Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

In the Name of Security

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

In the Name of Security

Article excerpt

How the U.S. became a torturing nationand how to make it stop.

THE SAD rECOrD of human history shows that torture has more often been the rule rather than the exception-in criminal justice systems as well as in interethnic, intercommunal, and international conflicts.

The use of torture in such situations-and brutalities that might fall short of torture but are nonetheless brutalities-can have many motivations. Torture demonstrates absolute power. Torture wreaks vengeance. Torture intimidates. Torture punishes. Torture coerces behavior change. Torture harms, and sometimes the sheer (perverted) pleasure of doing harm is enough motivation. And yes, torture is sometimes deployed to elicit information, confession, or "actionable intelligence." (This was the main ostensible reason why the U.S. tortured after 9/11. But other factors on this list should not be overlooked.)

Torture appears to come all too naturally to fallen humanity. That is a still quite useful theological term that conveys the belief that humanity was created good by a good God but has fallen into sin and thus has suffered disastrous individual and collective damage to its character. Fallen human beings and human communities resort easily to torture.

So one way to talk about the ethics of torture and brutality is to start exactly here-with the historically and theologically grounded claim that torture has more often been the rule rather than the exception in human history, a dark but pervasive aspect of the behavior of fallen humanity. But what if we turn the discussion of torture upside down in what might be a constructive way?

Instead of asking why the U.S. drifted into officially sanctioned torture after 9/11, the better question might be: What was it in the culture, law, and moral values of the United States that in the past prevented the country from legitimizing the torture of enemies-and can therefore perhaps be strengthened so that torture is never again deployed by the country that we love?

When framed in this way, the question invites a kind of sad celebration of a national achievement of our past. Brig. Gen. David Irvine, a former military intelligence officer with whom I worked on The Constitution Project's Task Force on Detainee Treatment, explained that achievement. He said, "In our previous conflicts there have been brutal acts against captives, as has been the case by armies and governments throughout history. But there is no evidence that ever before has there been the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001, directly involving a president and his top advisers, on the wisdom, propriety, and legality of inflicting pain and torment on certain prisoners in our custody." Given the dark record of human history, this shift is noteworthy.

U.S resort to brutality and torture after 9/11 was in many ways aberrational. But it is only likely to remain aberrational if we work at it-if we reconnect to our heritage and understand why we strayed from it after 9/11.

In no particularly systematic way, here I offer 10 elements of our democratic heritage in the United States that once kept us from legitimizing the torturing of our enemies, factors that can be deployed again in the future:

1. Our Constitution, in the 8th Amendment, bans cruel and unusual punishment. This was followed by federal and state laws explicitly banning torture. We have a 225-year-old constitutional and legal tradition that bans torture. This is a sturdy place to start.

2. Military traditions banned torture from our very beginning. The example of George Washington during the Revolutionary War set a high standard. We developed a highly disciplined military culture over two centuries. Traditions of honor and accountability in the military have proven a valuable resource.

3. Our nation began with a founding narrative of having come out of British despotism and not wanting to develop such despotism in our own life. …

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