A Theological Reflection on Torture and Democracy


  • Kelly Denton-Borhaug

    1. For the last three years Kelly Denton-Borhaug has held the position of Assistant Professor of Religion at a small liberal arts college on the east coast, Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. She is ordained in the ELCA and her educational background includes an MDiv from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and a Ph.D from the Graduate Theological Union in Interdisciplinary Studies (Systematic Theology and Ethics). Much of her current teaching and research centers on Christian images and understandings of salvation, feminist theology and ethics, ethics and war. Currently Dr. Denton-Borhaug is working on a book exploring the intersection between Christian understandings of sacrifice and sacrificial ideology in “war-culture.” Its provisional title is: The Ultimate Sacrifice: Deadly Links Between Christian Salvation and U.S. War-Culture.
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Abstract:  First, I summarize the major findings of a new comprehensive resource, Torture and Democracy, by Darius Rejali, as corrective for the current state of confusion and concealment in United States with regard to the persistence of torture. Second, I respond theologically to the insights from this scholarship through a) reflection on victims of torture as ‘nonpersons’ in light of theological anthropology, and through exploring the role of Christians in the public square, and b) addressing the problem of sacrificialism.

Torture in Our Democracy

What is missing in the United States' popular discourse about torture? What role if any do Christians and Christian communities have to play? At least since the leakage of the infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib, the topic of torture has been ubiquitous in collective consciousness and conversation. But confusion reigns regarding what may be defined as torture, and the history of torture in the U.S. (and elsewhere). Most reporting, political posturing and common discussion about torture tend to begin and end with the post-9/11 period of U.S. history and ‘the war on terror.’ A common assumption one hears is that if torture is being practiced by members of the U.S. military and/or security apparatus (and of course much of the discussion debates whether ‘enhanced interrogation’ can be labeled torture as such), it must be some sort of weird aberration, a blip on the trajectory of U.S. history and democracy generally speaking. If we have tortured in the course of the “war on terrorism” (in contrast to the bellicose proclamation we've heard one too many times, “The United States does not torture!”), well, at least we all can agree that this is far from the usual state of affairs in our country.1

In “The United States of Amnesia,” those all-important reservoirs of memory necessary for deep thinking and moral analysis are at powerful, perhaps historic low points.2 Thus, this article begins with the insights from a recently published investigation of torture in democratic states, Torture and Democracy, by Darius Rejali. This comprehensive resource on torture, over twelve years in the making, reaches back with the precise cutting edge of a surgeon's scalpel to consider a longer history of torture in democracies for a contemporary examination of torture as it is practiced today.3 Rejali's work sets the stage for the second half of the article, a shift to theological reflection on the reality of torture in and by the United States.

According to Rejali, the key to understanding and adequately analyzing the reality of torture in democracies such as the United States has to do with asking the right question. “Torture persists.” Why? The question is not, “Why does torture persist after the Cold War?” And not even, “Is torture compatible with democracy?” Getting to the heart of the matter means asking, “How is it that democracy and torture can coexist?”4

Torture in a Democracy: Three Models

Torture appears in democracies in three ways: the National Security Model, the Civic Discipline Model and the Juridical Model. While many different definitions of torture have been proposed in the post-9/11 period (including the chilling proposal from Assistant Attorney General Bybee, his deputy John Yoo and Vice Presidential Counsel Addington, who suggested that any infliction of pain and physical damage to the human body short of “organ failure” could not be considered torture), I recall here the definition from the United Nations Declaration against Torture:

Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he has committed, or intimidating him or other persons.5

The National Security Model

In the first case, the National Security Model, torture arises because of a perceived national emergency and/or because the national security bureaucracy overwhelms those democratic systems put in place for restraint. In a time of fear, government leaders decide that legislatures do not have the will or ability to adequately handle the situation, and declare the turn to measures of torture a “political necessity.” In this case the victims of torture may be local or foreigners whose political activities are suspect. Not only the “war on terrorism” and the concomitant abuses of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars (not to mention Guantanamo), but many earlier examples from the history of democratic states also fit this model of torture. American torture in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, the French in Algiers, and numerous examples of the British in Kenya, Northern Ireland and other places all fit this model.

One particularly heinous case took place during the Cold War in response to fear of the spread of communism (as posited by the Domino Theory). The Phoenix Program from the 1960s, implemented by the CIA, was a clandestine operation designed to eliminate the Vietcong infrastructure by capturing, interrogating and killing VC operatives. According to analysis of a unique database its own operatives carefully detailed, the Phoenix Program reveals “a story of capricious violence.” At least 38 innocent people were victimized for every actual Vietcong agent, and 4.7 innocent people were killed for every Vietcong agent. Rejali emphasizes that these are highly conservative figures and may be higher. In all, over 73,697 Vietnamese were targeted and at least 15,438 killed.6 In the case of one high-value detainee, Vhuyen Van Tai, the highest-ranking Vietcong captured, methods of interrogation included electrotorture, water torture, beatings, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and confinement in a freezing refrigerated room without windows for two years.7 Yet agency veterans observed that “… it was skillful questions … building rapport … not any physical infliction of pain, that produced the only useful (albeit limited) information Tai ever provided.”8

Some just war theorists such as Michael Walzer have argued that a “supreme emergency” may legitimate actions otherwise considered immoral.9 An examination of the national security model of torture, however, illustrates how easily cries of ‘necessity’ and ‘emergency’ override democracy's moral principles and laws, in particular in an atmosphere of real (or manufactured) fear.

The Civic Discipline Model

In order to illustrate the second model of the way we find torture co-existing with democracy, the Civic Discipline Model, Rejali turns to ancient Athens. In early republics such as this, the question of torture was tied to citizenship. Any noncitizen, slave, barbarian or foreigner could be subjected to such treatment. A connection may be drawn between this demarcation of ‘untouchable bodies’ of free citizens versus ‘torturable bodies’ of slaves and others, and practices in the U.S. during slavery. Advertisements regarding the selling of slaves in the United States from 150 years ago demonstrate a remarkable “reading of a slave's body in a democratic society.” For example, an ad from the St. Louis Gazette, dated 1845, includes the following:

A wealthy man here had a boy named Reuben, almost white, whom he caused to be branded in the face with the words, “A slave for life.”10

All too commonly today in democracies, the victims of torture include street children, the homeless, addicts, illegal immigrants, and other ‘quasi or non-citizens’ who have been marginalized in mainstream society. The anxiety felt by more secure citizens about illegal immigrants in their midst, or homeless individuals on their streets, tacitly encourages the tactics of intimidation people believe will help keep their communities safe.

For instance, at the 2007 American Academy of Religion in San Diego, attended by thousands of religion scholars from across the world, conference participants could not miss the scores, perhaps even hundreds of vagrants and homeless people with their shopping carts, duffle and sleeping bags also making use of open space along the bay shore walking path. One morning during my walk I watched uneasily as police stopped one particularly dejected-looking man with stooped shoulders, interrogating him there on the walking path and demanding to see his identification as he stared at the ground.

Such individuals also become the target of security guards such as “‘Clancy the Cop,’ a San Diego Gaslamp Quarter patroller, who used his stun gun regularly on transients.”11 What characterizes the use of devices such as stun guns is that they are used “… mainly on inarticulate subjects with criminal or institutional histories, and in cases of intense public disapproval.”12 If a robust understanding of citizenship in democracies includes the premise that one's personal space may not be violated, such that a person confidently may walk about unmolested, without the fear of being beaten or harassed; and travel in one's car without worrying about being pulled over, the way citizenship actually functions in the U.S. is along a much more ambiguous spectrum. Clearly all people are not equal with regard to “… understanding what is due to one in daily life.”

The Juridical Model

Finally, the third democratic setting of torture is labeled ‘the Juridical Model.’ The impetus driving this model is the desire for confessions. Even while modern systems of law include circumstantial evidence and gradations of accusation (such as first-degree to third-degree murder), confessions of accused criminals continue to be in high demand. In this model torture appears in those conditions where police and military have the power to detain without officially charging the suspect. ‘Coercive’ interrogations may follow, especially in those democratic societies that place greater emphasis on obtaining confessions than following through with police work to obtain other evidence. A ‘good citizen’ will confess, and refusal to do so results in police reliance on increasingly aggressive measures that include torture.13

In this third model, torture enters into democracy because its legal system values the confession of the accused: in the 1920s American police might hold suspects in hotel rooms or offices for as many as thirty-eight days, using interrogation tactics that included torture. Chicago police especially relied on objects without edges that would leave marks, such as clubs, rubber hoses, telephone books.14 Americans called such tactics ‘the third degree.’ Today people in the U.S. remain enthralled by the entertainment portrayal of just such activities as demonstrated by the popularity of such television shows as 24 and NYPD Blue.15

The Turn to ‘Clean Torture’

The issue is more complex, however, than the three different models for how torture coexists with democracy. Gradually over the last century or so, and especially since the 1960s and 70s, torture changed worldwide as its practitioners increasingly relied on methods and techniques that would leave no visible marks. Rejali calls this “The Turn.” Unlike ‘scarring methods’ that physically disable and visually deform the human body in some way, ‘clean torture’ is much harder to read on the human body. It includes electrotorture, beating, water torture, dry choking, extreme temperatures, exhaustion exercises, positional tortures, restraints, salts and spices, drugs and irritants, sleep deprivation, noise and sensory deprivation.16 Rejali tracks the various ‘styles’ of torture one finds in democracies, usually based on some combination of those ‘clean’ methods listed above. As opposed to Americans such as Donald Rumsfeld, who derided positional tortures by comparing them to his own practice of “standing while working eight to ten hours a day,” scholars have demonstrated that in fact, ‘clean torture’ may be even more devastating to victims than scarring forms of torture, leaving longer-term physical and psychological damage.17

‘No touch’ methods result in deep psychological scars. One psychologist explores the “phenomenology of torture situations” to explain why this is the case. The combination of six factors, 1) asymmetry of power; 2) the torturer's anonymity; 3) the victim's ‘double-bind’ (either enduring or betraying others); 4) the system of ‘false charges;’ 5) confinement, signifying being trapped, caught, destroyed; and 6) unpredictability and circularity of the experience—all these factors intertwine to enable the torturer to achieve control over the victim psychologically and devastatingly reduce the victim to a condition of defenselessness.18

What is behind “The Turn” from scarring to clean methods of torture? The increase of public monitoring by human rights NGOs motivated the increase of combinations of clean torture in order to evade detection. As Rejali notes,

To the extent that public monitoring is not only greater in democracies but public monitoring of human rights is a core value in modern democracies—where we find democracies torturing today we will also be more likely to find stealthy torture.19

In 1973 Amnesty International issued its first global survey of torture. In 1979 the Human Rights Watch budget amounted to two hundred thousand dollars; by 2001 the budget had increased to twenty million. Global monitoring utilizes two strategies: 1) expose torture to the public by careful documentation; 2) hold state agents who have committed torture responsible.20 According to Rejali, the first strategy has encouraged torturers to invest in techniques that are harder to document, thus the increase in ‘clean torture.’ The second strategy has encouraged politicians to seek greater public approval of harsh measures, thus the increase in a “no tolerance” response to drugs, illegal immigration, terrorism, homelessness, etc.

Troubling Consequences

I will close the first half of the article by highlighting three significant and troubling consequences resulting from the turn to ‘clean torture’ in democracies. First, the turn to clean forms of torture makes monitoring torture more difficult. Rejali notes, “stealth torture appears to be a perverse effect of the growing robustness of international monitoring.”21 As international human rights groups such as Amnesty International grew in their ability to document and publicize the reality of torture and its victims, torturers increasingly turned toward techniques that would leave few marks. Torture moved further into the ‘backroom,’ the ‘craft nature’ of torture grew, and heightened watchfulness resulted in the increasing importance of ‘low tech’ techniques and ‘on the job training’ as opposed to centralized or systematized training centers for torture.22

Second, ‘clean torture’ results in greater ease of public complicity through ‘misrecognition.’ Stealth torture separates victims from their communities. As Rejali explains, “to know one's pain is to be able to describe it to oneself and others: communities treat people who have marks on their bodies differently from those without marks.”23 Torture is connected to all practices of cruelty (defined by Rejali as “any intentional infliction of intense pain”); above anything else, torturers remember what was done in the past. Thus torture has connection to roots in “family histories, schoolboy horror stories, hazing, and boot camp gossip.”24 The U.S. interrogator who suffocated an Iraqi prisoner in a sleeping bag recalled, “… his older brother used to force him into one [and he remembered] how scared and vulnerable it made him feel.”25 Much more so than in formal training schools of torture (such as in the School of the Americas), a whole history of cruelty “passes from private life into the hands of state torturers.”26

Yet this ‘pass’ moves both ways; the craft learned by torturers also makes its way back from military/security experiences abroad, like we have heard so much about in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo, to local neighborhoods in the United States, police precincts, prison systems, and in cycles of domestic abuse. This makes public recognition all the more difficult. ‘Misrecognition’ takes place beyond the edge of consciousness, as people enable one another's misrepresentation and misunderstanding, and pass off one situation as something else. Rejali emphasizes that we “misrecognize” because we are invested in thinking about ourselves in a particular way (“The United States does not torture!”); our ‘misrecognition’ plays an important role in permitting practices of torture to continue unabated.27

Third, ‘clean torture’ hinders victims' ability to acknowledge to themselves and their communities just what they have suffered and the extent of torture's consequences, and even more to seek justice for the crime committed against them. Communities are less likely to complain about ‘clean’ violence that leaves no marks. Victims cannot physically document what has happened to them; overall, Rejali emphasizes, we are far too ‘illiterate’ when it comes to reading the victimized bodies of stealth torture, and far too likely to dismiss the probability that violence occurred. Abu Ghraib was described as ‘torture lite;’ continued confusion and misinformation reign as the ‘T-word’ associated with taboo is sanitized through terms such as ‘coercive’ or ‘enhanced interrogation.’ Rejali sums it up, given the reality of “… sneaky torturers, manipulative statesmen, societal discrimination and paralyzed observers, the only hope is in cultivating an adequate memory and working toward the creation and sustenance of political communities' fearless speech.”28

A Theological Response: Remembering the Nonperson

The central theological problem of our day is not the problem of the nonbeliever but the problem of those thought to be nonpersons by the reigning elites.29

In this theological response, first I explore how Christians may interact responsibly as discursive partners in a plural and diverse nation such as the United States with respect to the persistence of torture. I draw upon three themes used by liberation theologian Jon Sobrino to adequately analyze and characterize the contemporary world: structural injustice, institutionalized violence, and structural concealment. I further suggest that a vibrant theological anthropology can assist in the public square of diverse citizens' discussion regarding the meaning of human persons; and the rights, and adequate treatment and care due to human beings. Second, as I address shared commitments and practices of U.S. Christians, I consider what the reality of the persistence of torture in the United States means for the followers of a religion that has a tortured figure at its center, and that is deeply shaped by sacrificial frameworks.

‘A Will to Truth’

The place to begin is with Jon Sobrino's statement about honesty and reality:

It is extremely difficult to see and hear reality, to let it be without manipulation, even when reality is expressed by an “outcry”…30

Sobrino's words are echoed by the reflections of a U.S. filmmaker whose documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, explores the failure of Americans to look past the surface and deeply struggle with the reality of the Abu Ghraib photographs. “They say that seeing is believing,” said Errol Morris, the director. “But the opposite is true. Believing is seeing.”31 One way to bring together Rejali's work with the themes from Sobrino is to say that torture in U.S. democracy is a lens; looking through it with as much penetration and honesty as we can muster, we see more clearly a history of structural injustice and systemic violence. Yet it is the third theme from Sobrino's writing, structural concealment, which I focus upon here. He defines the term, ‘structural concealment,’ in the following way:

The spiritual ecology is seriously damaged. Not only the air the body breathes, but also that of the human spirit is contaminated by half truths, pretense, propaganda, subtle and blatant lies. And all this is encouraged, sometimes imposed, by international institutions, governments, political parties, and civic institutions, all praising democracy. Other cultural, academic, religious, ecclesiastical institutions fail to react in proportion to the level of concealment—and sometimes are directly complicit with it.32

According to Sobrino, those in the “affluent world' lack ‘a will to truth.’ In order to adequately understand and respond to the reality of torture in our democracy, we must let ourselves be affected by it. But there is much in our reality that promotes forgetfulness, detachment and distraction. Recall Rejali's insight about our tendency toward ‘misrecognition.’ In the post-9/11 world a combination of well-cultivated fear mixes with our dependence on the status quo for “our good life,” resulting in half-attention at best. We can hope that the current media attention focused on the advocacy of torture in the highest offices of the U.S. may lead us to deeper thoughtfulness and exploration of a much longer and more insidious relationship between “our way of life” and the persistence of torture; but it seems more likely that the current focus on powerful leaders only will enable us to avoid the much more pernicious and longstanding reality of torture in the United States and other democracies. In this sense much of the current media attention is part of what Sobrino calls “a framework leading to misinterpretation and deception.”33

Practices of Concealment and Dishonesty

If we are to increase our honesty about our reality, it will involve sharper investigation into the practices of concealment and dishonesty that surround us. What do U.S. citizens gain from turning a blind or unfocused eye? We need only return to the examples from the three models of torture described earlier to arrive at possible answers. Collusion with the overwhelming of democratic structures by the security bureaucracy corresponds with citizens' idolization of security. The Civic Discipline Model correlates well with U.S. citizens' demand for safe (gated) communities, and protects the affluent from seeing the honest results of the growing wealth gap in this country (not to mention the world at large). The Judicial Model is linked to the off-the-chart growth in the number of incarcerated people in the United States, and to poverty rates, drug addiction, the abandonment of failing urban centers and more.34 We can talk about sin as ‘culpable blindness,’ or not wanting to see, and hypocrisy as “… not only the refusal to be honest with one's own reality, but the glorification of that lack of honesty.”35

Structural concealment relies on our passive willingness and semi-aware complicity, but there is still more to say. The history of American exceptionalism comes into play here, as with the undergraduate student in my class who assumed innocently that if American security forces did use torture, “it would only be used on those who are guilty of terrorism.” Perhaps more than anything, the young people in my college classes are tempted to detachment and even despair by the forces of concealment that lead them to say, “I don't know what to think or believe.” How are they to find their way through systems of structural concealment, such as when retired military officers are involved in a symbiotic relationship in which they are given inside access to the Pentagon, courted by leaders in the Department of the Defense and coached on ‘talking points’ that buttress a positive view of the Iraq war? The same officers then appear on major news outlets as ‘military analysts’ (or in the language of the Department of Defense, as ‘message force multipliers’). Many of these same individuals also hold positions on the boards of military contracting corporations. The Pentagon paid one private contractor, Omnitec Solutions, hundreds of thousands of dollars to monitor databases for any appearance of these same ‘analysts’ in the media in order to evaluate their effectiveness as ‘branding experts.’36 Do average citizens have any chance over against such sophisticated and unabashed systems of control and concealment?

Christianity in the Public Square

One way to resist institutionalized concealment is through the lively exchange of ideas and commitments in the democratic public square; it is here, I argue, that a robust Christian theological anthropology has an important contribution to make. The pillar of democracy—respect for persons and their freedom—results in a rejection of the practices of torture. For what else is torture but the unjust intrusion of the state onto my body and mind, the invasion of that important space surrounding my body for the purpose of coercion and control?37

Ethicist Jeffrey Stout describes active participation in democracy in the following way:

The kind of community that democrats should be promoting at the local, state and national levels of politics is the kind that involves shared commitment to the Constitution and the culture of democracy. In America, this culture consists of a loose and ever-changing collection of social practices that includes such activities as quilting, baseball, and jazz. But its central and definitive component is the discursive practice of holding one another responsible for the actions we commit, the commitments we undertake and the sorts of people we become.38

On the one hand, secular liberals may argue that democracy may be saved only by inhibiting the expression of religious argumentation in the public square. On the other hand, traditionalists (those with religious loyalties) may be tempted to vacate the public square and describe liberal democracy as so much self-interested individualism, antagonistic to the norms of religious awareness and practice.

Steering between these extremes, Stout encourages an actively discursive practice of democracy in which our democratic norms result from the practice of accountability as we exchange reasons with one another.39 In this discursive democratic public square, I can imagine a powerful and positive role of a vibrant Christian theological anthropology coming into play as diverse citizens (some Christian, others bound to different loyalties and traditions) attempt to think through and give reasons to one another for why torture may not be justified in our democracy, beginning with our various understandings of the meaning and value of human beings.

A Christian Theological Anthropology

Let us say that one secular citizen begins the conversation about why we prohibit torture through positing the following: along the lines of Kant's second formulation of the categorical imperative, adequately defining what it means to be a human begins with the notion that human beings may not be instrumentalized. A beginning understanding of the inalienable right of human freedom as posited by the Declaration of Independence translates into the value of humans as ends, as intrinsically valuable in themselves, not as the dispensable instrument through which the state may gain information or other forms of power. Someone else with Christian commitments might add to the conversation by suggesting that a Christian notion of the imago dei at the heart of humankind overwhelmingly disables any argument in favor of torture. All humans bear and witness to the face of God in one another and have been declared to be part of God's good creation; Christians are called to take with utter seriousness the full personhood of all women and men in all their essential relations as individuals, as members of many communities, actors in historical times and places, embodied beings related to all the rhythms of the earth and as human spirit.40

Taking the conversation yet a step further, Sobrino and others of Christian commitment describe tortured human beings as a contemporary historical analogy to Jesus' crucifixion. “God is involved in the passion of Jesus and in the passion of the world.”41 Torture robs its victims of their personhood and diminishes them to the state of a ‘nonperson.’ As Ignacio Ellacuria said,

This crucified people is the historical continuation of Yahweh's Servant, whom the sin of the world continues to deprive of his human face. The powerful of this world continue to strip them of everything, to snatch everything from them, even their lives, especially their lives.42

In opposition to the ambiguous spectrum of citizenship revealed by Rejali's investigation of the practices of torture in democracy, a Christian theological anthropology names as sin any practice that results in this diminishment to “nonperson.”

These two citizens continue their conversation by sharing background and giving reasons for why and how they have come to their respective commitments. Stout would call these “material inferential commitments” that are native to the environment of each discussant. The point is that in a lively discursive democratic community, participants need not agree on such inferential commitments in order to discuss and think through important questions and issues, and gain from one another in the process. If institutionalized concealment leads to detachment, forgetfulness and even despair, discursive democratic engagement can strengthen citizens across a diversity of commitments, uniting us with one another (we must resist rationalizations that mask the persistence of torture), and sharpening our skills for a more adequate remembering that leads to the “fearless speech” Rejali advocates as the one hope we have in the face of the persistence of torture in democracy.

The Role of the Church

What of Christian communities in the United States? Various theologians have reasserted the importance of the church as an alternative creative space in which “to live inside God's imagination,” or through which to ‘act up’ by way of the performance of the Eucharist as a kind of counter-politics.43 In the Salvadoran Church of the 1970s, Archbishop Romero closed every sermon with a litany of the dead, sharing not only the names but the circumstances through which they had been killed during the previous week.44 What would it take for Christians living in this dominantly Christian imperial nation to become so bold? How would thousands of such litanies for named and remembered victims of torture across the face of the United States Sunday after Sunday impact the realities of institutionalized concealment, injustice and suffering? Or perhaps we should ask, what does it say about churches in the United States that such litanies, if they occur anywhere, are few and far between?

Many articles about torture written by theologians close with meditation on the tortured figure at the center of Christianity. I assert here that part of the responsibility of Christians who also are citizens accountable to a diverse public square is to exercise care, suspicion and thoughtfulness regarding the ways Christian symbols and values have become captive to dynamics that enable and mask the ongoing practice of torture in our democracy. In particular the dominance of sacrificialism in Christianity has made it highly susceptible to abuse and manipulation by the forces of institutionalized concealment. Government leaders do not hesitate to neatly exploit Christian sacrificial frameworks with a justification of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as President Bush has demonstrated so often in his speeches, such as this one from Easter 2008:

… during this special and holy time each year, millions of Americans pause to remember a sacrifice that transcended the grave and redeemed the world … . On Easter we hold in our hearts those who will be spending this holiday far from home—our troops … . I deeply appreciate the sacrifices that they and their families are making … On Easter, we especially remember those who have given their lives for the cause of freedom. These brave individuals have lived out the words of the Gospel: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends … .”45

The categorization of military service under the heading of ‘sacrifice’ enshrouds all military action with a glorified, semi-religious canopy that makes hard analysis much more difficult. To question the actions of the military is declared equivalent to ‘failing to support the troops.’ Such language deflects and disables us from analyzing or interpreting the American losses of war as anything other than ‘heroic sacrifice,’ while the deaths of perhaps one hundred thousand Iraqis are justified as a necessary and rational collateral sacrifice. Additionally, ‘coercive interrogation,’ and diminishment of civil liberties such as through the Patriot Acts, all too easily are framed as ‘necessary sacrifices’ justified by the specter of potential additional terrorist attacks.

A dominantly Christian nation deeply shaped by frameworks such as “the necessary sacrifice of Jesus for salvation,” finds itself captive to such logic at the deepest subconscious levels and is thus all the more easily manipulated. Torturers themselves, some have speculated, draw upon sacrificial frameworks to understand their own terrible craft as “the supreme sacrifice” they make on behalf of the good of the nation as a whole, so that torture now becomes a sort of religion unto itself.46 At the very least, Christians must work much harder to delineate stronger distinctions between what they mean when they speak of the sacrifice of Jesus and the supposed ‘necessary sacrifices’ described above. At most, a much deeper and incisive self criticism is in order for Christian theology in the United States regarding the largely unexamined hinge of sacrifice between Christian faith and nationalism, a hinge exploited so adroitly in the post-9/11 period.47

‘Cultivating an Adequate Memory’

As Sobrino so simply reminds us, remembering the nonperson means letting ourselves be affected by her experience. People in the United States opened their hearts generously to the suffering of those who experienced loss following the attacks of 9/11. Opening our hearts in this instance, however, to the victims of torture's persistence, is proving to be much more complex and difficult for Americans. Is it because we have more to lose (our supposed right to ‘the good life’)? Because it means developing a different image of ourselves (The United States does torture)? Those of Christian commitment have an important role to play both in the discursive public square and in their religious communities by furthering Rejali's emphasis on “cultivating an adequate memory.” For Christians this will mean collaboration with others of diverse commitments to hold the United States to a higher and more consistent practice of remembering the multifaceted and irreplaceable value of the human person. Christians also have an important role to play by examining their own complicity in manipulative sacrificial frameworks that enable the dispensability of human persons. It remains to be seen whether we will make progress in our democratic discursive public squares and in our churches across this land. Much work lies ahead.


  • 1

    Protestations from the highest leaders in the U.S. have become common in the post-9/11 period. For example, see “Rice Says the United States Does Not Torture Terrorists,” US.Info.State.Gov, http://usinfo.state.gov/dhr/Archive/2005/Dec/05-436751.html, 12/05/2005, accessed 4/28/08.

  • 2

    This was Gore Vidal's phrase uttered so memorably in the documentary, Why We Fight, Eugene Jarecki, BBC Storyville, 2005.

  • 3

    Torture and Democracy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. The American Political Science Association recognized Torture and Democracy with the 2007 Human Rights Book of the Year Award. This prize is given to scholarship considered to have the greatest potential to influence policy and bring about change in human rights conventions.

  • 4

    Ibid., 22.

  • 5

    Ibid., 37. An expose of the degradation of the UN definition of torture in the post-9/11 period by the Bush administration is found in Alfred McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006, Chapter 4, “War on Terror.”

  • 6

    Rejali, ibid., 470–71.

  • 7

    Van Tai's experience may be compared with the more recent reports about the treatment of Jose Padilla, who initially was detained in 2002 in criminal confinement, but after being declared an ‘enemy combatant’ by President Bush was placed in detention in a South Carolina naval brig, where he was held in isolation for two years in a nine by seven foot cell, and subjected to sleep deprivation, extremes of temperature, and stress positions. See Aziz Z. Huq, “Democratic Torture: Has Mill's Safeguard Weakened?”World Policy journal, Winter 2007/08.

  • 8

    Rejali, 514–515.

  • 9

    See Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, Basic Books, 2006. Evan R. Goldstein criticizes Walzer in “How Just Is Islam's Just-War Tradition?”Chronicle of Higher Education,http://chronicle.com/weekly/v54/i32/32b00701.htm., accessed 4/14/08. “Supreme emergency” also is related to the justification of torture by way of the “ticking time bomb” scenario. Both Rejali and Alfred McCoy argue that the “ticking time bomb” justification for torture falls apart under fairly simple scrutiny. See Rejali, 534–35; McCoy, 190–195.

  • 10

    Rejali, 55–56

  • 11

    Ibid., 59.

  • 12

    Ibid., 245. See Rejali and McCoy for further discussion about the U.S. prison industrial complex and its ties to practices of torture.

  • 13

    Ibid., 49–55.

  • 14

    Ibid., 71–72.

  • 15

    Phillipe Sands provides evidence that lawyers at Guantanamo responsible for developing interrogation procedures were influenced by the exploits of the character Jack Bauer in 24. See Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American Values, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. See also Richard Norton-Taylor, “Top Bush Aides Pushed for Guantanamo Torture: Senior Officials Bypassed Army Chief to Introduce Interrogation Methods,”The Guardian, April 19, 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/apr/19/guantanamo.usa, accessed 04/21/08.

  • 16

    Ibid., 553–556.

  • 17

    Rumsfeld wrote in a memo, “I stand for 8–10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?” when he approved interrogation methods in Guantanamo involving stress positions, use of dogs and stripping detainees naked. See Tom Malinowski, “The Logic of Torture,”The Washington Post, June 27, 2004, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A6950-2004Jun25.html, accessed 04/21/08.

  • 18

    Alfred W. McCoy, 7 ff. An important part of McCoy's analysis is to demonstrate that the U.S. never fully rejected practices of psychological torture. When the UN Convention Against Torture was approved by unanimous UN vote in 1984, President Reagan stalled its ratification in the Congress by proposing nineteen reservations that kept the window open for use of sensory deprivation (hooding), stress positions, isolation and sleep denial. Ultimately only the ban on physical methods was fully ratified. As a result in the U.S. there is continuing confusion about what constitutes torture, especially regarding “no-touch” methods. See McCoy, 99–104.

  • 19

    Rejali, 8.

  • 20

    Ibid., 43 ff.

  • 21

    Ibid., 418.

  • 22

    Ibid., 423. Rejali disagrees with other theorists such as Noam Chomsky regarding what he terms a “Universal Distributor” theory of torture positing the United States as a major distributor/provider of techniques of torture worldwide. See 13–14, 219–22.

  • 23

    Ibid., 42, 29.

  • 24

    Ibid., 19.

  • 25

    Ibid., 433.

  • 26

    Ibid., 42.

  • 27

    Ibid., 546.

  • 28

    Ibid., 443–444.

  • 29

    David Tracy, “The Christian Option for the Poor,”The Option for the Poor in Christian Theology, Ed. Daniel G. Groody, Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 2007, 199. Here Tracy quotes from Gustavo Gutierrez in On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987.

  • 30

    Where Is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope, Trans. Margaret Wilde, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2004, 29.

  • 31

    John Anderson, “Of Crime and Perception at Abu Ghraib,”The New York Times, April 20, 2008. Standard Operating Procedure, Dir. Errol Morris, Participant Productions, 2008.

  • 32

    Sobrino, 33.

  • 33

    Ibid., 13.

  • 34

    Among other resources, see Ken McGrew, Education's Prisoners: Schooling, The Political Economy, and the Prison Industrial Complex, Peter Lang Publishing, 2007. As of 2008 more than one in 100 adults in the United States are in jail or prison, making this country the world's top incarcerator. See “1 in 100 Adults Now in Prison,”Baltimore Sun, Feb. 29, 2008, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/nation/bal-te.prisons29feb29,0,2057053.story, accessed 04/26/08.

  • 35

    Sobrino, 39.

  • 36

    David Barstow, “Behind TV's Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand,”New York Times, April 20, 2008.

  • 37

    As Aziz Z. Huq puts it, “… democracy, or at least its American variant, is at base liberal in the sense John Stuart Mill meant, in that it entails a minimum level of respect for persons and a basic quantum of liberty as preconditions of democratic governance. Principal among the liberal constraints that underlie democracy is the rule against torture.” 99.

  • 38

    Democracy and Tradition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004, 303–4.

  • 39

    Stout, 185.

  • 40

    I am influenced here by the formulation of the meaning of imago dei articulated by Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad, 1993, 31.

  • 41

    Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, Trans. Paul Burns and Francis McDonagh, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1993, 244.

  • 42

    Ibid., 255.

  • 43

    William T. Cavanaugh, “Making Enemies: The Imagination of Torture in Chile and the United States,”Theology Today, Vol 63 (2006), 323. See also Mark Lewis Taylor, “American Torture and the Body of Christ,”Cross Examinations: Readings of the Meaning of the Cross Today, Ed. Marit Trelstadt, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006, 276–78.

  • 44

    “A Martyr's Abiding Hope,”Sojourner's Magazine, Vol 9, 05/01/1980.

  • 45

    “President's Radio Address, Easter 2008,”The White House, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2008/03/20080322.html. Accessed 4/02/08

  • 46

    Cavanaugh makes this argument in his article cited above.

  • 47

    I am exploring just this ‘hinge’ in my research. See Denton-Borhaug, “A Deadly Nexus: ‘Necessity,” Christian Salvation and War Culture,”International Journal of the Humanities, Vol. 5, Issue 9, fall 2007, pp. 161–168; and “The Language of ‘Sacrifice’ in the Buildup to War: A Feminist Rhetorical and Theological Analysis, The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Spring, 2007.