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Tortured Theology

Abu GhraibIf Catholics for a Free Choice put out a T-shirt with Leonardo’s Last Supper on it reading, “This is MY BODY: Support Choice!” Christians would very rightly regard it as sacrilege.

But when Sarah Palin ginned up the (largely “pro-life” Christian) troops at a recent NRA rally with calls for torture, neatly wrapped in a linkage to the sacrament of baptism . . .

She also derided those who she said place an emphasis on political correctness in handling the country’s adversaries “instead of putting the fear of God in our enemies.”

She said later in her address that if “I were in charge”—a line that drew applause from the crowd—“they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”

. . . a great many conservative Catholics and other Christians had no problem cheering for this repulsive confection of mortal sin and blasphemy.

To be sure, her remarks drew fire from a number of pundits in the conservative blogosphere. Voices such as Rod Dreher, Joe Carter, Mollie Hemingway, and Patrick Brennan spoke out against what Brennan succinctly called Palin’s “barbarism.”

However, such voices are a distinct minority among postmodern “conservatives.” There’s a reason Palin’s unerring lowest-common-denominator populist instincts knew that line would get a roar of approval from her audience: research clearly shows that the more someone self-identifies as a “pro-life” and “devout” Catholic or Evangelical, the more surely they will applaud the use of torture in war.

And so while a few small voices in the blogosphere made noise, the real response of the postmodern “conservative” culture was seen in the millions Sean Hannity represents and in the comboxes of the pro-Palin bloggers that swelled up and burst with cheers for torture.

Hannity—fresh from championing a guy who, had he been a Muslim, would have fit precisely Palin’s definition of a terrorist (hiding behind women and children human shields and mustering a private army against his country because he lost a court case)—threw red meat to Palin’s huge audience of “pro-life” Christians by saying of her calls for torture, “That’s how America rolls.” And just to make sure he was not misinterpreted, good Catholic Hannity likewise committed sacrilege by noting: “I think I’d baptize them [terrorists] again and again and again.”

The visceral, prerational appeal here is not hard to grasp. It boils down to Palin’s primitive moral calculus: “Would I take decisive action to stop terrorists who given the chance would annihilate America and delight in massacring our children? Darn right! I’d do whatever it takes to foil their murderous jihadist plots—including waterboarding.” The appeal here is entirely to the gut and not to the mind. It is a kind of “shut your eyes and just lunge” rhetoric that is heedless of the disastrous consequences that even a few moments’ thought can easily foresee.

“Whatever it takes” means, for fallen man, much more than waterboarding and applies to many more than terrorists. Regimes that embrace “whatever it takes” ethics tend also to torture innocents and commit other kinds of war crimes. The dilemma, of course, is that the reason you torture somebody is that you don’t know what they know, and for all you know the victim will turn out to know nothing, as was the case with cabbie Dilawar. So you torture (and kill) an innocent person as often as not. Regimes that get in the habit of this don’t stop torturing. They stop admitting that the victim of torture was innocent, as Maher Arar can testify. Moreover, it soon occurs to torture regimes that you can more easily manipulate your victim if you torture, not him, but his family members, including his children. Not long after that, such regimes recognize that if they can do it to foreign threats, they can do it to domestic ones, including citizens. One would think that the champions of Cliven Bundy and his militia band in Nevada would reflect on the very real possibility that they might get a lot more than they bargain for in their calls to torture terrorists. After all, Obama is still outsourcing torture and has made it clear that he arrogates to himself the power to indefinitely detain and even murder anybody on earth, American citizen or not, he deems to be a national security threat. And if the victim turns out to be innocent, Obama simply declares him to be a terrorist after the fact. All it would take would be a serious bloodbath from a trigger-happy militia group or a Timothy McVeigh, and people like Bundy, Palin, Hannity, and their supporters might find that the state deems them to be worthy of torture—a thought that never seems to cross their minds.

Torture (which, yeah, includes waterboarding, as the Japanese we executed for it can attest) is what the Church calls “gravely and intrinsically evil,” just like abortion. That is, it can never under any circumstances be justified, not only because it is an assault on the human dignity of the victim, but also because it is an assault on the human dignity of the torturer and his supporters.

The evidence of this is seen in the way that apologetics for torture degrades the apologist. Ten years ago, people like Charles Krauthammer insisted that torture was only a last resort in a desperate situation: the Ticking Time Bomb Fantasy so beloved by fans of 24. Now Palin has corrupted the conversation to the point that torture should be a first resort, used to “put the fear of God” into our enemies.

And, as a final mark of corruption, Palin then couples this with baptism, turning a sacrament by which God gives life and love to sinners into an instrument of torture—to the thunderous applause of Christians. It is every bit as sacrilegious as linking the Eucharist to abortion, and it is a peculiarly dark and sinister thing that Christians who make a special boast of being “devout” should so darken their humanity as to defend this ugly baptism-torture link.

Such sacrilege demonstrates that, in addition to being evil, torture and the defenses of it also darken the intellect. For what goes completely unexamined in this primitive celebration of the salvific power of violence is the question of whether torture even achieves its alleged goal. Palin accuses her critics of being “wusses” who want the terrorists to win and our troops to die. But she never undertakes the elementary act of finding out what our troops think.

When you do, you discover that actual Army interrogators loathe the zeal for torture by Know Nothing civilians and politicians who get all their information from TV. That’s because it yields lousy intel that sends law enforcement on wild goose chases because the victims say anything to make the torture stop. It reduces, not enhances, national security. It also renders real criminals immune from conviction because evidence obtained under torture is inadmissible. It is what Communists, not Americans, do. And it places our troops in grave danger because it is they who will be subject to rape and torture themselves if captured, and it is they will be left to hang for carrying out the orders of politicians like Palin who command them to torture. There’s a reason the Army Field Manual forbids it.

And last but certainly not least, it places Christians who cheer for this filth and use sacrilege to do it in danger of losing their souls, for they, of all people, ought to know better. That’s why Pope Benedict XVI said, “The prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstances.” Period. That’s it. That’s all. Torture is not a courageous virtue. It is not even a “necessary evil.” It is an unnecessary evil that fulfils the Screwtapean dream of losing your soul and getting nothing in return.

The simple reality is this: our generation, with its characteristic narcissism, imagines that evil entered the world on 9/11 and that the Just War teaching of the Church has somehow become null and void because we allegedly face An Enemy Like No Other. News flash: somehow our parents and grandparents managed to defeat the monstrous Axis Powers while not embracing torture as policy to do it, nor committing sacrilege to justify it. Christians are called to lead and transform the culture, not be led and transformed by it. We must do better than be known as the single largest demographic in American culture in favor of war crimes. And conservatives must never lose sight of exactly what it is they are trying to conserve, or we will all become what we say we hate.

Mark Shea is a popular blogger at the Patheos Catholic Channel and the author of several books, including By What Authority? and Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes, and a Joyful Life.



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