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Onward, Christian Torturers

June 3, 2008
by Rob Lafferty

"Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly." – Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2003 after a meeting where interrogation techniques were discussed and approved.

America doesn't torture its enemies. So says the President, anyway, and he might actually believe that what the CIA and NSA and military interrogators are doing in secret dungeons across the globe is not torture. Because George Bush and Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice reside in a world where it's never torture when the good guys brutalize the bad guys. It's a world where Bush can listen to military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan describe their reality of fighting the Global War On Terror, and respond with apparent sincerity by saying:

"I must say, I'm a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you ... in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You're really making history, and thanks."

And thus, in a few brief sentences, Bush reveals his ability to fantasize the present while forgetting his own past. Meanwhile here in the real world, we actually do sanction torture. Cheney speaks openly about the decision in 2001 to "take the gloves off" and journey to "the dark side" in order to "deal effectively with suspected terrorists" and protect America from the bad guys.

Today our representatives in Congress argue over how much abuse will be allowed before "enhanced interrogation techniques" become inhumane treatment. Ancient water torture techniques and other forms of deprivation are openly discussed on national television and their effectiveness is debated.

They have guidelines to work with: the U.S. Army Field Manual prohibits "acts of violence or intimidation, including physical or mental torture, or exposure to inhumane treatment as a means of or aid to interrogation."

It also explicitly prohibits forcing a detainee to be naked, perform sexual acts, or pose in a sexual manner; placing hoods or sacks over the head of a detainee; using duct tape over the eyes of a detainee; applying beatings, electric shock, burns, or other forms of physical pain; waterboarding; using military working dogs; inducing hypothermia or heat injury; conducting mock executions; and depriving the detainee of necessary food, water, or medical care.

But thanks to our president and a majority of Congress, those restrictions only apply to soldiers, not CIA or NSA or any non-military Homeland Security interrogators. Those rules are far too restrictive for those folks, it seems, who feel the need to torture people on occasion.

When torturing bad guys, it probably helps to know that they aren't legally persons at all. In January the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that detainees captured in Afghanistan and held in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are not "persons" under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because they were aliens being held outside the United States.

According to Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, who wrote the majority opinion for the three-judge panel, "It was foreseeable that conduct that would ordinarily be indisputably seriously criminal would be implemented by military officials responsible for detaining and interrogating suspected enemy combatants." Go ahead and read that sentence again, because it's phrased awkwardly – doesn't it make you wonder just what kind of "seriously criminal" conduct by military officials the judge is referring to?

Judge Janice Rogers Brown was the lone dissenter in the decision and she wrote, "It leaves us with the unfortunate and quite dubious distinction of being the only court to declare that those held at Guantanamo are not 'persons'."

So there we have it – according to an American court of law, torturing a non-person is inevitable, understandable and therefore somehow lawful.

We are flawed beings, it seems, with a history of cruel and inhumane behavior towards each other. Some of it is understandable and much of it forgiveable, given enough time and perspective.

Torture, however, is just wrong. It's one of the two unforgiveable things that we allow to happen in our name, in our desire for safety. The other? Dropping bombs and firing rockets into populated areas in an attempt to kill more bad guys – but that's a different story for a different day...

There is no justification, period, for mistreating any being, human or non-human, held in captivity. There's nothing to gain from acts of inhumanity even when inflicted upon those who have harmed others. It may be a natural human response to seek satisfaction through cruel acts of revenge, but it's immoral, illegal and just plain wrong. Every time.

Circumstances make no difference. People who debate the morality of torture like to pose rhetorical questions along the lines of, "Would it be acceptable to torture someone if you knew that person had information that would prevent another mass attack on innocent Americans?"

The answer is no, not even in the realm of rhetoric, if only for the reason that we can't ever be sure if we are torturing the guilty or the innocent.

But then, there are no innocents at Guantanamo or in the secret prisons around the world that our interrogators use. There are only "suspected enemy combatants" or "unlawful enemy combatants" or "detainees" or "evildoers"; all non-persons who aren't granted the same human rights we claim for ourselves.

Americans are quick to condemn the brutality of other governments but our own hands are not clean. For nearly two centuries American laws sanctioned genocidal wars against Native Americans and the brutal abuse of Africans into slavery. In Asia we killed thousands of innocent Filipino and Vietnamese and Cambodian people in two wars of occupation fought sixty years apart. Across the globe we claimed parcels of land wherever we wanted or occupied entire sovereign nations, as was done here in Hawai‘i.

As a nation America has seldom lived up to the high moral standard that we like to claim for ourselves. We aren't doing it today in Iraq or Afghanistan, or in those prisons where people acting on our behalf treat "detainees" as worthless creatures who deserve whatever abuse they get.

We claim to be a Christian Nation. That's not true, of course, even when you consider all the different kinds of Christians we have in America, but most politicians proclaim it as fact and many people seem to agree. And yet those elected officials who most loudly proclaim their faith in Jesus also support the bombing of neighborhoods and destruction of villages in Iraq and Afghanistan or wherever our "national interest" might lie at the moment.

A few years ago one of our more prominent Christians, Pat Robertson, openly called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Chavez's capital crime? He was legally elected by popular vote, he took strong actions to help poor people and took control of Venezuela's national resources. Chavez is fairly radical by American capitalist standards, but would Jesus publicly call for his murder?

As a nation we turned a blind eye towards the use of napalm and Agent Orange and the carpet-bombing done in our name in Southeast Asia. We stood silently by – or openly cheered – as the entire city of Dresden, Germany, bombed into oblivion during the latter stages of World War II. Would Jesus do that?

And we still justify the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima as a necessary act to end that war. We don't say much about atomizing Nagasaki three days later, except to claim that the Japanese government didn't surrender quickly enough so it was necessary, too. Thousands of children obliterated; an entire city of families punished for crimes committed by their government, in their name. Is that a Christian way to behave?

When seen against that backdrop of history, the deprivation and torture of a few thousand non-Christians during the last seven years must seem like a venial sin, no big deal to the Christian Soldiers of Torture who have emerged in our time.

Their leader has already spoken, back in 2001 when Bush stood up and declared, "Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."

So evildoers beware as Christian soldiers march out in search of truth, repeating history as they leave dungeons in their wake complete with black hoods, naked prisoners and the ancient, cruel arts of inflicting pain.