Archived Opinion

Is torture an aberration or a trend?

op frBy Doug Wingeier • Columnist

Based on actual events, the movie “The Railway Man” tells the story of how British soldiers captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in 1942 were taken in boxcars four days north through Malaya and Thailand and forced to work under inhuman conditions on a railway line along the River Kwai in Burma. The film contains graphic scenes of beatings and torture, including the infamous technique of waterboarding. Although the film ends with a moving scene of forgiveness and reconciliation between the British lieutenant and his erstwhile Japanese torturer, it still leaves the viewer pondering the question, “What possesses human beings to dehumanize and torture one another in such brutal ways?”

The sad fact is that throughout human history torture has been an all-too-common practice in war, criminal justice and relations between ethnic and even religious groups. It is practiced as a means of demonstrating power, vengeance, intimidation or coercion. It is used to break the spirit in order to extract submission, confession and information — even though these are often false and unreliable, uttered simply to stop the excruciating suffering.

Unfortunately, recently declassified documents have established beyond doubt that such torture has been routinely practiced in recent times by United States military and intelligence personnel during the so-called “war on terror,” authorized at the highest levels of our government. Such was first made known to us — and shocked the world — through release of explicit photos of the torture taking place in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which was soon confirmed by the low-level military personnel who carried it out. Brig. Gen. David Irvine, a former military intelligence officer who worked on The Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, has stated: “In our previous conflicts there have been brutal acts against captives ... but there is no evidence that ever before has there been the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001, directly involving a president and his top advisers, on the wisdom, propriety, and legality of inflicting pain and torment on certain prisoners in our custody.”

 This suggests a disturbing shift in our national culture and values that bears close examination. If we wish to make this an aberration rather than a trend, it can be instructive to ask: “What prevented us through the first 200 years of our history from stooping to this sort of cruelty against our enemies on a regular basis?” And the corollary: “How can we keep this from happening again — and again?”

 In a recent article in Sojourners magazine, Professor David Gushee offers the following clues:

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• The prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

• The high standard of military discipline, honor and accountability originally set by George Washington.

• Reaction against British despotism in Revolutionary times that has informed our founding narrative.

• U.S. participation in the founding of the United Nations and development of international law and the Geneva Conventions, which can motivate us to lead by example.

• The pride we take in being “a city set on a hill” and “a light unto the nations.”

• The checks and balances built into our system, based on a realistic recognition of the depths to which human behavior — and our own fallibility — can fall.

• A free press and a civil society taking responsibility to call for accountability and reform.

• High professional standards of medical and legal ethics, integrity and independent judgment that can motivate medical and legal professionals to refuse to participate in or condone abuse and brutality.

• Religious traditions that emphasize human dignity, human rights and solidarity with the whole human community.

 I would add to these the innate respect for human life and revulsion against killing other human beings that is documented by the research on soldiers reported in the book, On Killing, by U.S. Army psychologist Lt. Col. David Grossman.

 The 9/11 attacks led to a weakening or disregard of these principles, motivated by fear, the need for security, and the misguided notion that leadership and courage are best shown by “acting tough” rather than being ethical and principled. Unfortunately, since then the blame has been laid to “a few bad apples” while the top government and military officials who authorized these acts of torture have not been called to account or prosecuted for human rights violations and crimes against humanity which they approved, as they deserve to be. And presumably, the military culture and training that dehumanizes other human beings and desensitizes men and women to human pain and suffering still goes on. The result is the high incidence of post-tramatic stress disorder and “moral sickness” — and resulting domestic abuse, drug addiction, homelessness and suicide among our veterans.

 It is time we return to the above-named ideals on which our nation was founded, recover our heritage of resistance to torture, hold accountable any and all who train for, practice or condone it — and thereby re-ignite the “light unto the nations” that has grown all-too dim. The acknowledgement of guilt, rejection of revenge, willingness to forgive, and recognition of the common humanity between former enemies that is depicted at the close of “The Railway Man” is a good place to start. 

(Doug Wingeier is a retired Methodist minister and theology professor. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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