Provocative Questions Christians Need to Ask About the CIA Torture Report

The Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence recently released their “CIA Torture Report”.  The report immediately caused intense debate.  In this article I will use the term “torture” to refer to the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques described by the report.   I do this because I believe that the word “enhanced” is more readily associated with the marketing of cosmetics, rather than the chaining, nudity, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding to which it actually refers.  The term “EIT” is chillingly Orwellian.  And many Christians, even from the conservative Gospel Coalition, have made powerful arguments that waterboarding, at least, is torture.

But the so-called “Torture Report” never actually uses the term “torture.”  I reluctantly applaud the restraint of this move, as I imagine it was done to give more bi-partisan credibility to the report.  Unfortunately, the report was not compiled by a bi-partisan group.  Republicans left a long time ago and Democrats went on without them.  This is worth reflecting on in and of itself, as the Republican departure from the project (the investigation began in March 2009 and the Republicans bowed out by September 2009) is yet another sad testimony to the state of our current political divide.  I am sure that both sides are to blame - the Democrats for not making the proper efforts to retain their Republican colleagues; the Republicans for not having the political courage to take on this controversy. 

You might think that this would discredit the report.  But it has not.  If you look closely, the arguments defending the CIA are concentrated on the substance of the report, not on the process itself.  In fact, I have found almost no one who has contradicted the basic facts of the report.  That might sound ridiculous – of course many influential people have denounced the report!  Former Deputy Director John McLaughlin said that “Every charge in here is off-base.”  But he doesn’t mean “every” charge.  The CIA’s defenders have concentrated almost exclusively on delegitimizing the report’s conclusion that there was not enough vital information gathered to justify the torture. 

But no one denies that the CIA used these methods.  

The Arguments against the Report

It is enlightening to analyze a sample of the arguments defending the CIA.

In an interview before the report was released, President George W. Bush said,

“These are patriots and whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.”  

In other words, You are unpatriotic if you even question the interrogation methods of our CIA operatives.  His use of the phrase “whatever the report says,” is clearly an absurd exaggeration.  But in a sense he is right in that that the report barely tells us anything we didn’t already know.  The debates in this country over the past few years have mostly centered not on whether torture has happened, but whether it was worth it

Former CIA Director John McLaughlin.

Former CIA Director John McLaughlin.

McLaughlin summarizes the defense clearly in his response to the report.  “We may have made a few terrorists uncomfortable for a short period of time in order to get information that we felt was essential to protecting the United States.”   

Analyzing this statement is critical to why I think we should be appalled at the CIA’s interrogation methods. 

“…may…few…uncomfortable…short period of time…”  

This phrasing could just as accurately refer to the feeling you get when some sand gets stuck to your leg while you’re tanning on the beach.  So the first argument is, It’s not really all that bad.


Those we subject to this kind of interrogation are exclusively “terrorists”.  This may be one of the most dehumanizing words currently in use in our culture.  “Terrorists” is accurate to describe sets of people whose main purpose is to inspire terror in their enemies, but it is dehumanizing nonetheless.  Because terrorists often do horrible things we can convince ourselves they are not human or made in the image of God.  Therefore, the second argument is, They’re not human anyway – they've given up the right not to be tortured.

“…what we felt was essential to protect…” 

He challenges the listener to question the authority of the CIA.  And, he adds, it was for our protection.  We did this for you!  This argument is frequently used in an attempt to understate and justify things such as detainment, torture, and rendition (the use of interrogation sites in other countries to intentionally avoid the legal restrictions and ethical standards of the United States).  Do you really want to doubt what we “felt” was right?  The problem is that this amounts to asking for an unlimited amount of trust.  Christians are called to honor their government, but our unfailing trust (the Bible calls this “fear”) is for God alone.  The third argument is, We are defending you.  You may not question the work that keeps you safe.

“…to get information…”  

This, as I said, is the heart of the argument.  So it should come as no surprise that the report aggressively responds to whether the information gathered was of the nature and quality that the CIA claims.  Was it worth it?  Could the ends have been achieved without these methods?  All defense of torture must come back to these questions.  It must because so few people believe that these methods are ethically acceptable, unless there is a tangible benefit.  In our time, it is the quintessential example of the end justifying the means.  So, does it?  Many horrible things happen in war.  But even the greatest of ends do not always justify the means.  This principle is at the heart of the entire just war theory.  The theory’s power lies in its commitment to balance and proportionality throughout every stage of conflict. 

These are the most common, and best, arguments in favor of the use of torture.  Should a Christian be compelled by that?  Is it worth it?

A Christian Response

Christians should ask new, more provocative questions.  What would a Christian be willing to do for their country?  What should Christians be willing to have their country do for them?  If it were to aid in the protection of Americans, could a Christian rightfully strip, punch, and virtually drown another human being?  I don't believe a Christian can sustain the Orwellian, utilitarian, and nationalistic arguments that are made to justify these methods.  To take that kind of violence into our hands is deeply troubling.  It diminishes the image of God in the Other and inflates our own power.  In his book The World Is Not Ours to Save, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson says,

Heroes are often distorted figures whose outsized commitment to making something happen carries a cost paid by someone or something else – family, community, conscience and so on.  Christians are not free to make such sacrifices.  There is nothing God needs us to do so badly that it warrants neglecting some aspect of Christlikeness in our lives.  It is in and through Jesus Christ, and him alone, that God has saved and is saving the world. 

The question “Is it worth it?” is not a bad question, but it is not the only question.  When Christians think about the ethics of national defense we also have to ask the timeless question, Do we trust in Christ and believe that Christ alone saves the world?

 -Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.