RALEIGH — America should apologize for torturing terrorist suspects held after Sept. 11, 2001, in the Middle East, Guantanamo Bay and dozens of other countries, a Christian ethicist and activist told an audience in Raleigh this week.
David Gushee, a professor at Mercer University in Georgia, spoke Tuesday night at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. His speech, “Coming to Terms with Torture: Truth, Accountability, and Renunciation,” focused on a 6,400-page report he helped produce and was released last year by a panel formed by the Constitution Project documenting the treatment of detainees. He also addressed the report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that was partially released in April.
Gushee spoke to The N&O about torture, its moral implications and what people can do about it:
Q: What led you to be on that panel?
A: My first engagement with this issue was when Christianity Today asked me to do an analysis of the torture issue, and that was in 2005. The Abu Ghraib photos came out in 2004, and a lot of evangelical Christians are in the military, and Christianity Today was receiving requests for some help in this from soldiers and intelligence people who were having moral concerns about what they were hearing about or what they were being asked to do.
Over the next three or four years, I ended up in the room for a lot of activist conversations, all kinds of conversations with government officials, and so on. Because of that history of writing on these issues and organizing, when the Constitution Project put together this panel, I was asked to bring that moral voice.
Q: What shocked you during this learning process?
A: There was a lot that shocked me. The Red Cross knew as early as 2003 that we were torturing people at Guantanamo. The report is actually incredibly chilling to read. There were like 15 different techniques: dietary manipulation, forced nudity, walling, which is basically throwing people against walls, facial hold, facial slap, abdominal slap, cramped confinement. ... Water dousing, sleep deprivation. Threatening people with dogs, pounding them with piercing music. Religious and sexual humiliation, tramping on the Quran, flushing a Quran down the toilet, having a female guard straddle a Muslim prisoner so as to arouse him, things like that. Making some of these prisoners wear women’s underwear. Just sadistic cruelty.
Q: How familiar are you with military interrogation?
A: Pretty familiar. The U.S. Army field manual had very specific rules related to what you can and cannot do. And after 9/11 those rules changed to allow all this stuff to happen. And then after 2006 most of them were changed because they knew this is not what they were supposed to do.
Q: Where do you draw the line with intelligence-gathering and torture?
A: Interrogators have a responsibility to use best practices to protect the security of our country. One that works is rapport-building. The person is in a strange and unfamiliar environment, totally without power, and rapport-building works better than trying to break their will in these cruel ways.
There’s another category just under torture which is called cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. You’re not allowed to do that either. It’s a continuum. The distinctions are not altogether clear to me.
Q: Ethically, is there a difference?
A: Not much, no. The combination is what matters. Cruel, inhuman and degrading. And so you establish common practices that are certainly tough, not necessarily pleasant for the person being interrogated, but you’re not slapping them around, you’re not drowning them and you’re not throwing them against walls.
Q: There has to be a precedent for this.
A: We had done things like this in the past, but we actually had what looked like a pretty sturdy set of laws and practices that would keep the United States from doing this. They were redefined or set aside after 9/11 on the principal that hey, we’re fighting terrorists, we can’t allow our hands to be tied by these laws.
Q: What are the moral implications of torture?
A: The theological framework is God creates everybody, and everybody matters to God. In a sense they have a resemblance to God, and the Bible says that resemblance to God and that dignity has to be respected.
Q: The laws changed back. What’s the problem now?
A: We still have Guantanamo open. It needs to be closed. We have a substantial body of public opinion that still supports torture. People who broke the laws of the United States have never been held to account.
Q: What would you suggest?
A: My goal is that we renounce that we did this, apologize, and decide that we never do it again. And that we would hold people accountable.
Q: What can individuals do?
A: Individuals right now can ask the White House to get the Intelligence Committee report released as soon as possible in keeping with the vote of the Senate. Individuals can dissent when somebody in conversations just says, ‘Well, I think we should just torture.’ Say, ‘No, I don’t think so, and here’s why: It’s not in keeping with our values as a nation. It’s against the law, and we don’t need it.’