Torture and the cross

Finally, today, the executive summary of the Senate’s torture report was released to the public. It’s available here.

I’ve not gathered up the courage or the stomach to read it but from what I’ve read, the CIA  used torture much more widely, indiscriminately, and ineffectively than previously reported. Andrew Sullivan’s liveblog makes for interesting reading as he includes commentary from tweeters and from voices on the left and right.

Of everything done by the US in the war on terror–the wars, the indiscriminate killing, the destruction of people’s lives, the lies, the assault on civil liberties–what has affected me most profoundly is the use of torture. To subject human beings to such pain and suffering in the hope of getting useful information is counter-intuitive. The report documents just how ineffective torture was in the war on terror. That many continue to defend it is mind-boggling.

In my last term as a college professor, I taught a course on the witch hunt in early modern Europe. We read a wide variety of sources including handbooks for witch hunters, the accounts of interrogations, and trial records. I remember a student asking as we discussed the case of one accused witch, who implicated her neighbors after being tortured, why anyone would believe the testimony of someone who had been tortured. The year was 2009. I reminded him and the rest of the class about the contemporary debate about torture. He got very quiet, very quickly.

My own scholarly research was on dissident religious groups in early modern Europe. I read trial records, interrogations, and the like of hundreds, perhaps thousands of individuals who were suspected of holding heterodox religious beliefs. Many of them were tortured. Some of them persisted in their beliefs, some of them denied them, many of them seemed to search for the words to say whatever they thought their interrogators wanted to hear, if for no other reason than to end their suffering.

The Enlightenment comes under attack for many things, but one of its great achievements was to bring some order and reason to the judicial process and to assert some very basic human rights. There was a time, not too long ago, when the community of nations condemned the use of torture. There was a time, not so long ago, when the US condemned torture. But now we make use of it and our President, our President!, seeks to suppress the evidence of torture and refuses to bring those who perpetrated these acts to account.

Perhaps most offensive to me is the fact that many, perhaps most American Christians, seem not to care that the US has used torture. We worship a God who became human and dwelt among us, a God who was crucified, a form of capital punishment that is essentially execution by torture. We Episcopalians promise at our own baptisms, and at every baptismal service we attend, “to respect the dignity of every human person.”

By definition and practice, torture denies human dignity. Reading accounts of “rectal feeding” is gruesome evidence of what happens when interrogators no longer see the people they are questioning as human.

Perhaps we Christians would begin to understand what it’s all about if we began to use a waterboard as the symbol of our faith instead of the cross

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