Torture is a Crime — and a Moral Outrage


by George Hunsinger


U.S. torture is back in the news. Loopholes left behind by President Obama are about to be exploited by his successor. Consider the following items:

  • Despite Obama’s promises, the camp at Guantanamo Bay — perhaps the most glaring symbol of U.S. torture — was not closed. Our erstwhile president, notorious for half-measures, blamed his failure to fulfill his promises on others. The incoming administration, on the other hand, regards Guantanamo as an asset.

  • Obama’s several executive orders designed to block U.S. torture will now, to a significant degree, be overridden and reversed, showing (as should always have been plain) that executive orders are not enough.
  • Under Obama, the U.S. extraordinary rendition of prisoners to countries that torture by proxy was discontinued. Under Trump, it threatens to be revived, perhaps clandestinely (at first).
  • Appendix M in the Army Field Manual — always under-reported — left the door ajar under Obama for prolonged sleep deprivation (a debilitating form of torture) and other illegal abuses. Hopes of deleting Appendix M are now nil.
  • It was not a good sign that the International Committee of the Red Cross was not allowed to visit certain dark sites, even under Obama, such as the forbidden-zone at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan. No one knows when the ill-starred Afghan war, still raging after more than 15 years — with its largely ignored abuses of civilians and detainees — will ever end.
  • Above all, however, no one in high places was held accountable–absolutely no one–not even after the deliberately approved U.S. torture could no longer be covered-up, but was shockingly exposed.  Note that the real crimes were not committed in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib or Bagram. The real crimes were committed in Washington. Where there is no accountability, torture always persists.
  • Torture is an international crime. Nevertheless, we were told to look forward, not backward. Now we look forward, potentially, into an abyss.

Two lamentable features in public discussion are enjoying a comeback. First, even today — after years of exposure — U.S.-sponsored torture is not always called by its proper name.  Resort is still taken, for example, to the term “enhanced interrogation.” This is actually an English translation of the German “verschärfte Vernehmung” — a term originally coined by the Nazis. We also encounter rhetorical evasions like “techniques that critics call torture,” as if slipping arsenic into somebody’s soup would be “a technique that critics call murder.” To doubt that waterboarding is torture is like doubting that the sun rises in the east.

George Orwell thus assumes his old relevance. In a 1946 essay on “Politics and the English Language,” he wrote:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Yet today this observation will only take us so far. With its unashamed sympathy for torture, its bombast of bitter resentment, and its politics of Islamophobic contempt, the new administration may make itself an exception to Orwell’s concerns. We have a president who seems eager to defend the indefensible without resorting to the fig-leaf of euphemism. If hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue, the compliment may no longer be paid. Hypocrisy disappears at a cost.

The second cause for lament is the failure to condemn torture on principle. Arguments against torture are now reappearing to the effect that torture is simply ineffective. While this claim against torture is valid, and is confirmed by many professional Army interrogators, it is only of secondary importance. Torture is immoral under all circumstances. It represents an extreme and shocking form of violating the human person. Like slavery, genocide and rape, it is never justified. Torture is a moral outrage.

The principled argument against torture is the only one befitting of Christians. Do they not realize that crucifixion represents, unspeakably, a form of death by torture? Do they not recall that the One whom they confess as Lord is the very One who proclaimed: “As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me”?

The Lord Jesus Christ stands as one with all the mangled bodies subjected to the same anguish as he suffered on the cross. Dark forces are arguably at work in every single instance of torture, and their target is always secretly the same, namely the Lord Jesus himself.

Christians who condone torture enter into the deepest of contradictions. They make themselves one with the tormentors of their Lord. They cut themselves off before God from the mystical body of Christ. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Shortly before he died, the Archbishop of Santiago, Raul Silva Henriquez, confessed to a close associate the distress he felt about the greatest regret of his life. Although he had ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean general, dictator and the military ruler of Chile, and although knowing that Pinochet was a purveyor of massive torture, he had failed to excommunicate him.

Will today’s Christians in the United States suffer from a similar fate? Will they too be guilty of silence and inaction? Or will they speak out loud and clear — bishops, ministers and laity — so that not the slightest doubt can arise in any mind that torture is a crime and a moral outrage?

George Hunsinger is the McCord Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.  He is the founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and the editor of Torture Is a Moral Issue: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and People of Conscience Speak Out (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008).