by Keith Pavlischek

Human Rights and Justice in an Age of Terror

An evangelical critique of An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture.

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War is a dreadful thing, and I can respect an honest pacifist, although I think he is entirely mistaken. What I cannot understand is this sort of semi-pacifism you get nowadays which gives people the idea that though you have to fight, you ought to do it with a long face and as if you were ashamed of it. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

When a religious scheme is shattered it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also, and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they are isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful … .(G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy)


In March 2007 a small group of evangelical academic theologians and activists released An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror, a document that was subsequently published in The Review of Faith and International Affairs, along with a commentary by David Gushee, the lead drafter. What follows is my own effort—as an evangelical, a political philosopher, and a recently retired intelligence officer in the United States Marine Corps with a long history of both scholarly and personal interest in these matters—to engage the issues they have raised. I hope that this response will give rise to further discussion and clarification of these vitally important matters, and help provide guidance for evangelicals who wish to speak coherently and responsibly on these and similar issues of public concern.

The first thing to note about the Declaration is that the title is a bit misleading, as it might give the impression that the document will focus on moral issues specifically related to the problem of torture. However, the Declaration itself confesses that it will address  "a broader discussion of policies related to the legal standards that would be employed in detaining, trying, transferring, or punishing suspected terrorists … ."(1.5) Indeed, Professor Gushee notes in his commentary, "How To Read the Declaration Against Torture," that "One might say that the agenda of the document … evolved from "ban torture" through "protect detainees" to end up with "protect the rule of law." (63)

The Declaration thus concludes with a set of broader and highly controversial issues other than torture. For example, the document criticizes the administration's policy decision to retain "questionable interrogation techniques," even those that would not be labeled torture, "among the options available to our intelligence agencies" (6.12); it labels "deeply lamentable" certain deficiencies in the Military Commission Act (2006) (6.14, 6.15). Moreover, the Declaration calls upon every agency of the U.S. government to adopt the Department of Defense's standards for interrogation found in the Army's interrogation manual. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the particular policy advice of the Declaration's conclusions, then, it cannot be fairly read as merely an attempt to delineate the range of morally and legally permissible interrogation techniques from those that are immoral and that ought to be illegal, or to demarcate a red line for techniques that constitute "torture" from those that are "questionable" or not-torture.

Indeed, shortly after release the Declaration was criticized for failing to define with any precision what constitutes torture, and I confess that I find it odd that a theological-moral teaching document on torture would fail to define the terms of the discussion. At the very least, one might have expected the Declaration to comment on the definition in the 1985 UN Convention on Torture, to which the United States is a signatory and to which it is bound by law, where torture is defined as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person."  If achieving civil disagreement (if I may paraphrase John Courtney Murray, who taught us that achieving disagreement was no small accomplishment) is to be an important objective of these sorts of declarations, that goal is more hindered than advanced by the refusal to carefully define the central term of the discussion. This failure will likely result in unfortunate polemics by those eager to equate opposition to the Declaration with support for torture.

More substantively, in failing to define torture with any degree of precision, the Declaration missed an opportunity to open a serious discussion of the moral permissibility of "enhanced interrogation techniques," or "moderate physical pressure" or what some critics pejoratively and prejudicially term "torture lite." The Declaration thus fails to address with any rigor what is perhaps the most serious real-life point of contention in detainee policy: whether it is morally permissible (and legally permissible for non-DOD personnel) to employ interrogation techniques on unlawful enemy combatants that otherwise would not be permissible to employ on lawful enemy combatants, or honorable captured soldiers held in POW status. I will address this and related issues in the final section of this essay.

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