...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Torture, pt 1

In the boardgame Cranium, each move involves responding to one of 4 different card sets. The "Data Head" and "Word Worm" sets require you to answer trivia questions and word-related items (like spelling a word backwards), respectively, while the "Star Performer" and "Creative Cat" involve variations of charades and pictionary, among others. I played Cranium with my former youth group once and we happened upon the Word Worm card that asks for the definition of "tortuous", giving three or four possible definitions. One was something like "twisty or winding" and another was "painful or difficult". The kids chose the latter definition, clearly confusing "tortuous" with "torturous", which is easy to do. I confess that I was thinking of that answer when the question was read. I never really thought much of that similarity until some blogs I've recently come across started discussing torture.

The first was Thom Stark's blog post A Free Iraq, which apparently offended a friend of his. He followed up with an update addressing his friend's views and was then subsequently invited to post a response to Death and the Maiden's question "What is torture and is it necessarily immoral?" Thom did respond, and so have several others (here and here), including one response by a professor who has studied aggression. To those who have not seen any of this, I'd highly recommend giving it a read - at the very least these are interesting and challenging perspectives, particularly to those Christians that believe torture may be morally permissible. Its after reading and pondering all of this that I've come to see how tortuous a logical path a Christians must follow in order to support torturous acts (bet you were wondering how I'd draw that together).

A second confession I need to make is that, in brutal honesty, I was not all that surprised or outraged when the Abu Ghraib abuses first came to light. Don't get me wrong, I thought it was despicable, juvenile and unbecoming a US soldier, but at the same time, perfectly in step with what I had experienced as a soldier on deployment. I was never even in an active war zone (though there were some threats, mostly from old land mines) but the stress of long days, separation from family, culture shock, the inevitable crap the military seems to foist on the junior enlisted and the sheer audacity of the local nationals to think they had the right of way at an intersection when I was clearly armed to the teeth and driving a 5-ton armored vehicle, let's just say it adds up. Now clearly, the last bit of that is facetious, but there's an underlying reality to it. The soldier is on a mission, a mission that has been given priority by command and the weight of official sanction, and it comes from the only people around you that look like you, speak the same language and long for the same home. In a soldier's mind the mission is paramount, like it or not, whether they believe in it or not. They've got a job to do and they're going to do it. But locals do not understand that mission and prioritize the living of their own lives, be that simple survival or going through the myriad social & economic tasks that define anyone's daily life. So they get in the way and become resentful of the intrusion of the soldier's mission into their life. And maybe they start resisting (violently or otherwise), which cannot help but raise the soldier's stress and start them resenting the people they thought they were there to help, which is what I found myself doing on many occasions. Its a series of short steps from standing menacingly with an assault rifle to intimidate possible enemies, to pointing it menacingly, to moving aggressively, to pushing, shoving, hitting all in the name of security. Starting down that path does not inevitably lead to torture, but its a healthy head start. So just based on my own experience in Bosnia, I was not surprised that soldiers would inflict this kind of juvenile aggression on prisoners.

The reason I wasn't outraged, though, had nothing to do with the soldier's experience and everything to do with the victim's. I've related some details of this in the past on this blog, but in Bosnia I was both privileged and damned to participate in the discovery of new evidence regarding previously unreported war crimes. The details of those events are not relevant to this post, though it is quite a story. The details of those war crimes, however, bear directly on my response to Abu Ghraib. Some of the documents we procured described in horrific detail the pointless and wanton torture of Croat and Muslims in a specific region in Bosnia. I say pointless and wanton because the torturers were not seeking any information whatsoever from their victims; they made them suffer for the sheer sport of it. I held in my hands accounts of men & women having their noses and ears cut off, their eyes gouged out, and their arms & legs broken before being driven out to a nearby river where they were shot and left to drown if they didn't bleed to death first. In light of that suffering, being forced to lay naked on the floor with some other men didn't seem all that bad. I bet, given a choice, any of those Croatians or Bosnian Muslims would have chosen Lyndsey England any day of the week.

As with many of the painful things I experienced in Bosnia, I tend to put these horrifying images of torture out of mind. I prefer not to think about it and to avoid those things that remind me of my time there. Which is why reading and writing about torture is actually fairly difficult for me. But, as with the public avowal of my commitment to nonviolence, it is time to start thinking & speaking clearly about those moral issues which impose themselves upon our era. Past eras have had to deal with slavery & freedom, religious liberty, women's rights and scientific advances that changed the landscape of the world. How we respond to terror, not only the terror of the jihadist or insurgent, but the officially sanctioned terror of the government, may well be our legacy to the future.


Thom Stark said...


I had no idea about your background. This is an incredible post, very important. I look forward to future installments.

Have you posted already on your conversion to nonviolence?

I will try to respond to your and Michael DeFazio's questions back on my blog when I can, but I'm about to get very busy for a few days.

The thing that strikes me about this post is how your experience in Bosnia almost desensitized you to Abu Ghraib. To be sure, the kind of torture you described in Bosnia is evil in a way the Abu Ghraib torture sessions couldn't touch, but doesn't that just highlight the graver, more subtle evil of the "lesser" torture? The Bosnian torture is forthright, but the Abu Ghraib torture cloaks itself under the rubric of the lesser evil. Maiden posted on just that question here.

Nathan said...

Thom -

I posted a little bit about it here, but have not done so extensively. I'll try to remedy that in the near future.

Bosnia absolutely desensitized me to the "lesser" forms of torture that have been revealed in the last few years (although I must admit water-boarding sounds awful), though I'm not sure people actually regard it as a "lesser evil." That may be the language they use, or "necessary evil", but the use of the practice shows that they do not regard it as evil at all. Unfortunate, unpleasant, best avoided if possible - but you could say the same about having to vomit or serve on jury duty. People don't see it as evil at all and that is precisely the problem, as I'm sure you know.

Thom Stark said...

Hey, Nathan.

Sorry for the late reply. You are absolutely right about the "lesser evil" logic. When something is dubbed a "lesser evil" it is often so named only to mask the fact that it is treated as a good.

Bonhoeffer believed in the necessity of lesser evils. He attempted to do so without damaging the grammar of "evil." I think he ultimately failed but he came the closest to taking the lesser evil seriously as an evil.

Yet the majority of those who speak of "lesser evils" do so in the spirit of a Winston Churchill, who could order the carpet bombing of German cities because "this is war and war is hell." Of course the reason for fighting was said to be unconditionally good, and thus, at least functionally, you have a morality on two different planes, veritably a utopianism. The dirty deeds are done in the name of the free society, but they are not seen to stand in contradiction to the free society. They are what is necessary for the maintenance or the birth of the free society, and thus they are only "dirty deeds" if they are looked at as plain facts. One must have a vision of the free society before one can see them for what they "really" are -- unseemly and easily misunderstood good deeds.

P.S. It took me a while, but I finally responded to your and Michael's questions on the "Torture & Eucharist" post. Thanks for pushing me, and I hope you can help me further to tease out the right approach.

Grace and peace.