On Board with Waterboarding?

With the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, the issue of government sanctioned torture has been revived. From 2002-2006, military and intelligence interrogators made use of waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, in their "enhanced interrogations." Since then, torture has been banned by both executive orders and federal legislation. President Trump, however, campaigned on the reinstitution of torture and recently asserted that "torture absolutely works."

The government endorsement of torture should be seen as a watershed in our society, marking our descent into a barbarism previously unthinkable. I was raised in an Army family and well remember the revulsion against torture that permeated the American military culture. As a young officer in the 1980's, it was made clear that we were never to permit torture by our soldiers. Teaching an ethics class at West Point in the 1990's, our curriculum was uniformly opposed to torture. Well do I remember my grandfather, a World War II tank general, insisting that how America wins her wars is just as important that she wins her wars. "If we become like our enemies in order to win a war, we have in fact lost the war," he insisted. Such noble and humane sentiments seem no longer to have a place in our increasingly barbarized society.

Most alarming to me has been the support of waterboarding and other forms of torture among evangelical Christians. To my surprise and indignation, instead of applying the obvious implications of the Sixth Commandment, Christian leaders have lined up in support of waterboarding. Is this blind political loyalty, without a biblical conscience? In the 1950's and 60's, it was the liberal churches - those who denied the Bible - who took the moral high ground in the Civil Rights Movement, while Bible-believers supported racism. What a tragedy it will be if a similar situation occurs over the endorsement of waterboarding by evangelicals. Against this possibility, let me offer three arguments for the Christian rejection of waterboarding and other forms of torture:

  1. The torture of non-combatants violates God's Sixth Commandment, "You shall not murder" (Ex. 20:13). As Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, this commandment extends beyond murder to doing or even wishing harm against another (Mt. 5:21-22). Killing or harming armed soldiers is not murder, since the Bible commends just war. But torture inflicts terrible suffering on those who no longer pose a threat as a combatant. Whether or not it is true that "torture works" (and many legitimate sources have questioned this), the reality is that torture is a grossly immoral assault on divine image-bearers who no longer pose an armed threat.
  1. The use of torture undermines the moral basis for just war. America has traditionally waged war for the sake of a better peace. Yet torture inspires anger and hatred for generations. America has traditionally understood that behind the military conflict is a battle for hearts and minds. But how can we fight terror - which is rooted in hatred - when we are torturing the fathers, sons, and brothers of an already hate-filled enemy? The reality is that how we treat prisoners of war is directly related to the justice of our cause in war. And the justice of our cause in war is always a matter of strategic as well as moral significance.
  2. The sanction of torture betrays the military's moral obligation for the ethical development of our soldiers. Do senior officers no longer have a moral duty for the character formation of their troops? Do we consider what it must be like for our soldiers to be trained and commanded to perform these heinous acts of torture, as if they are not themselves victims of these savage acts? What horrors will we unleash on our civilian society when military torturers are returned to their families and neighborhoods?
The debate concerning waterboarding and other forms of torture comes down to the question, "Do the ends justify the means?" During the Vietnam War, our enemies answered in the positive, torturing American prisoners and gaining a bitter animosity that continues today. If America adopts the principle that the ends justify the means, how many other evils will find support not only by society but by Christians? To this end, waterboarding truly is a watershed issue that tests the integrity of our commitment to a culture of life and our fidelity to the ethics of God's Word.