Bush Defends Torture...Again

If you look hard for it in the Washington Post this morning you'll find the end of the story on HR 2082, the the bill passed by both the House and the Senate which would have banned the use of torture by the CIA. President Bush vetoed that bill on Saturday, and spoke about it in his weekly radio address. Yesterday, the House voted to override the veto, but they failed to get the needed two-thirds majority (the vote was 225-188).

Bush explained his veto as necessary for our national security. There is by no means consensus on this point, even within the intelligence community. Many have argued that torture does not produce useful intelligence, and furthermore, that it increases the risk to captured U.S. citizens. My disagreement with the use of torture, however, isn't based on its effectiveness. I believe that torture is a moral bottom line, and we accept it only at the cost of the erosion of our sense of ourselves as being different from the terrorists who we oppose.

This past Saturday, I spent the day at a conference led by Brian McLaren based on his book, "Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises and a Revolution of Hope." One of the most effective parts of the conference was McLaren's morning presentation entitled, "Which Jesus?" He carefully laid out an argument that I first encountered in Ched Meyer's magisterial work on the Gospel of Mark, Binding the Strong Man. He showed how the gospel writers, and probably Jesus himself, used language and symbolism to intentionally oppose the Roman Empire's claims to power and dominion. McLaren made a clear and convincing case that the word like "Lord" and "Son of God" weren't first understood by Jesus' followers as religious terms. Rather, these were the titles that Caesar had taken for himself. Therefore, when Peter confesses to Jesus, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God," he is making an explicitly anti-imperial statement.

McLaren then went on to list all the ways in which Jesus' teaching and ministry countered the reign of Caesar. He put two columns of words up on a screen, one column describing Caesar and one describing Jesus. I should have written them all down, but the pair that caught my eye was "torturer" and "tortured".

I know that there is great complexity to many of the moral questions which face our country today. But when I looked at that list on Saturday, I knew what side I wanted to be on. I will continue to urge my representatives to refuse to pass any bill for intelligence funding that does not explicitly ban torture.

Torturous Testimony from Muskasy

It happened again last night. In an NPR story on the differences McCain has had with the Republican party, the reporter said that McCain opposed "harsh interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding. When did the entire mainstream media decide to join the Bush administration in making a clear moral line sound like it's negotiable or debatable? McCain is opposed to TORTURE, and that's why he's opposed to waterboarding.

Like the vast majority of Americans, I'm against torture--torture of good people and torture of bad people. I cannot understand how a Christian, someone who strives to be the disciple of a man who was tortured unjustly, could believe otherwise. But I don't think you need a religious reason to be against torture--you can make very clear pragmatic and political arguments against it. Everyone seems to understand this except the Bush administration and its puppet, Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

It doesn't get much worse than this: At a Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, Senator Kennedy asked Mukasey, "Would waterboarding be torture if it was done to you?" Mukasey responded, "I would feel that it was." How did this become a matter of subjective feelings? Waiting in line at the DMV can feel like torture, but drowning someone IS torture.

Mukasey then continued, "This is an issue on which people of equal intelligence and equal good faith and equal vehemence have differed..." Really? When then let's have the person who is advocating the torture of prisoners stand up and defend it in public. But then again, why defend torture when you can just call it a matter of opinion, an open debate?

The Washington Post editorial board wrote its strongest, clearest editorial on the topic this morning, saying that the Bush administration's policy has done "untold damage to the moral standing of the United States". But they don't just scold Mukasey--they give Congress and every U.S. citizen a charge to end the erosion of our moral capacities by passing legislation that closes any legal loopholes and outlaws all forms of abusive interrogation. I for one am going to write my legislators today to plead with them to do just that.

Six Years of Shame

Today, January 11th, 2008, marks the six year anniversary of the arrival of the first men held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. If I didn't have another long-standing commitment to my writing partner today, I hope that I would have the nerve to join in the long line of people, dressed in orange jumpsuits, who will process to the steps of the Supreme Court in protest of the inhumane treatment of these fellow human beings, held in violation of U.S. law and in an ill-advised evasion of the Geneva Conventions.

If you've allowed yourself to forget what's being done by our country here's a quick summary from the Witness Torture.org website:

On January 11th, 2002, twenty hooded and shackled men shuffled off a plane from Afghanistan, arriving at the U.S. prison at Guantánamo. In an attempt to sidestep the Geneva Convention protections for prisoners of war, the Bush administration created a new category of "enemy combatant" for these men captured in the "war on terror."

Since that time, more than one thousand men and boys have been imprisoned at Guantánamo. Accounts of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment have been condemned by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and other reputable bodies. The prisoners have resorted to hunger strikes as a way of protesting their treatment. Many have attempted suicide; three men allegedly killed themselves on June 10, 2006; a fourth died on May 30, 2007. Desperation, fear and frustration mark their confinement.

Six years later, not a single prisoner has been charged, tried or convicted of terrorism. Many have been released because no evidence has been found against them, but more than 380 men remain in indefinite detention without hope of release. The United States has abandoned law and justice.

Yesterday, in the course of looking for something else on the web, I came across yet another tirade against the "moral relativism" which characterizes "postmodern culture", written by a Christian minister who claimed that the work of the church was to call the world around back to the moral foundation on which this country was built. And while I used to argue with this kind of diagnosis of the world's problems, these days I find myself wishing that we would reclaim a moral baseline--a way to say to the world, there are some things we just won't do. I have tried to do that in my own life, even as I navigate the sometimes choppy waters of postmodernism. I used to think I lived in a country that had a moral bottom line, but Guantanamo and Abu Grahib have made me realize that there really is a kind of moral relativism that is deeply threatening to our world.

If you, like me, want the powers that be to stop torturing people in your name, there are a number of websites with suggestions of how to make your objection heard.

And, there are glimmers of hope. Code Pink pointed out an amazing story from the British press of a small garden that several Guantanamo prisoners have been tending, planted with seeds recovered from their food, dug with plastic spoons. That amazes me--and also confirms for me that the Holy Spirit will continue to call us to hope, even when the outward conditions of our lives give us only reason to despair.

Limiting Options

When our twins were around 18-months to 3-years old, I could clearly understand the case for corporal punishment. They were able to do things that seriously endangered their life (like run out into the street) or the well-being of their family (like constantly bite their twin) but were unable to listen to or learn from my explanation for why they shouldn't do these things. It seemed obvious to me that spanking was the only way to change their behavior.

But when I discussed my conclusions with my husband, Dan, to my surprise he didn't agree. "I just don't think it's ever right to hit someone who is smaller and weaker than you," he said. And when he put it that way, I had to agree. Once hitting was off the table, we discovered there are all sorts of other ways to correct your toddler's behavior. I hadn't considered these options--I hadn't bothered to investigate them, to learn about them--as long as I was willing to consider spanking.

This experience taught me first-hand one of the fundamental insights of non-violence. Because we are humans, violence is often our gut-level response to any problem. It is easy to convince ourselves that it is the only response to a problem because it is the easiest one to think of, and it has a funny way of crowding out other solutions. But when we take violence off the table, when we eliminate violence from our possible responses to situation, we discover a whole world of other options. Our creativity steps in to build a world of solutions as soon as we take violence off the table.

I'm reminded of a story told at the wedding of dear friends. The groom's brother, an artist, described an exercise in a painting class where the students were instructed to paint using only one color. At first the project seemed impossible, but then, the creativity of the class exploded. Somehow, by limiting options, imagination found new and fertile ground.

I don't, of course, know anything, really, about the work of professional interrogators. I don't really want to know more about their work than I already do. I understand the impulse to let they have all the tools they could possibly need to do their job. Let them decide--they are the experts. I really don't need to know. (And here the closing scenes of Munich are haunting....)

But in my gut, I know this response is a cop out. I do know something about violence--we all do. I know that when the "last resort" options are no longer options, we find other ways to act, other ways to work. And I am heartened by the many testimonies by former interrogators I've read over the past year who have quite clearly explained that there are other options--many of them more effective, all of them more humane. The article in the Post's Outlook section today by Judge Evan Wallach ("Water-boarding Used to Be a Crime") is just one more voice in a growing chorus.

We've sold our car with the bumper sticker that read, "Who Would Jesus Torture?" But I feel more strongly than ever that this country needs to be clear with itself and with the world that torture of prisoners is not an option. Attorney General nominee Mukasey may be able to slither past this issue, but as a Christian, I know I can't.

The Problem With Having a Conscience

My husband Dan is one of those guys who is prone to shouting at the newspaper. The front page story in the Post today entitled "Mukasy Losing Democrats' Backing" had him going this morning. "That's the problem with having a freaking conscience!" he yelled. "You end up having to say that some of your friends are wrong!"

He was reacting to this sentence: "Mukasey also said he is reluctant to offer opinions on interrogation techniques because he does not want to place U.S. officials 'in personal legal jeopardy'...." But if what they are doing is not only morally repugnant, but illegal according to the U.S. constitution, then they are already in "personal legal jeopardy", aren't they? And if they aren't, then they should be.

The previous paragraph exposed another problem with having some kind of moral backbone: "Mukasey said that techniques described as waterboarding by lawmakers "seem over the line or, on a personal basis, repugnant to me, and would probably seem the same to many Americans." But, he continued, "hypotheticals are different from real life, and in any legal opinion the actual facts and circumstances are critical."

To say that there is such a thing as a basic "human right", or to say that there is some kind of moral basis for our behavior, wherever that might come from, is to say that we are willing to make some kind of judgment about what is right and wrong in abstraction from the particulars of a situation or the particular person engaged in that behavior. And while I do believe that much of our life together requires a kind of moral nuance that is often missing from public debate, I also believe in a bottom line. And I believe that waterboarding is way, way below that bottom line.

This past Sunday's "Speaking of Faith" program featured a number of speakers talking about Reinhold Niebuhr and his on-going impact on conversation today regarding ethical behavior in the public sphere. Paul Elie, the author of an article on Niebuhr in this month's The Atlantic, made this comment on the show:

I think there's a yearning in our culture for people whose basic commitments are prior to politics, who have a frame of reference that's larger than politics, which isn't to say simply that they don't, favor one party or the other, but that they have a vocabulary, a frame of reference that helps to explain their political commitments instead of the political commitments coming first.

I know I'm yearning for that. But Mukasy doesn't seem to have it.