December 25, the holiday long celebrated as the birthday of the Unconquered Sun, but more recently as the birthday of Jesus Christ, the central figure in Christianity. Jesus is generally presented as a pacifist, author of the sermon on the mount with its beatitudes (“blessed are the peacemakers…”), but more recently his followers in America find it preferable not to love their enemies but to torture them.
These Christians, who generally call themselves evangelicals and fundamentalists because they take the fundamental tenets of their religion seriously, have managed to become powerful enough to dominate the Republican party and in 2000 they elected* one of their own as President of the United States. Within a year, this very Christian President began laying out plans for torturing his enemies.
Christianity and torture have, unfortunately, a long historical association. Indeed, the Spanish Inquisition perfected many of the most famous torture techniques, including waterboarding. You might think that Christians would be eager to strand Christianity’s associations with torture in the distant middle ages. You would think wrongly. Under the champion of Christianity residing in the White House, torture of prisoners became the official policy** of the U. S. Government.
It is difficult to write calmly about what has recently been done under the auspicies of the United States of America — difficult to avoid the intense anger and shame I feel as an American. But in the face of the Bush administration, anger and shame are unavoidable for anyone who cherishes civilized society. What is shocking is the extent to which evangelical and fundamentalist Christians embrace what Bush has done, much like the Holy See embraced the Inquisition.
I am no Christian, yet I am shamed by the way American Christians have embraced torture and other odious, uncivilized and unAmerican policies of the Bush Republicans. The evidence for the torture policy was obvious in 2004 — yet Bush was reelected. Reelected, it has to be pointed out, primarily due to the support of the most dedicated Christians. We must not forget that those who attended church regularly overwhelmingly supported Bush despite his policies, while those who rarely or only occasionally attended church opposed him.
This is a colossal moral failure on the part of American Christianity. Amazingly, among church-attending Christians there is little question about abortion’s immorality, but much doubt about whether torture is immoral. Or if torture is admitted to be wrong, it is denied that “simulated drowning” is torture. When pressed, Bush supporters have equated waterboarding with merely being dunked in water a bit — and who could object to that? Yet, everyone knows full well that the entire point of waterboarding (the water cure it used to be called) is to create the experience of drowning in the subject. As described by former Judge Advocate General Evan Wallach,
the victim experiences the sensations of drowning: struggle, panic, breath-holding, swallowing, vomiting, taking water into the lungs and, eventually, the same feeling of not being able to breathe that one experiences after being punched in the gut. The main difference is that the drowning process is halted. — “Waterboarding Used to be a Crime”, Washington Post, Nov. 4, 2007
Or consider the description by Scylla at StraightDope.com who tried waterboarding hmself,
The water fills the hole in the saran wrap so that there is either water or vaccum in your mouth. The water pours into your sinuses and throat. You struggle to expel water periodically by building enough pressure in your lungs. With the saran wrap though each time I expelled water, I was able to draw in less air. Finally the lungs can no longer expel water and you begin to draw it up into your respiratory tract.
It seems that there is a point that is hardwired in us. When we draw water into our respiratory tract to this point we are no longer in control. All hell breaks loose. Instinct tells us we are dying.
I have never been more panicked in my whole life. Once your lungs are empty and collapsed and they start to draw fluid it is simply all over. You know you are dead and it’s too late. Involuntary and total panic.
There is absolutely nothing you can do about it. It would be like telling you not to blink while I stuck a hot needle in your eye.
At the time my lungs emptied and I began to draw water, I would have sold my children to escape. There was no choice, or chance, and willpower was not involved.
I never felt anything like it, and this was self-inflicted with a watering can, where I was in total control and never in any danger.
And I understood.
Waterboarding gets you to the point where you draw water up your respiratory tract triggering the drowning reflex. Once that happens, it’s all over.
. . . . So, is it torture?
I’ll put it this way. If I had the choice of being waterboarded by a third party or having my fingers smashed one at a time by a sledgehammer, I’d take the fingers, no question. – Scylla at StraightDope.com
It is tempting make the assumption that Christianity’s lack of moral compass on issues like torture is due to its flawed doctrines. Christians believe in a “perfect” God who, it so happens, will torture most people in hell for an eternity. To reconcile this with “perfection” requires a perversity of mind unimaginable to me, though hundreds of millions of Christians seem to have no problem with it. Apparently they reason that if God does it, and if God is perfect, then torture can’t be so bad, can it? So torture becomes acceptable, even respectable.
Still, one might ask, how can decent human beings ever end up there? Are Dawkins and Hutchings and Harris right? Is religion essentially an evil enterprise, one which warps the human mind and subverts decency? Sometimes it seems that way, I admit.
But the better explanation, the one that makes most sense to me, is the one provided by psychologist Bob Altemeyer in his book The Authoritarians and endorced by John Dean in his book Conservatives without Conscience and his Findlaw Writ columns. Altemeyer’s studies explain how it is possible for dedicated Christians to become the least morally grounded of all Americans. It happens not because they are Christians or even because they are religious, but because they have a personality trait which certain religions both encourage and attract.
——— Footnotes ———
* “elected”– or more accurately mis-elected. In the Supreme Court’s worst moment, its decision in Bush v Gore tossed aside the provisions in the U. S. Constitution for handling Presidential elections (as if the Constitution had nothing to do with the process) and prevented the State of Florida from following the laws set up by its Legislature for choosing Presidential electors. Had the Constitution been followed Bush would likely have become President anyway — but it would have happened constitutionally, a process the religious conservatives on the Court were afraid to trust.
** “official policy” — according to John Kiriakou, a CIA agent involved in torturing prisoners for the Bush Administration. As Scott Horton wrote in Harpers
But this week, a CIA agent, John Kiriakou, appeared, first on ABC News and then in an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, and explained just how the system works. When we want to torture someone (and it is torture he said, no one involved with these techniques would ever think anything different), we have to write it up. The team leader of the torture team proposes what torture techniques will be used and when. He sends it to the Deputy Chief of Operations at the CIA. And there it is reviewed by the hierarchy of the Company. Then the proposal is passed to the Justice Department to be reviewed, blessed, and it is passed to the National Security Council in the White House, to be reviewed and approved. The NSC is chaired, of course, by George W. Bush, whose personal authority is invoked for each and every instance of torture authorized. And, according to Kiriakou as well as others, Bush’s answer is never “no.” He has never found a case where he didn’t find torture was appropriate. Here’s a key piece of the Kiriakou statement:
LAUER: Was the White House involved in that decision?
KIRIAKOU: Absolutely, this isn’t something done willy nilly. It’s not something that an agency officer just wakes up in the morning and decides he’s going to carry out an enhanced technique on a prisoner. This was a policy made at the White House, with concurrence from the National Security Council and Justice Department. — “The President’s Coming Out Party”, Harpers, Dec 15, 2007
Horton goes on to observe that the Bush administration has resurrected
the process of official cruelty under the Stuart monarchs in seventeenth century England. Persons accused of state crimes very frequently were interrogated with the use of specific techniques, including the rack, the thumbscrew, and waterboarding. King James I personally described the process in The Kings Booke (1606). He would, on the advice of his officers, “approve no new torture,” but he would certainly avail himself of the existing practices. In ascending order of severity they were: thumbscrews, the rack and waterboarding. That’s right. Waterboarding was considered the most severe of the official forms of torture. Worse than the rack and thumbscrews.
In the depraved humor of Dick Cheney, of course, it’s just bobbing for apples at a Halloween Fair. — “The President’s Coming Out Party”, Harpers, Dec 15, 2007