We need a better torture discussion

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Yesterday we saw quite a bit of coverage of new Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life analysis which had — to the many who read it splashed across the interweb, cable television, and newspapers — some shocking results. Here’s CNN, for instance:

The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.

More than half of people who attend services at least once a week — 54 percent — said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is “often” or “sometimes” justified. Only 42 percent of people who “seldom or never” go to services agreed, according to the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

It’s just a shocking result, isn’t it? Apart from church attendance, evangelicals (though not the group most likely to say torture was always justified for important information) were the most likely to support the use of torture at least occasionally. I don’t really have any criticism of this particular story. The news reports I read or saw didn’t speculate or color the news. They presented the Pew snippet in a rather straightforward fashion.

But . . . there’s so much to say about the larger coverage of this debate. And, for those who are sensitive to this, please note that not all of that discussion is overtly religious but it is about morality and ethics and other issues that correlate strongly with religious views or still fall under the general rubric of this blog.

Unfortunately, the Pew analysis is very limited. The entire group surveyed was somewhat small — only 742 adults — so we don’t have results for how blacks or Hispanics responded. Here’s the actual poll question, which is important to include in stories:

Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?

I will go ahead and reveal my bias by saying that I would answer that torture is never justified. That puts me in the distinct minority in the survey — a distinct minority of evangelicals agree with me but so does a distinct minority of mainstream Protestants and the unaffiliated.

But with significant majorities of Americans saying “torture” is justified on at least some occasions, it does make me wonder what that even means considering we don’t have a common understanding of the term.

I just watched Cliff May — who I first knew of as a newspaper man in Colorado — on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I watched the uncut version of the interview, which you can and should watch in three parts on the web site. May was brought on the show to defend torture but he quickly says he is, in fact, anti-torture. He and Stewart go on to have one of the most interesting debates I’ve ever seen on the show. Except for the part where Stewart says Harry S Truman was a war criminal (a position for which he apologized a few days later), both of the men did a great job of explaining their positions in a calm manner.

May pointed out that societies define what duress criminals and other threatening individuals may be put under (including prison and sleep deprivation, etc.) and that different rules are made for citizens and prisoners of war. With the advent of non-conventional military combatants such as terrorists who don’t fall under either of those categories, the Justice Department and military attempted and continue to attempt to define what is and what is not permissible.

Both May and Stewart agree that the debate in the country is over where to draw that line. Different people have different ideas. Some people think that one night of sleep deprivation is torture. Others think that’s a typical night in the clinker. Some people think that 11 nights of sleep deprivation is definitely torture. Others think that should be the limit. The point is that there is no common definition of what constitutes torture. Stewart refers to the Geneva Conventions. May points out that they permit no duress and both Republican and Democratic officials think the conventions don’t apply.

And what’s even more confusing is that some people believe that, when they’re asked about whether “torture” is permissible, they’re being asked if any physical duress or the type of waterboarding that our own military endures is okay. Others presume that they’re being asked if a life-threatening beating or a life-threatening waterboarding is okay. And different people will respond differently under either understanding.

At the end of the debate, Stewart says something with which I heartily agree:

“The people are not that far apart but we’ve become so crazed in our conversation we can’t even settle on what is right.”

So all these many paragraphs to say that I think that while mainstream media coverage of the Pew report has been fine, the larger coverage of the torture issue has been most inadequate. What’s more, it’s covered almost solely as a political hot potato. It’s easy to characterize torture supporters as bloodthirsty cretins and opponents as people willing to let millions of Americans die before making one terrorist go a night without sleep. But these issues are more complex than that. All the various groups, presumably, care about American safety and human rights.

But let’s say that we do have a common definition of what constitutes torture. And let’s say that we have analysis of a survey that shows that membership in one religious group or a certain level of devotion correlates with support for torture. We all know that correlation is not causation, meaning that there might be some other factor that is responsible.

What would be great to have in coverage of this larger story is an attempt to answer the question of “why?” Why would someone who goes to church more frequently — be they mainstream Protestant, evangelical or Catholic — be more likely to support torture?

Some evangelicals, such as Christianity Today editor David Neff, were immediately responding to the results. Neff tries to find potential reasons for the result, notes the limitations of the data, and expresses concern over utilitarian attitudes among some evangelicals. He notes that similar polls have shown similar results vis-a-vis evangelicals. But he also notes that how a question is asked influences an outcome. A question asked with an underlying moral argument shows lower support for torture among evangelicals, for instance. Neff notes that much of the discussion of interrogation under duress has been about whether it works or not.

But the question “Does it work?” presupposes a utilitarian ethic. Utilitarian ethics tends to weigh the magnitude of a potential good against its costs (the greatest good for the greatest number). But evangelicals have been eager to reject utilitarian ethics when addressing other issues — embryonic stem-cell research and population-control programs, for example. Even if embryonic stem-cell research turned out to be the best way to cure Parkinson’s disease, most evangelicals would oppose it, just as we would oppose abortion even if it were shown to reduce, say, food insecurity. By the same token, even if torture produced reliable information about terrorist activity, we should reject it. We are people of principle. Our principles were historically at the root of human rights action and the development of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions, and any number of other moral crusades that put principle above utilitarianism. Our principles should now motivate us to lead the world in rejecting torture of any human being, for any reason.

As with arguments in support of using duress to get information, they take time to explore. I wish our media coverage would permit and encourage some of this discussion. Here’s another example of an argument against torture that has yet to be included in any of the mainstream coverage. Writing for the Public Discourse, University of Southern Carolina Professor of Philosophy Christopher Tollefsen uses natural law to argue against any torture for any reason:

I begin with the following normative claim: human life and health is an intrinsic, and indeed, a basic, human good. That is to say, life and health constitute a fundamental aspect of human well-being; the possibility of the promotion of either provides not just a possibility but an opportunity, an offer of benefit. And the possibility of damage or destruction of either provides not just a possibility, but an evil to be avoided and, insofar as such damage or destruction is willed, a wrong not to be done. The normative principle that can be drawn from this practical truth is that in willing, one should never intend the damage or destruction of the life or health of another human being.

It’s not just the pro-torture side that uses utilitarian arguments, of course. Opponents also use them, saying that the use of torture weakens our standing abroad or is ineffective. But whether or not it works, Tollefson and Neff argue that it’s not to be done as a matter of principle. I find it most helpful to listen to May, Stewart, Neff, Tollefson, et. al, rather than the typical talking heads who scream at each other without ever listening or reflecting. Somehow the media haven’t provided a good enough forum for such discussions and I think it has done the country a disservice.

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  • Trey

    Interesting take. Utilitarianism as an ethic utterly fails and is inherently bankrupt. It can shift at any moment based upon what one arbitrarily thinks is the best for others. I agree that no government or person should ever employ torture because it is sinful to hurt my neighbor. However, it is also sinful not to help my neighbor when he is in trouble. Thus, we find ourselves in a conundrum. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Thus, we should pick the lesser evil, so mildly torturing a perpetrator to save those who are innocent is the lesser evil. The key is that we are not morally vindicated by performing evil as we will need forgiveness from God.

  • http://fallibilismandfaith.blogspot.com JD

    The main explanatory variable in the torture – evangelicalism correlation is not religion, I believe, but nationalism: Evangelicalism correlates strongly with hard US first nationalism. The people who are willing to use torture are also the people who are willing to exchange foreign (especially Muslim) lives at a high rate against US lives.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Part of the problem is that if the media
    broadcasts where the line is that the CIA is using to halt strong interrogation before it becomes torture, then that makes resisting interrogation that very much easier for a captured terrorist.
    Another part of the problem is that the media seems to consider anything the Bush Administration did in that area to be “torture.” Some of the actions I have read of being used would be absurd to call “torture” (like scaring them with a bug). A third problem is the media categorizing people by their religion instead of by their political views– which tend to be stronger than many people’s religious convictions no matter what they might claim on polls.
    In addition, context has been mostly ignored. When decisions were made it was in the shadow of 9-11. I find it so ludicrous and hypocritical for so many liberals and Democrats in the media to be crucifying Bush when what he did to protect us was far, far less drastic than what the Dems hero FDR did to Americans of Japanese descent after Pearl Harbor.

  • Northcoast

    I remember reading (while there was still a shah in Iran) that the practice of torture around the world had the purpose of demoralization and punishment more often than than the purpose of obtaining information. I think this possibility is ignored in our discussion of torture, and I doube that many Americans would advocate for any such practice of cruel and unusual punishment.

  • Dave

    Frank Rich of the New York Times analyzed a report from a Senate committee and extracted the conclusion that torture was commenced, not to extract information about future attacks on Americans, but to extract admissions of a connection between Iraq and 9/11, during the run-up to the war.

    Of course it “worked” in that a torture subject will tell you anything you want to hear to make you stop.

    If the collapse of the newspaper business model silences Frank Rich, the country will have lost a valuable asset.

  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina

    I, like Mollie, believe torture is never justified.

    I’ve lived in countries that torture, share ties of family and friendship with those who have been tortured, know the devastating and lingering effects of it even when the body carries no scars. I’ve known people who have been tortured because of their beliefs, because they were related to dissidents or catechists, because they shared a couple of university classes with suspected dissident or were taught by a priest who taught about social justice, or even because they happened to be on a bus driving down a road frequented by undesirables.

    Governments that torture are never shy about finding a reason to torture, and they aren’t usually too discriminating about evidence or proof or collateral damage.

    Because for years I held the U.S. up as the ideal — a country in which torture would never be tolerated by the public or allowed to remain hidden thanks to a free press — I found it extremely painful to hear the discussion about whether waterboarding (and other reprehensible techniques) were actually torture. So many people have been ready to assert they are not forms of torture. They’ve been willing to think of those waterboarded as so “other” (foreign, brown, zealous — you choose the rationale because I won’t) that they can stop thinking of them as fellow human beings.

    In my world, there is no “line” Deacon Breshnahan. Who would be willing to abide having their mother waterboarded? Or their 17-year-old son? Or their spouse of 20 years?

    Not being “scared by bugs,” Deacon, but how about made to stand for hours on end with their arms lashed above their heads so that when their legs give way from exhaustion they dislocate their arms? Any friends or relatives who should have that happen to them?

    Who would think it was not torture?

    Apparently, us. In the poll and here.

    God help us.

  • http://www.chronology.org/ Lawrence King

    I think a lot of this has to do with the ideologization of the media. Suppose that Sam is an evangelical who is pro-life and worried about the secularization and sexualization of society. He will tend to watch Fox News more than ABC, since they (appear to) share his values on these issues. Similarly, if Joe is an agnostic who is pro-choice and worried about the encroachment of church on the state, he will tend to watch PBS and listen to NPR.

    Neither Sam nor Joe has made this choice because of their beliefs about taxation or torture or whether Iraq had WMDs. But once they start watching their favorite media outlets regularly, they will soon come to believe what these media outlets tell them about taxation and torture and WMDs. Thus you get polarization.

    Eangelicals are more pro-torture than secularists because of this phenomenon.

  • Sarah Webber

    I think the presentation of torture in popular entertainment is significant. I don’t watch 24 regularly but I do know Jack Bauer uses torture in almost every season and it usually gets him what he wants–some piece of information or other to protect the US from whomever is the bad guy of the week. I would bet there are more Americans who see or read about regular positive portrayals of torture and that is the only context they have. Most of us do not have the personal relationship with it that Sabrina writes about, or I think our perspective would more closely mirror hers. I often remark after I’ve spent a night mostly up with my children and have to get up in the morning and go on with a normal schedule that there’s a reason sleep deprivation is considered a form of torture. Because it certainly feels like it to me that next day.

  • dalea

    Mollie posits:

    But let’s say that we do have a common definition of what constitutes torture.

    But we do have a common definition. It is the Geneva Conventions and the Red Cross interpretation of them. The press operates in terms of these definitions. And these quite clearly show that the US has engaged in torture.

  • Sarah Webber

    dalea, if it was clear, we wouldn’t be arguing about it. Obviously, it’s not clear.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    If a pollster asks a Midwestern Protestant if they think “torture is ever justified,” they hear “are you anti-war and anti-American like most mainstream media?” and respond accordingly. If you were to ask the same people “do you accept, as a Christian, a policy of letting interrogators use pain and abuse to get information out of foreign detainees,” you wouldn’t get a zero response on “yes,” but it would be lower. If you asked “can US interrogators properly use bending fingers back to get terrorists to say ‘uncle’?” you’d get a lower number. “Torture” has become an index of qualities and questions well beyond specific practices.

    Personally, i think half the CIA should be fired/disciplined and the other half re-trained by the FBI given what i’ve read so far. But I just think, contra comment #2 upthread, that it isn’t “hard US first nationalism,” but an evangelical anxiety about how the debate over torture is being used, overseas and at home, to argue for American quietism in the world that leads to a defiant “yes, fine.” I can’t prove that, but i don’t think these questions as phrased can prove that American Evangelical Christians think torture is theologically justified, which is where quite a few are jumping to by the second paragraph.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    The Geneva Convention for prisoners of war (which is the one I presume you’re saying applies here) has rules governing when a signatory is bound to it. While signatories are bound even if the other military power isn’t a signatory . . . there are exceptions such as when the other party isn’t abiding by the convention. They basically have to be operating according to certain “rules of war” or something like that.

    So you have policy advisors all across the spectrum, including the current attorney general Eric Holder, who argue that the conventions don’t apply to the particular situation of interrogating terrorists.

    That, in fact, is what those “torture” memos were about — coming up with lines that may not be crossed for people who don’t fall under Geneva Conventions, etc.

    It’s also worth noting that normal prisoners of war can’t be asked for more than their name, rank and serial number, under the Geneva Conventions. That’s a different protocol than we have even for civilian combatants, run-of-the-mill criminals and, presumably, terrorists.

    And I have to admit that I’m unsure what binding rules we subscribed to under the Red Cross. But I am very curious. Could you send a link?

    Anyway, as I mentioned, I think that physical duress limitations should be more about what WE believe WE should be permitted to do rather than the target of the interrogation. I actually believe that no physical duress is appropriate. But I also recognize that people who have the responsibility of defending millions of people may have morally concluded that it is just to use physical duress to get information about an upcoming murderous attack.

    And most people agree with that — they’re debating over where to draw the line. Geneva says no duress under any circumstance for prisoners of war who are following the rules.

  • str1977


    You first fundamentally opposes the utilitarian pseudo-ethic and go on to denounce torture.

    And then you turn around and advocate nothing else but utilarianism, saying you want to chose “lesser evil”.

    If torture is immoral, we may no employ it, even if it helps our neighbour (which is a baseless claim). Your Condrum is simply a figment of your imagination. You do not need torture to help your neighbour.

    The question remains where torture starts. Causing discomfort to attain cooperation cannot be enough, as there is such a thing as “imprisonment for contempt” without anyone complaining.

    torture is not “cruel and unusual punishment” because it is not punishment.

  • str1977

    Dalea & Mollie,

    I don’t think that this issue can be properly discussed by distinguishing certain groups.

    Sure POWs have their rights according to the Geneva convention, rights others don’t possess.

    But regarding torture, there should be one set of rules for “native” criminals as well as for foreign criminals.

    Actual POWs are not criminals are not to be punished for being captured.

  • dalea

    Among its many functions, the Red Cross monitors prisoners and prison conditions throughout the world. And reports what it regards as torture to the Geneva Convention organization. Here are some links documenting the topic, admittedly from a Progressive perspective:


    The first diary, What We Know So Far: A Torture Timeline (Updated), has towards the end of the text a link to the PDF file in which the Red Cross, after inspecting Guantanomo, finds that prisoners have been subject to torture. I would give a direct link but my computer has not been handling PDF well lately. Hope this helps.

  • dalea

    Opened the PDF with only minor incident. Here is a direct link:


    The Internation Committee of the Red Cross has a supervisory role for the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The conclusions begin on page 23; the findings are before that.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff
  • Dave

    Lawrence King, your symmetrical argument is flawed in that Joe already opposes torture by virtue of being a liberal. You have provided an explanation of why Sam supports torture, but not of why Fox News is more influential than his pastor.

    Sarah Webber, it’s possible to have an argument in the presence of the fact that the US uses torture — arguing when, how, at whose behest and whether it is justified. We don’t need to be in denial about torture to have an argument about it.

  • http://www.samueljhoward.us Samuel J. Howard

    David Neff is wrong that the question “Does it work?” presupposes a utilitarian ethic. It merely presupposes the idea that the questioner has not yet ruled out the idea that torture is immoral under all circumstances. Death penalty laws for instance are generally opposed by the Catholic Church on a sort of “Does it work?” that concludes that it is in fact immoral. The barest sketch of the argument is this: The death penalty is legitimate, but only when it’s the only way of adequately defending society against te crimes involved and considering that the benefits to society don’t outweigh the costs. That’s a “Does it work argument” if the death penalty doesn’t defend society, or the cost is higher than the benefit, it’s immoral and it’s not utilitarianism.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Sabrina– (If you read what I wrote carefully) I did not advocate torture. My problem is with how the media has handled the debate over that issue including context. By the standards of those who consider virtually anything being done to interrogate captured terrorists as tortute (mostly liberals)–then FDR was a far worse president for what he did to Americans of Japanese descent after Pearl Harbor who had done NOTHING. I’m sorry, but I fault the media for not bringing up this event as part of context for understanding what the Bush Administration authorized soon after 9-11. If Bush and his Administration were overzealous to the point of evil–then so was the Dem-liberal icon FDR more so after Pearl Harbor. And it should be so stated (Fat Chance).
    As for water-boarding. Should something done to some of our own troops as part of their training be considered so horrendous that it should be considered genuinely torture?? I think it is an action worth rational discussion in the media–not automatic condemnation with anyone wanting a debate treated as evil and no different from those wanting bone-breaking which is torture in virtually everyone’s opinion.
    In otherwords, I fully agree with the issue raised here by Mollie–that we need a better torture discussion.

  • Dave

    Perhaps everyone who hesitates to call waterboarding torture should be waterboarded. I daresay that would improve the torture discussion mightily.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I know you’re kind of joking but I know quite a few people who have been waterboarded who don’t consider it torture — at least necessarily. They would say it can be, but how you do it matters. I know my brother was waterboarded during SERE training at the Air Force Academy and, while we haven’t discussed it for years or in the context of this debate, he says there were other things that were far more “torturous” about that time. And one of my friends at church, a graduate of the Naval Academy, said it’s not fun but not torture.

    I mean, SERE training is all about preparing young men and women to withstand torture and is (presumably?) a completely different animal than what we did to the 3 senior Al Qaeda leaders. Or is it? I don’t know.

    I might also point out that one of the anti-war marches I went to here in DC had demonstrations of waterboarding where anti-war protesters volunteered to be waterboarded (and were) to make some kind of statement.

    I think that it was an insanely stupid idea to waterboard any of the terrorist captures. And, again, I’m opposed to waterboarding enemy combatants. But your proposal doesn’t necessarily improve the discussion.

  • dalea

    Some background on the Geneva Conventions from:


    The Geneva Convention does not apply just to soldiers:

    Captured combatants and civilians who find themselves under the authority of the adverse party are entitled to respect for their life, their dignity, their personal rights and their political, religious and other convictions. They must be protected against all acts of violence or reprisal. They are entitled to exchange news with their families and receive aid.

    Everyone must enjoy basic judicial guarantees and no one may be held responsible for an act he has not committed. No one may be subjected to physical or mental torture or to cruel or degrading corporal punishment or other treatment.

    The Geneva Conventions are administered by the Red Cross and aim to:

    In the first place, ICRC is a real helper to the wounded and sick military personnel, as well as shipwreck victims and the prisoners of war, whose condition it seeks to improve from the moment of their capturing to their release.

    For that purpose it

    delegates its representatives to the internment camps, concentration camps or/and labor camps where the imprisoned people are kept;
    representatives evaluate these prisoners’ lodging and boarding conditions as well as attitude against them;
    if necessary, representatives make an appeal to prisoner-keeping country to reach an preferable improvements.

    Teh Google is your friend. The International Committee of the Red Cross is the final authority on torture.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    There are four conventions and each deal with a different group.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Dalea, the ICRC document you quote is their summary of the Hague and Geneva Conventions and the 2 additional protocols of 1977. The US is not a signatory to the additional protocols. Thus, we do not class all fighters together as “combatants”. According to military historian Sir Michael Howard, the Romans distinguished between bellum (war against legitimus hostis, a legitimate enemy) and guerra (war against latrunculi, pirates, robbers, brigands and outlaws). The United States still follows this ancient tradition, and differentiates between lawful and unlawful combatants. Lawful combatants are protected under the Hague and Geneva conventions. The ICRC and non-state belligerents wanted the nations of the world to extend the protection of law to those who do not respect the law of war. The U.S. refused to sign the additional protocols. Traditionally, unlawful combatants are given no protection under the law and can even be summarily executed when they are captured. For more information see this.

  • dalea


    each convention expands upon the previous one. They bring more people under the convention; they clarify who is covered. All human persons are protected by the Geneva Conventions. Is this a difficult concept?

  • Bern

    “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
    “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.”
    “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

  • str1977


    But you would always have to add “under the same circumstances”.

    An example quite apart from torture: I would not like to be imprisoned for any time or life but I am quite in favour of imprisoning criminals and some of them (murderers) for life. Does that mean that I do unto others what is hateful to me? No – if I would commit murder I would accept being imprisoned.

  • Dave

    Mollie, I respect your brother’s experience and that of the anti-war demonstrators. But I wasn’t exactly joking. It gets right up my nose to hear/read people talking about torture of others in a hair-splitting or dismissive manner. I want to say, “See if your mind changes should you undergo it yourself.” I remember watching some of the lawyers who may be indicted for war crimes, acting as spin doctors for the previous administration on PBS, and imagining how they’d spin if they were being fitted for a personal waterboard.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I agree. And there’s also the different element of volunteerism, of course.

  • Darel

    The Pew Survey notes that the error rate on the entire sample of 742 individuals is +/- 4%. Thus it could be that 16% of the unaffiliated say that torture “can often be justified” while 12% of the weekly attenders say the same.

    The gap which is outside the margin of error is the “sometimes” versus “rarely” responses between the two ends of the religiosity spectrum — although even that could potentially be even, with 34% of both saying “sometimes” and 23% of both saying “rarely”.

    The only clear conclusion one can legitimately reach from this survey is that white evangelical Christians are different — and I believe that JD has the right answer to explain it.

  • mjbubba

    Also, consider that the Evangelical whites listen to Christian talk radio and conservative talk radio, and so are informed of some matters that the MSM have not chosen to present to the rest of America. Such as that only three of these bad guys were waterboarded, and that only about a dozen (out of over three hundred) were subjected to treatment that was considered by the FBI to be “inhumane.” And that the officers who thought they needed to get tough with these bad guys were careful to ask the Justice Department to provide some guidance, which is what sparked the “torture memos” in the first place. That awareness, and a greater willingness to trust the judgement of our military, undoubtedly contribute to their responses.
    Mollie, thanks for the link to the Daily Show unedited interview. That was really excellent viewing. I generally never watch any of the talking heads or cable TV of any kind, so I only see it when I get a link that is recommended by a friend.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Darel makes a great point about the Pew Survey. The media seems to have taken EVERY result of the survey as “Gospel.” However, as I was reading the small print, I realized the headline writers and reporters were treating every result of the survey as having equal validity no matter how wildly different are the margins of error in diffferent parts of the survey. In one part the error rate was plus or minus 5% in another part double that: plus or minus 10%. Yet the story treated the two parts of the survey as if they were equally reliable. In fact when it comes to morality and relgion I have serious doubts about any survey being anywhere near accurate. My cynicism is based on the recent history of the Episcopal Church. There is probably no church which has been more in symphony with public opinion polls over the last decade or so. Yet there is probably no mainstream Protestant Church shrinking as fast.

  • Harris

    Deacon’s original view on MSM is worth considering in this: the distrust of this media by Evangelicals (palpable on their blogs if no where else), means that reports about torture in the same would be discounted. Distrusting the messenger allows these conservative communities to keep fidelity with their political commitments, politics being a team sport.

    In this political dynamic of political allegiance and the downplaying of the moral, the evangelical stance has parallels with that taken by pro-life Dems. And on both sides there are those who are consistent in their moral positions, as well as those who are more “pragmatic.”

  • Pingback: Religious Torture: A Hidden Story « god is not elsewhere / some conversation about movies, art, politics and spirituality with gareth higgins

  • Bern

    Str1977: I am more than willing to add “under the same circumstances” if that helps make it clearer or more easily acceded to. A murderer has already violated this “rule of reciprocity” as have terrorists of various stripes. However this does not mean that any kind of retribution is morally justifiable. Mr. Cheney is claiming that the practices used were “successful” in preventing terrorist attacks. Even if that were so, waterboarding is torture and torture is wrong.

  • str1977


    “However this does not mean that any kind of retribution is morally justifiable.”

    What? How’s that?

    So let’s empty all prisons, let the convicts got free.

    Those that have payed fines – pay them back.

    Thomas that have received the death penalty – bring them back to life.

    If there can be no retribution (and I wonder what twisted ethics would demand that) there can be no punishment for anything as it is retribution.

  • Dave

    Str1977, I believe Bern meant that there are limits to what kind of retribution is permissible, not that retribution is prohibited. Read the sentence again; it can be interpreted either way.

    Bern, Cheney has demanded that some more, exculpatory memos be declassified. I wish that Obama would do exactly that. I’d love to see what Cheney thinks is exculpatory.

  • str1977

    thanks for pointing that out. Indeed it can be read another way too.

  • Jason Taylor

    Actually the point is as much about the prosecution of torturers as it is about torture. The behavior of much of the left gives suspicion that it is a politically motivated witch hunt. One of the necessities of democracy is that every faction consider it safe to wait for the next election.
    Certainly torture is a bad thing. But the fact that a witch hunt is about a bad thing is not necessarily relevant. Terrorism is a bad thing and yet those who are decrying torture are incidently decrying torture used on terrorism. Treason is a bad thing but we haven’t finished hearing about McCarthyism.
    And come to think of it, witchcraft is a bad thing.

    Furthermore the chief ones that prosecution is suggested for are the lawyers who gave their opinions. Does that mean opinions can be prosecuted now? A good part of the people who comment here would be liable under those terms.

    Finally one must realize that when one accepts that a war is just, one must accept that the temptations that go with war are part of the evils of war. War does not just include torture. It includes lechery and drunkenness, hatred, and so forth. It includes colatteral(and sometimes not so colatteral)damage. It includes soldiers pillageing peasants.
    I do not say that therefore we should be condoning these things. I do say that being upset that torture takes place is a little like Captain Renault being shocked that there is gambling at Rick’s Bar. The customs of war are there for a purpose and I would hardly advocate seriously following the General Sherman and Curtis LeMay philosophy. But I do think there is a shocking naiveity in America about the nature of war. Disapprove if it suits you, but acting supprised and shocked is unbecoming. Accepting war and then being over-horrified at it’s results is not compassion but squeemishness.

  • Jason Taylor

    For the record I actually think low-key hostile interrogations might actually be worse then full scale torture in some situations. Because whether or not torture “works” it is obvious that it will take a lot for it to work on the most resistant. And if so then inflicting low-key torture may be gratuituous pain.

    One thing that hasn’t been considered though is that what exactly is the purpose of taking prisoners in the first place? It is not clear that we get any information out of them. And they are a tool of psychological warfare against us and therefore might be more of a nuisance as prisoners then free. The point is relevant for many reasons but one is that if you allow this, you have given a very good reason for our soldiers to shoot them out of hand.
    I do not know the solution, but I do know that this is a problem.

  • str1977


    “I do say that being upset that torture takes place is a little like Captain Renault being shocked that there is gambling at Rick’s Bar.”

    Only if one first engaged in torture oneself. I cannot say that those decrying torture now have done that!

    All is not fair in love and war. One need not to have torture when engaging in a war, even against terrorists.

    But I agree that there’s a sort of witchhunt, especially among those that really would have liked to see Bush prosecuted.

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  • Dave

    And come to think of it, witchcraft is a bad thing.

    Witchcraft is a religion. Slandering a religion is a bad thing.