Torture Is a Moral Issue: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and People of Conscience Speak Out

By Werpehowski, William | Anglican Theological Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Torture Is a Moral Issue: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and People of Conscience Speak Out


Werpehowski, William, Anglican Theological Review


Torture is a Moral Issue: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and People of Conscience Speak Out. Edited by George Hunsinger. Grand Rapids. Mich.: Eerdinans Publishing Companv, 2008. xxii + 272 pp. $26.00 (paper).

In late April 2009, the Pew Centers Forum on Religion and Public Life published a survey .showing that for the most part American white Christians, be they Evangelical, mainstream Protestant, or Roman Catholic, support their government's use of torture against suspected terrorists. There are differences within and among the Christian communities about how much torture is all right ("often," "sometimes," "rarelv"); but no group reaches higher than the Protestant main liners in claiming that it can never be justified, and they top off at 31 percent. For Catholics, whose magisteri urn holds that this practice is, like direct abortion, intrinsicallv and gravclv evil, on Iv one out ol five surveyed opposed it without exception.

Almost in passing, the IVw report notes that political "party and ideology are much better predictors of views on torture" than is religion. Given the surveys troubling findings. Christians - along with Jews, Muslims, and all people of conscience - might well say "That's what we're afraid of!" The tendency to reduce stances toward torture to partisan politics is what the volume under review, in its sad timeliness, astutely attacks; fi >r torture is a moral issue, and attempts to justify it under any circumstances on moral grounds invariably fail.

This collection of essays is divided among five subjects. Part 1, "Background," includes harrowing testimonies I rom a torturer (Tony Lago u ran is) and a victim (D canna Ortiz), along with Kenneth Roth's cogent historical analysis of Washington's willingness in the Bush years to combat terrorism unconstrained by fundamental principles of international law. Roth importantly offers the reminder that legally and morali v. torture exists on the far end of a continuum of wrongful mistreatment that includes what is "cruel, inhuman, and degrading." The rank cvnicism of U.S. Justice Department "torture memos" thus becomes doubly clear, since what they generally claimed, mistakenly, not to be torture surely would have been in any case excluded as cruel, inhuman , and degrading . A " debate" over whether waterboarding is or is not torture (and hence is or is not "okav") already makes concessions to a logic of indecency. Also noteworthy is Admiral John IIutson s condemnation in terms of the military costs of mistreatment to a culture of militan' honor, to the likelihood of securing future allies, and to an effective chain of command.

Parts II, III , an d IV consist, respectively, of Christian , Jewish, and Muslim commentaries. A highlight in Part II is a painstaking study by the book's editor, theologian George Hunsinger, founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). that engages traditional just war theory to assess the possible legitimacy ol torture, especially with regard to the notorious case of the "ticking time bomb." He concludes that the latter "emergency" scenario effectively normalizes torture; moreover, it "fails adequately to consider the great likelihood of unreliable confessions, the realworld uncertainties surrounding a detainees actual innocence, the slippery slope of permitting persons to be tortured on mere suspicion, the lack of real world accountability commensurate to the enormity of the deed, and . …

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