Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The story is increasingly shameful¯how the United States conducted “enhanced interrogations” of terrorist suspects. Some of the story has been out a long time, if only in bits and pieces, appearing in various news outlets. But it really got hot and better documented after the November elections, and there is every indication of its getting hotter, especially following the Obama administration’s release of CIA papers. Yet one of the more devastating accounts is that of the International Committee of the Red Cross. By any standard, the treatment reported amounted to torture¯strenuous enough, brutal enough, as to require medical personnel in attendance as the suspects were subjected to it.

Stop there. Medical personnel? Yes. The Red Cross report (awkwardly titled Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody ) details the role of¯shall we call them health-care professionals¯before, during, and after episodes of interrogation. The Red Cross never quite uses the word torture, but I am at a loss for another. The report never strays over the edge of calling the medical personnel doctors, but the implication is there.

Medical personnel monitored the prisoners’ vital signs and over-all stress as they were undergoing physical abuse. According to the Red Cross report, medical personnel would advise interrogators on the prisoner’s condition, whether to continue the abuse, moderate it, or suspend it for a time. Medical personnel aiding interrogators, as the report laconically puts it, violates standard medical ethics.

any interrogation process that requires a health professional to either pronounce on the subject’s fitness to withstand such a procedure, or which requires a health professional to monitor the actual procedure, must have inherent health risks . . . . As such, the interrogation process is contrary to international law and the participation of health personnel in such a process is contrary to international standards of medical ethics.

Most people should be able to figure it out: If a doctor is needed during questioning, the means used in the questioning are morally suspect. The use of medical personnel reminds us of how susceptible medicine is to the contortions of nationalism, ideology, national security, even popular demand, and how difficult it may be for people of ordinary moral impulse to resist pressure from superiors.

The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide by Robert Jay Lifton (1986) offers still instructive reading.

In the case of official corporal punishment (for instance, whipping), SS doctors were required both to sign forms attesting to the physical capacity of an inmate to absorb such punishment, as well as to be present while it was administered.

The Red Cross describes several of the “enhanced” techniques used on the suspects, including waterboarding, also called “suffocation by water.” Waterboarding is well known, being the subject of press conference questions and congressional hearings. Not so well known are the other techniques cataloged in the Red Cross report that were regularly employed by U.S. intelligence agents in the CIA detention program. The only two methods missing are thumbscrews and bamboo slivers under fingernails.

Among the procedures was prolonged stress-standing with arms chained above the head while the victim is made to stand naked for days, compelled to defecate and urinate in place. Add to that beating, kicking, slaps, and punches to the body and face. Sleep deprivation by exposure to loud, repetitive noises and music for protracted periods of time. Some of the prisoners underwent confinement in a box for extended periods of time, enduring cramped, restricted movement. Exposure to cold temperatures was another, keeping cells or interrogation rooms uncomfortably cool, sometimes made more acute with the addition of cold water poured over the body. Ill-treatment also involved continuous use of shackles and handcuffs, forced shaving, and denial of solid food¯all carefully tended by U.S. medical professionals.

I’ve been trying, like many Americas, to think this thing through. There is the altogether practical question: Did torture help us? Did it make America safer? Was the information really good, helpful, in thwarting terrorists? Did it actually in fact spoil pending plots? Frankly, the evidence is mixed.

But I really don’t care. Whether torture “worked” or not as an interrogative tactic is far from the main question. I’m a pastor. I think as a pastor, which is to say as a parish theologian. I don’t care if these guys shrieked like little girls on the playground and blubbered out plots for everything from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre to knocking over Bagdad candy stores as juvenile delinquents. Torture is morally wrong. It is morally wrong, theologically speaking, because it is an attack upon the imago Dei , upon the image of God inherent to every human life.

Now, I’m not so dumb or so liberal that I can’t understand and remember and share the anger the September 11 attack produced in America, nor was I the least bit hesitant in supporting the studied determination of making sure that nothing like it ever happens again. But if there is anyone suggesting the American homeland is safer today for having abandoned the ordinary principles of humane treatment for prisoners in American custody, then he’s a moral midget. Torture is not what Americans do. Not if we still have some lingering respect for the rights with which God endows humanity.

Are there any exceptions?

Two exceptions are frequently put forward. The screws may be put to a suspected terrorist with intimate and detailed knowledge of a planned attack that almost certainly will claim hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives¯the “ticking clock” scenario. The information is presumed “hard,” “actionable,” revealing something that will be operational momentarily, or become so within mere days or weeks. Torture in this imagined scenario is not only a permissible tactic, but also one that is morally imperative, aimed at the immediate protection of innocent lives.

The second exception is a milder version of the first, and uses the same reasoning as that applied in the cases of the fourteen detainees named by the Red Cross. The specific information held by suspects of this class, as well as any general information they might be made to disclose, is regarded as so potentially important as to justify rough, continuously torturous handling over lengthy periods of time. If not rising to the level of moral imperative, as in the first scenario, the application of torture nonetheless is justified within existing legal and constitutional parameters as a fair means of extracting vital information from uncooperative suspects. This scenario sees torture under these conditions as permissibly routine, an ordinary protocol in the treatment of terrorist suspects.

The trouble is both scenarios are inherently flawed. They are detached from necessity and morality, to say nothing of reality.

It is a questionable assumption, first, that intelligence agents will ever have advance knowledge of an event with thousands of lives at stake, where prevention settles down to the information that can come from one, and only one, single terrorist¯singled out and known to have knowledge of the plan. This simply isn’t the way the work is done. The 2006 intelligence work in Britain that thwarted sixteen suspected terrorists from hijacking several aircraft and blowing them up over the Atlantic is a case in point. The arrests were made, said British police, as the plan was about to go operational. Multiple sources, including tips from or near the inside, stopped the plot in its tracks. Prevention of this kind depends upon many sources, frequently carefully cultivated sources. The single guy tortured into cooperation saving countless lives simply does not exist. The scenario dissolves under examination.

As for situations with high value prisoners, the second exception, what possible justification exists for waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed 183 times, as the CIA memos reveal? Khalid, the admitted planner of the September 11 attack, was captured in 2003. The others were captured prior to him or some while following. By this time a lot was already known about al Qaeda¯its structure, intentions, and perhaps its contemplated operations were already exposed. It is difficult to understand how 183 trips to the waterboard provided anything new or useful.

Both scenarios used to justify torture are at best imaginary. As such, they can hardly be invoked, and when employed as justification they represent not much more than wishful thinking or a poor television script.

We’re back to the moral question, asking again: Why is torture wrong? These fourteen detainees are some of our worst enemies. The instinct to treat them as they have treated us is understandable, perhaps to a degree even irresistible, and rather terrible when unleashed.

Yet torture is wrong because it can never serve a moral purpose. It serves instead only an immoral purpose: the destruction of an individual’s personhood. It is violence against the imago Dei , the image of God carried by every person.

Crucial to the use of torture is the intentional, systematic, step-by-step reduction of identity and selfhood, the purposeful diminution of the person as person, as the image of God cheapened to something less, to something “unperson.” The “other” is depersonalized. It is this process of thinking which gives us license for abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and torture¯everything that strips the person of personal humanity.

The enormity of the crime is of course granted. I don’t ever want to see Khalid or the others like him released. But I certainly regret that my government tortured him. His torture may have begun in a manner that was thought, even sworn, to be a measured and reasoned response for protecting a civil populace, part of a wider battle being waged to prevent actual and imminent dangers. But torture remains and will always be an abominable assault upon the imago Dei . At some fundamental level we declared that Khalid was not made in the image of God. From that, all else was inevitable.

However it was initiated¯all the lawyerly vetting that went on, and all the jabber about military necessity and keeping America safe¯Khalid’s torture ended up being nothing more than torture, and only that. Somewhere well before the one-hundred eighty-third trip to the waterboard, torture was no longer merely an unproductive means of coaxing information from a suspect. It became an impersonal bureaucratized process that swiped his individuality. It was a form of mental murder.

Along with an account of Khalid’s crimes also must come an account of his humanity. Personhood carries an elementary dignity, even when the person carrying it is one of our cruelest enemies.

Russell E. Saltzman is associate editor of First Things .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles