Torture and Eucharist


I’ve been asked by a partner in resistance over at Death and the Maiden to write my thoughts on the ethical status of torture. Specifically, I’ve been asked to answer two questions: 1) What is torture? and 2) Is it necessarily immoral?

In answer to the first question, some dictionary definitions:

1) The act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.

2) The deliberate, systematic, or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons in an attempt to force another person to yield information or to make a confession or for any other reason.

The United Nations Convention Against Torture defines torture as

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

To read the complete convention, click here. It should be pointed out that in Section 1 torture is defined as severe pain or suffering, which means there must be levels of pain and suffering which are not severe enough to be called torture (often termed “cruel, degrading or inhumane treatment”). However, “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” is independently prohibited in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 5.

The second question is where the rub’s at. Given these definitions, is torture “necessarily” (by which I think she means always) immoral? Or, put differently, could there ever conceivably be a time in which the use of torture would not be immoral?

And you would think the answer would be obvious. You would think we’d have settled this issue by now. But the fact is the question of torture is far from settled in our society. (Michael Westmoreland-White sings a lament here.) The fact is, the United States currently has a President, Vice President and Attorney General who not only condone the use of torture theoretically but are actually personally responsible for torture sessions which are transpiring even as I write. The United States President has admitted, nay, gloated, on national television that his administration not only condones but implements torture in secret locations around the world. This is the example set by the leader of the rhetorical “free world.”

Not only does the President condone and implement torture, but he claims that he does so with the understanding and approval of a majority of United States citizens. Not only does the President claim the support of a majority of United States citizens, he may well have it. According to a recent poll, more than one third of the United States military serving Halliburton in Iraq believe that that torture should be allowed (by the U.S. or its allies, that is, not by the enemy). Up to forty percent would approve of torture “if it would save the life of a fellow soldier.” Furthermore, two-thirds of Marines and fifty percent of Army troops surveyed said “they would not report a team member for mistreating a civilian or for destroying civilian property unnecessarily.” Fewer than fifty percent believed that even Iraqi non-combatants deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. Ten percent of the troops surveyed admitted to having “mistreated civilians in Iraq, such as kicking them or needlessly damaging their possessions.”

Domestically, two of the top-rated television shows in America (one a fictional drama, 24, and the other, reportedly a “news” program, The O’Reilly Factor) are adamantly pro-torture. In virtually every episode of 24, the “hero” (played by Kiefer Sutherland) uses torture techniques, including “kneecapping” (shooting a victim in the knee with a handgun), in order to extract information. Faux News guru Bill O’Reilly has forcefully supported torture on his show, in part by downplaying the pain involved in such techniques as waterboarding (simulated drowning while attached feet over head to a board) sleep deprivation, and prolonged exposure to extreme cold. O’Reilly eschews the word “pain” in favor of “mild discomfort.” The fact that these two shows continue to enjoy top ratings in their genres attests to the strong possibility that President Bush was not lying (pinch me) when he said that his position on torture enjoys the support of the American people.

In addition to Bush, Cheney, Gonzalez, Rumsfeld, at least forty percent of the United States Army and Marine Corps, Fox Television, Bill O’Reilly, and a large number of American TV watchers, all but one of the Republican candidates for the presidency of the United States support torture. (The one exception, John McCain, himself a victim of torture in Vietnam, is wishy-washy.) What’s more, a Democrat controlled Congress just voted not to close the infamous School of the Americas (rightly dubbed the School of Assassins). (More on this here and here.) According to Westmoreland-White, the School of the Americas, originally located in Central America but now run out of Fort Benning, Georgia,

has been a sponsor of state-funded, pro-government, right-wing terrorism since the 1970s, at least. Here, the U.S. military and CIA, with American tax dollars, trains Latin American militaries in “counter-insurgency” tactics–including torture, assassination, the “disappearances” of whole families, etc. Until Abu-Ghraib and the Guantanamo Bay Gulag, this school was the largest source of U.S. shame to human rights activists. Those who murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero were trained here. So were those who slaughtered the Jesuit school in El Salvador, those who wiped out whole villages in Guatemala, and those who raped and tortured nuns in Nicaragua.

The vote to keep the SOA open was a close one (214-206). But that’s not good news. That’s bad news. The vote should have been unanimous! That’s 214 representatives representing 214 constituencies voting in favor of United States sponsored terrorism. If the President is serious about this “War on Terror” (which he isn’t), it would seem the United States would be next in line for invasion, by the United States. (No doubt we would find significantly more allies for that war!) Although, it is doubtful that the United States would ever attack the United States, if for no other reason than that another Abu Ghraib could not be justified merely by calling attention to the inferior nationality of the victims. (Still, there’s no rule that says we would have to torture white boys.) Nor could there be any offshore detentions of enemy combatants because unfortunately, habeas corpus does in fact apply to United States citizens.

Of course, I guess anyone suspected of terrorist activity (like, for instance, the soldiers at Fort Benning, Georgia or anyone at MSNBC) could be detained indefinitely and without trial on the premise that terrorists are traitors and thus have relinquished their citizenship. They could therefore be held as enemy combatants in the War on Terror, and tortured because, as terrorists not soldiers, they are not properly prisoners of war and thus do not fall under the protection of the Geneva Convention, which is quaint and subject to interpretation anyhow.

In the end I guess it could go either way. It depends on whether we can successfully torture an Iranian into confessing that Iran has WMDs with intention to kill. If not, I suspect McCain will change his tune, from Bomb, Bomb Iran to Georgia on My Mind. Either way freedom will continue to advance, so it doesn’t really matter as far as I’m concerned.

What does all of this mean? It means we are living in dark days. We live in a capitalist democracy approaching boiling point—capitalism all grown up. Of course, the “democracy” in the capitalist democracy is an oligarchy of transnational corporations, virtual nation-states in their own right. United States policy, domestic and foreign, is determined not “by the people for the people” but by global market trends, oil, munitions and fast food. Accordingly, we are a society of virtual killers (television, PlayStations), killers (high-schoolers and the LAPD), and credit consumers, who have been formed by McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and Hiroshima to inhabit the “real world” where expediency always trumps truth. In such a society the question, “Is torture necessarily immoral?” is no longer intelligible. The question assumes that “morality” is something that can be determined apart from considerations of national interest (oil, munitions and fast food = security). If it’s expedient for us to torture some sandnigger, if it prevents having our way of life (obesity, debt, poverty, warfare, torture) taken away from us, the very question is offensive. It’s immoral not to torture! A bleeding heart liberal is no better than a terrorist when our children’s lives are at stake. So if we have to kill a few Muslim kids to save our children, well, that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make, for freedom.

Seriously, just the implication that quaint notions like “immoral” or “illegal” apply to the obviously essential “enhanced interrogation” techniques of a post 9/11 world is reprehensible. If our Air Force can kill Afghani children to save American children, why shouldn’t we be able to make a full-grown man “mildly uncomfortable” when it can save lives to do so. I mean, this is a known terrorist we’re talking about (suspected anyway). He’s a big boy. He’ll get over it. We’re talking about the stabilization of society here, and in the face of globalization, that means we’re talking about the stabilization of the global market for national interest. Peace is big business. The only bigger business is war, and if we can wage the one in the na

me of the other there’s a lot of money to be made from every angle. And that’s good for the American economy (i.e. transnational corporations).

Besides, you can’t expect to beat terror if you’re soft. You’ve got to fight terror with terror. That’s how the Romans did it anyway. Sure, they crucified an innocent man once or twice, but they meant well, and you’ve got to make sacrifices for peace.

Obviously, the imperial pathology is impenetrable. Face to face with Truth, Pilate could only deny the utility of the notion, which is exactly the pathology of the current administration. Ultimately, from the perspective of a mature capitalist democracy, the question of the morality of torture is just bourgeois. Freedom is on the march and it can’t be slowed down just to answer philosophical questions about the nature of freedom. Those who are committed to it know what it means, and if you’re not already in on it you probably ought not to be. If you want to challenge it you’re challenging the very structure of the society itself and thus you’re an enemy of the state. Enemies of the state get crucified. There’s no other cure for them.

And there is no cure for this pathology but an eventual and inevitable implosion. There can be no convincing a mature capitalist democracy to respect human rights. A capitalist democracy is inherently, systematically inhumane because in a capitalist democracy humanity is reduced to an aggregate of individuals which become commodities bound together not transcendentally (that’s violent) but contractually. A mature capitalist democracy cannot go back on itself without utterly deleting itself, and so it conceals itself inside the ideology of liberation and stabilization. To be liberated is to be free to choose, to choose between McDonalds, Taco Bell and Subway, between Die Hard, The Notebook and Dodgeball. To have stabilization is to have the assurance that such choices will always be in front of us. And whenever our liberty is threatened by the “enemies of freedom,” the only recourse we have is to kill and shop, for to shop is to render our wartime sacrifices meaningful.

There is no penetrating this pathology, there is no converting it to something else. There is only the denial of it embodied in an alternative politics. There is no capitalist language for the rejection of torture. To argue against torture in terms of commodity and utility is to perpetuate a subtler torture, the torture of living in a society where human freedom is reduced to consumer choices. To argue that it would benefit capitalist democracy (i.e. transnational corporations) to find other means than torture to meet their ends is to aid capitalist democracy in its survival. The only alternative left to us is to answer the question as Christians. Only after we have learned what it means to be Christian in a world of torture will we be equipped to give an account to the world of what it means to renounce torture. So we pose the question not first to the state, but to ourselves as Christians.

How can one who claims to follow a crucified Messiah ever, under any circumstances, approve of torture? This is the riddle I cannot solve. There is no good answer for it, other than to acknowledge that such a person is so constituted by capitalist democracy, so subsumed by the imperial pathology that they are no longer able to conceive of what it would mean to follow Jesus. To approve of torture is, literally, to be antichrist. Those who commit themselves to following a victim of torture must be willing and ready to become torture victims themselves, but they can never become torturers, for to do so would be to follow the Caesar over against the Christ. To commit the act of torture is to commit the ultimate act of treason against the Crucified King.

Yet those who follow the Crucified King cannot live under any naïve delusion that the world they inhabit is basically good. Those who partake in the Eucharist remember every time they gather together that they live in a world of power-mongers who would torture and assassinate peacemakers in the name of “peace,” which when translated is just the perpetuation of the system that keeps them in power. As William Cavanaugh argues in his doctoral dissertation, Torture and Eucharist, when Christians participate in the Eucharist they are engaging in a counter-politics in which they learn to wage peace in a tortuous world by taking the world’s violence upon themselves. This absorption of the world’s violence into the Body of Christ is the militant act of resistance and imperial subversion for which the counter-polis has been training as it celebrates in the Eucharist the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Crucified One.

Only in the face of such eucharistic resistance will the torturer’s eyes be opened to the “utility” of Truth. Only in such subversive suffering will the torturer discover the meaning of power. Only after we have absorbed the torturer’s violence will he be empowered to look upon his victim and say, “Surely this was a ‘Son of God.’”

So the question then becomes: what does it mean to absorb the world’s violence into the Body of Christ? If this names the mode of our resistance to the imperial violence, what does it signify? I leave this question open for discussion. . .

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