The Common Good
January 2006

Losing Our Souls

by Chuck Gutenson | January 2006

Only the U.S. has openly tried to offer legal justification for the use of torture.

Imagine you are on your way home from vacation, making an airline connection. As you board your flight, you are detained by officials. After a few days of questioning, without charges or access to counsel, you are loaded onto a plane and taken to…who knows where. Once there, you are beaten and tortured until you say anything your torturers want. Wild imagination? Not for Maher Arar; this is exactly what happened to him. His crime? A passing acquaintance with a terrorism suspect.

John Howard Yoder once said that a pacifist was a person who realized that in striking another, you harm yourself more—this is the moral consequence of violence. This may seem shocking, but is it really different from the comments John McCain made recently in his impassioned plea that America recover the moral high ground by explicitly outlawing prisoner abuse? He argued that the use of these vicious techniques stains our own souls in a way that cannot be expunged by specious justifications of torture.

Surely, none will defend torture as inherently good; rather, all arguments are based on appeal to a greater good—that is, torture accomplishes good that outweighs its inherent moral evil. Generally the argument is that we are engaged in a very different kind of war, one in which our enemies constitute a unique threat to civilian populations. Hence we must “take the gloves off” to gain the information needed to protect our people. Torture, though gruesome, is a technique that we need to have in our tool kit. Does this argument hold?

Will the use of torture likely accomplish the goals we have in mind? If the goal is to get detainees to make particular statements, torture is very effective—those being tortured will say anything to stop the pain. However, if the goal is obtaining truth, as McCain and others note, torture is notoriously unreliable. So if one cares little about the truth, but wants prisoners to confess to wrongdoing (guilty or not), torture is the technique to use. If one wants valid and useful information, it is not.

Further, if we think we should protect our “way of life” because of its inherent moral rightness, then surely we as Christians can agree that torture is never a valid tool. Immoral practices so corrupt our way of life that any pretense to the moral high ground would be absurd. Ultimately, torture is a terrorist tool, and by using it we ourselves become terrorists.

Walking the moral high ground is costly, and one cost is accepting that some tactics are immoral and, thus, unavailable for those who choose the high ground. That we seem to have lost sight of this is exemplified by the fact that 1) though some regimes use torture, Human Rights Watch recently reported that only the United States has openly tried to offer legal justification for its use, and that 2) the church has largely remained silent on this issue.

What might we do? Here, as often, our best service is to educate ourselves and others and then to shine a bright light into the darkness—letters to the editor, encouragement to McCain for his leadership, organizing prayer vigils. We must help all Americans to see the full facts of torture in hopes that, once seen, it will not be tolerated.

In the words of South African Bishop Peter Storey: “There is a price to be paid for the right to be called a civilized nation. That price can be paid in only one currency—the currency of human rights.... The rule of law says that cruel and inhuman punishment is beneath the dignity of a civilized state.... We send a message to the jailers, interrogators, and those who make such practices possible and permissible: ‘Power is a fleeting thing. One day your souls will be required of you.’”

Chuck Gutenson worked on strategic planning and resource development for Sojourners and Call to Renewal when this article appeared.

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