W's Traveling Torture Show

Christopher Hitchens, a formerly-liberal commentator (some call him a neo-conservative because of his fervent writing in support of the Iraq War), agreed to be waterboarded because he was certain it would not rise to the level of torture. He discovered that it was, in fact, horrifying. It does not simulate drowning, he wrote in Vanity Fair. It is drowning; the only difference is, you hope, that your torturers will stop before you are dead.

In the decades prior to the Bush legal decision that waterboarding did not constitute torture, the United States had consistently condemned it. Amnesty International labels waterboarding torture (and actually called last week for prosecution of Bush for admitting it); the British, our closest allies, call waterboarding torture. Almost every nation in the world, in fact, calls it torture, and if someone did it to one of our men or women in uniform, I bet we would all call it torture pretty damn quick.

But in the past two weeks, the former president of the United States, in TV and newspaper interviews, not only admitted his acquiescence to waterboarding ("Damn right," he told the London Times when they asked it he'd approved it), but assured us he would do it again because he thought it protected British and American citizens.

This pragmatic response is neither here nor there; I have had conversations with experts in interrogation who would tell you that torture is ineffective because it leads those who suffer it to tell their captors whatever they want to hear. Christopher Hitchens likewise noted that he would gladly have spilled his guts after the first time he was waterboarded.

Torture doesn't work.

But even if torture produced the same results it does on "24" week after week, I am not interested in having the pragmatic argument. I love my nation and my family, but I believe that there are some things that should not be done, even if they protect those things I love. You can lose your soul to protect your life.

Human beings are made in the image of God, even if some particular human beings are our enemies. We are called to love and compassion by such stories as Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, and by Jesus' call to minister to those who are imprisoned. Nothing in the Christian narrative suggests that we may take advantage of the power we have over someone by intentionally inflicting mental or physical suffering on them, even in a good cause. In fact, I think it's probably important to note that the persons in the Christian narrative who are the victims of torture and "legal" violence are John the Baptist, the martyr Stephen, and Jesus himself.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has said unequivocally, "torture is always and in every circumstance an inadmissible invasion of the dignity of the human person." The conservative British journalist Peter Oborne wrote -- some years ago now, when the torture story began to break -- that there is never any justification for such behavior, even in the supposed defense of one's society, since "one of the most important distinguishing marks of a civilised society is the refusal to countenance torture." And I concur. As a Christian, even one who loves his nation, I cannot countenance it, in any case, for any reason.

It is wrong.

I believe President Bush loves America, and I honestly believe he thinks he did well in doing ill. But please, reader, I beg of you, do not yourself be confused into believing anything good can come from the fruits of such actions.

Buy the president's book if you wish; I understand it contains an amusing anecdote about dog poop in addition to its accounts of President Bush's career as the nation's decider.

But please, I beg you, do not fall into the same trap of believing that one can choose what is easy instead of what is good -- even with the purest intent -- without suffering consequences.


Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including the forthcoming The Other Jesus from Westminster John Knox Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.

11/18/2010 5:00:00 AM
  • Mainline Protestant
  • Faithful Citizenship
  • Violence
  • politics
  • Torture
  • Christianity
  • Protestantism
  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.