the political party largely behind the law loses some power in the upcoming elections, it won’t be because of this — which may actually help them a little.  It will certainly (and very sadly) have more to do with some inappropriate e-mails than any compromise on the issue of torture.

And even if it should turn out, against the evidence available to us, that we haven’t been involved in (much) torture (that we haven’t been involved in any torture now seems beyond the realm of what can be even wildly supposed), and that this law doesn’t lead to any torturing, then, welcome as that development would be, that would say little about the state of our nation’s soul.  We, the American people, had every reason to (at the very least) strongly suspect that we have been engaged in torture, and that this law would lead to more.  But we, as a people, did not demand to know exactly what was being done in our name, and certainly did not stand up and demand a stop to it.  As many politician realized, they just had to say a few unconvincing words about how our own safety and the security of our families depended on what was happening, and, for the most part, we, as a people, would be scared into a state of not really wanting to know exactly what was happening, and of vaguely approving of the whole deal, without ever having to face it squarely.  Indeed, many seem willing to buy into the strange story that hardened fighters, zealously committed to their cause, would be made to betray vital information by means of methods of “rough treatment” mild enough not to constitute torture – in fact, as a Wall Street Journal editorial puts it, all that’s at issue is making them “uncomfortable,” as if making them wear a slightly ill-fitting suit for an hour might crack ’em: “This is not about ‘torture’ or even ‘abuse,’ as some Administration critics dishonestly charge, but about being able to make life uncomfortable for al Qaeda prisoners.”  While thinking clearly, this is tough to swallow.  (I considered this issue a bit more in this earlier post.)  It seems to make these hardened fighters out to be not much harder to crack than the title character in the Woody Allen movie, Annie Hall:

Annie Hall: Sometimes I ask myself how I’d stand up under torture.
Alvy Singer: You? You kiddin’? If the Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdale’s charge card, you’d tell ’em everything.

I’m no expert on the effectiveness of torture/rough treatment in interrogation.  And, though I’m initially skeptical, I’m ready to hear evidence that in fact mild forms of rough treatment can crack even the most hardened zealots if administered correctly.  But in gauging the state of our nation’s soul, what’s important is that, without any such evidence presented, it seems on the face of it that rough treatment would have to be rough enough to at least constitute torture (by any reasonable standard) to be effective at cracking hardened zealots.  Yet Americans who know no more about torture than me were eager to buy the Annie Hall account of our interrogations without any further explanation being given.

Posted by Keith DeRose | Permalink


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Sorry to comment on something that’s really insubstantial to the subject matter of the post itself, but some of your non-US readership gets a little nervous about the centrism of the “our nation” at this point. Is this blog for “progressive evangelicals” or “progressive American evangelicals”? Is the orthodoxy here generous enough to be intentionally multi-national and cultural? Perhaps the assumed ‘our’ bears no deeper persuasion, and perhaps its silly of me to feel uncomfortable when reading it. Then again, perhaps it betrays an oftentimes unwitting and subtle bias that pertains to all of us (not just for being American, for being British too! etc.) and which we need to be more self-aware in weeding out. Cheers x

Posted by: Mark | October 07, 2006 at 07:58 PM

Thank you for this post.

Scott Horton, the distinguished human rights lawyer (and devout Episcopalian), has an important post over at Balkinization right now:

“When Lawyers are War Criminals.”

It begins as a refleciton on the witness of Helmuth James von Moltke, a staff lawyer at the German defense ministry in Hitler’s Germany, and a Christian, who was executed for resistance activities by the Nazis in 1945.

Posted by: George Hunsinger | October 08, 2006 at 08:15 PM

Interesting thoughts. I was recently talking to my father-in-law who was a Navy pilot and then chaplain. When he was finishing his training in Pensacola, Florida he had to endure torture, the water board he called it, as part of the rigorious training to help them understand that even though you are programmed to only give name, rank, serial number and date of brith, when under duress where you believe you life is in jeopardy you reveal more than that. The length of time they had to endure this torture was not enough to cause them to black out but he says it was the worst feeling as you cannot breathe, or your think that every breath you get may be your last. What would be ironic would be that the “torture” our servicemen go through would be far more strenuous than what we as a country will be allowed to do to was prisoners if many would have their way.

However, I understand that as a believer in Christ I must love justice as this shows that God is concerned with the injustice going on in our world and it allows me to show the compassion of our loving God. It would probably be another thread but there are different agenda’s for countries versus the church.


Posted by: Graham Page | October 10, 2006 at 01:01 PM

We now have evidence that the practice you mention of subjecting U.S. personnel to abusive techniques has been turned on its head.

Instructors from these programs have now been training U.S. interrogators how to implement these abusive techniques.

Posted by: George Hunsinger | October 11, 2006 at 10:34 AM

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