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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The Prayers of Doha Siel

After the start of the war in Iraq I was invited to provide faith-based commentary on the war for my KQED FM, my local NPR affiliate. The essay below is commentary I submitted. The piece was never used on air, and is published for the first time here.

“The Prayers of Doha Siel”
A Perspective by Ben Daniel

Since the early days of this war I have been haunted by the image of Doha Siel lying in a Baghdad hospital with a piece of shrapnel embedded in her spine.  She was among the first to be wounded in the war, and she’s not a soldier, not a politico, not a terrorist, not even an adult who may have earned some bad karma. Doha Siel is a five-year-old girl who was unlucky enough to be caught near an exploding American bomb. Continue reading

A Refugee Proposal

This column was the featured commentary on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on October 22, 2007
At a recent gathering of fellow Presbyterians I learned that foster parents for unaccompanied minor refugees are in very short supply in the San Francisco Bay Area. These are kids under the age of eighteen who have been separated from their families by the chaos of war, and the county where I live–Santa Clara County in California–is among the few places in the United States where such refugee children are being resettled.

My wife and I currently are being trained in the art of foster parenting for a refugee child, and folks tell us we’re crazy, but bringing such a young person into our home seems like a good thing for us to do. Continue reading

In Memory of a Genocide

This column was the featured commentary on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on October 15, 2007.

Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:32)

When Pearl Aslanian was five, ethnically Turkish Ottoman soldiers entered her village. She watched as they killed her father, and, as the family escaped on foot to Amman, Jordan, she helped her mother bury a younger brother on the banks of the Tigris River.

In March of 2006 I officiated at the Pearl’s funeral and, at the risk of becoming persona non grata in Turkey, I consider it a great honor to have presided at the graveside of someone who was among the last humans able to remember the Turkish genocide of Armenians during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.
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The Sanctity of Words

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality website on May 14, 2007.
Last week the FBI uncovered a plot involving a handful of roofers and pizza deliverers from suburban Philadelphia who, according to the allegations, were planning an attack on the United States Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

If the government’s case against the would-be militants sticks, it will be a fine example of what actually keeps Americans safe in the post-nine eleven world. It was not the invasion and occupation of Iraq but the sleuthing of gumshoes in the Garden State which thwarted the evil machinations of this small, violent anti-American cell. Score one for the good guys. Continue reading

Justin’s Bones

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on January 8, 2007

“My God, is there any sin worse than indifference?”–from Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen

Last month, while hiking in the woods along Big River, near my hometown of Mendocino on California’s North Coast, my ten-year-old nephew Justin found the skeletal remains of a young man who had been missing for twenty seven years. Continue reading