Torture. Just hearing that word is enough to give one pause. It’s a bit of a superlative for pain – a word reserved for those times when “hurt”, “suffering,” and “agony” just don’t cover it. The word carries with it images of gory slasher films and whispered stories from Soviet gulags. It’s a vestige of darker times, undeserving of any place in the greatest nation in the history of the world. It’s something that is at least as universally-condemned as child molestation and cold-blooded murder.
Or was, until a few weeks ago.
With the release of classified CIA documents detailing “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by American operatives in the so-called War on Terror, a new debate has been sparked. As with every other issue that hits the headlines these days, most folks formed an opinion within milliseconds and took to social media to express it faster than you can say “Guantanamo”.
As I read the reports and articles swirling around the netscape, I was tempted to do the same. After all, it was becoming clear where the lines were forming – on one side there were traditional national-defense conservatives, and on the other side was a coalition of bleeding-heart liberals, civil libertarians, and… Ted Cruz?
In response to a related question during an appearance at the Heritage Foundation, Sen. Cruz staked out an unambiguous moral stance against torture, and so doing, may have set himself in opposition to many within the oft-referenced moral majority of the GOP. Cruz, in fact, was essentially the only potential 2016 heavyweight to make much noise on the issue at all.
But is the moral acceptability of torturing defenseless captives something that we can afford to be silent about? If this doesn’t qualify as a defining issue for the nation founded to be the Shining City on a Hill, what does?
National defense conservatives will be quick to note that many definitions of “torture” would not include some of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed against CIA-held prisoners. They will insist that water boarding, cold detention cells, and forced rectal feeding are not worthy of comparison to the fingernail-pulling, flesh-burning, bone-breaking horrors experienced by prisoners of war and political detainees in other countries at different times between the Spanish Inquisition and the Vietnam War. And they might be right, depending on one’s own definitions. That’s a worthwhile objection, or at least an argument worth having.
But that’s not the first argument on the table.
The question at the forefront of the American moral conversation is this: if we agree that a given act is torture, is it ever morally permissible?
To say that such discussions are even going on around dining room tables and facebook threads here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave is an embarrassment to our Founding Fathers, who faced existential threats just as we do, but still managed to maintain their honor. George Washington, who would have faced a traitor’s death if captured by the British during the Revolutionary War, still admonished his troops to treat captives with decency, and considered abuse of prisoners a national disgrace. In a charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force in September of 1775, he wrote,
“Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.”
Washington was no fool. Having commanded troops in the brutal French and Indian War, he knew that torturing enemies could yield valuable strategic information that could save American lives. But he believed that the moral cost of such an action outweighed any potential benefit derived. Washington’s objection wasn’t based on some misguided chivalry, but on his absolute belief in the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, which provide for violence in self-defense, but never for abuse of the helpless.
Since that time, America has been a beacon of hope, where justice and tolerance reigned supreme, and where persecuted immigrants could find respite from the abuse they had suffered at the hands of tormentors in darker parts of the world.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to hear from a former German POW from WWII – we’ll call him Eric – who had emigrated to the United States after the war. Now a kindly, grey-headed gentlemen in his sunset years, Eric recounted the story of his capture by American forces in North Africa during Operation Torch in 1942. He said that when he was brought to the American internment camp, he was absolutely terrified. Prior to his capture, his superior officers had warned him of the brutality of the Americans: he would do well, they insisted, to take his own life if cornered – it would be a much better fate than the torture he would surely suffer if taken alive.
Eric was led to a small cell with a clean bed, and then locked in for the night. He didn’t sleep, instead sitting awake wondering what torments awaited him at the hands of his captors. The next morning the door opened and a plate of food dropped in. Not rotten, maggot-ridden scraps, but a satisfying meal, complete with a piece of real chocolate. He didn’t take the food, convinced it was poison. The next day the process was repeated, and again the terrified prisoner refused to take any comfort, believing that his captors were just trying to “soften him up” before the torture began. It never came. After two weeks of fresh food and clean sheets and no abuse, Eric finally came to the realization that “Those sons of (expletive deleted) lied to me.” His Wehrmacht officers had lied to their soldiers about the brutality of the Americans to stave off any thoughts of surrender and encourage them to fight to the last man. It was then he realized that there was something different about America, something great. After the war he returned to Germany, found his family, and came to the United States to start a new life.
While there were certainly examples of prisoner abuse by the Western Allies as well, military directives against such behavior ensured that they were the exception, not the rule. Soldiers who engaged in torture could face court-martial if their actions were discovered. We considered ourselves the moral standard-bearers in the war, and to this day still publicize stories of the mistreatment of our soldiers – including Olympic athlete and war hero Louis Zamperini, subject of the best-selling book and recently-released major motion picture Unbroken – in order to distinguish ourselves from our enemies. Things like this separated us from them. We’re Americans, we don’t torture people.
The Greatest Generation, who endured every hardship the world could throw at them, knew that America’s strength lay in our goodness, and they dare not sacrifice that moral high ground for flimsy and unreliable bits of information. While we fought from the side of right, neither German Nazism, nor Japanese Imperialism, nor Soviet Communism could destroy us.
But America is not strong enough for torture. We can face any hardship with defiance, but we cannot face ourselves in the mirror if we become a people so desperate as to torture a pleading, unarmed captive.
We can defeat any nation that threatens our security, but we cannot defeat a national disposition so devoid of conscience that it would allow for deliberate and brutal abuse of prisoners.
We can endure any calamity, but we cannot long endure a society that calls for tormenting the helpless in the name of security.
For the cost of that security would not be measured in freedom, nor in lives, but in the very soul of the nation – without which both life and freedom perish as well.
As both a Christian and an American, I can say that if I and those I care about are incinerated by a bomb tomorrow because I refused to rip the fingernails off of a captive enemy, then so be it. I stand ready to pay that price, in order to spend what life I have left on this earth with a clear conscience. There must be lines that we are never willing to cross, believing that our actions will be judged by history and the God who writes it.
Sometimes doing the right thing will win us success, respect, and allies. But sometimes setting those boundaries will cost us. Sometimes the night will deepen and we will wish that we could act like our enemies as they close in around our Shining City on a Hill.
It is the risk that all men take, when called upon to overcome evil with good.