Torture and Public Morality

A note to my readers: At the end of last week I accepted an offer from Westminster John Knox, a division of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, to publish a book I am writing about immigration and the church. I’ve been working on the book for several months now (I expect to be just about half done with my first draft by the end of this week), which is why my blogging has been somewhat sporadic of late. But now that my book has a publisher I am officially setting aside my blog until the Fall, when I have promised my editor a completed manuscript. Look for my book in the Fall of 2010, and look for the return of my blog after the World Series, or maybe a little before that if the Giants’ offense doesn’t pick up soon.

The following column is an edited transcript of a talk I gave on June 27, 2009, in Palo Alto, CA. I gave the talk as part of a panel discussion looking at torture as a moral issue.

For several years now I’ve lived with a double-vocational identity. I am a Presbyterian minister and I am a writer of left-leaning, faith-based social and political commentary. Because of this identity my life can get compartmentalized in such a way that I think about certain issues as a writer and other issues as a pastor. This is how I started to think about torture.

When I found out that the United States was using waterboarding and other forms of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” in the execution of the so-called “war on terror”, my initial response was to address the issue as a writer of progressive political commentary. I wrote a couple of pieces for my regular UPI column and for my blog, but addressing the issue of torture as a writer proved problematic—and ultimately unsatisfying—because the torture issue was bringing out the liberal commentator in lots of folk, and I was having a hard time finding new, fresh, and creative things to say about torture, things that weren’t already being said better by others.

This was a good problem. People were challenging the idea that it is legal to use torture, they were debunking the idea that torture is a useful tool for gathering reliable information, and they were pointing out that torture does little to keep Americans safe. The fact that no one on Pennsylvania Avenue was listening didn’t change the fact that people were talking in great numbers, saying all the right things. It became apparent to me that the national dialogue on torture probably didn’t need another liberal, northern Californian, child of a granola-baking-Birkenstock-wearing-Stanford-educated-in-the-sixties mother to weigh in on the debate.
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