Monday, September 25, 2006

Torture: What Would Jesus Do?

I've been hearing a lot of talk that the recent capitulation on American torture policy has demoralized many in the Democratic rank and file. And understandably so; the Bush administration is plunging the nation into the moral abyss, and it seems that not only is there nothing we can do to stop them, but the people who are supposed to be fighting for us are self-evidently incompetent.

I think they're mistaken. Republicans, in their hubris, have just handed progressives a valuable gift, an opportunity to win hearts and minds beyond anything they've done in the past decade. Progressives just need to be smart enough to grab it.

The baseline problem with torture, after all, is that it is prima facie immoral, a violation not just of the Golden Rule and basic Christian precepts, but of nearly any system of ethics. Even the most hard-nosed rationalist will come to this conclusion (see, e.g., Kant's Categorical Imperative). It's an obvious one if you're a Christian.

All you have to present to any Christian, when it comes to torture, is their own favorite moral-guidepost aphorism: What Would Jesus Do?

To anyone familiar not just with Jesus' teachings but the story of his martyrdom -- including his torture at the hands of authorities -- the answer is crystal clear.

I just got done watching Michael Shea's remarkable documentary Red State (more about it soon) and was struck, once again (as was Shea) by the way rural voters sometimes talk like liberals about their real lives but, when it comes time to vote, they vote Republican, because they believe the GOP reflects their values.

These are the "Values Voters" that the conservative movement likes to claim as their own, of course. But in their arrogance, they have finally demonstrated in stark terms just how far afield from genuine heartland values -- especially those regarding basic human decency, as a reflection of Christian morality -- they in reality are.

Republicans, of course, want it to be a question of toughness: Are we willing to do "what it takes" to defeat terrorists?

But torture is not "toughness." It is in fact a sign of weakness -- particularly the moral kind.

It is, in the end, a moral issue, and one drawn in stark black and white. As the late Joan Fitzpatrick put it: The torturer is the enemy of mankind.

Does America want to become known around the world as the nation that tortures? Does America, which likes to think of itself as the "beacon of democracy" around the world, want to instead become known as "the enemy of mankind"?

This is a question that can be put to any American, regardless of their faith.

But for the Christians out there -- including those who insist we are a "Christian nation" -- the question can be put in much simpler terms: Given the chance, would Jesus attach the electrodes and pull the switch? Would he waterboard? Would he dangle them in chains and beat their feet? Would he stand by and watch while others do it in his name?

Of course, there are plenty of "Jesus warrior" types who might resist, insisting that Christ would never relent in the face of the enemies of his faith. But their rationalizations cannot help but be convoluted and thin, a tangle of twisted words that obscure the moral clarity that Jesus himself conveyed through every word of his teachings.

If we become a nation of torturers, we will have truly lost our souls, not to mention any moral standing we might have in the eyes of the world. And Jesus himself would be the first to tell us so.

Progressives who understand this should not hesitate to bring it up. When a Rovian Republican tries to smear them as "soft on terror," it's time to shoot back and portray them, simply, as the amoral monsters they have become.

I understand that progressives are reluctant to appeal to people's sense of morality because such appeals have been so readily used and abused by right-wing ideologues who have built an entire movement out of wrapping themselves in moral values. We also know that it's just so much wrapping, that at the core of their agenda is a crudely amoral, dog-eat-dog social Darwinism, a Machiavellian manipulativeness aimed solely at acquiring power.

Torture is the kind of issue that lets us strip that false dressing away. If we do not understand that, and seize the opportunity to establish just whose values we truly represent, then we probably deserve to descend into the abyss with the rest.

POSTSCRIPT: I was on David Goldstein's radio show on KIRO-AM last night discussing the torture issue. You can listen to it here.

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