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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Waterboarding and the Bush Administration’s Relative Morality

This column ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on February 11, 2008.

You may have missed it because you were paying attention to election returns on Super Tuesday, but on the same day that the GOP made a former POW its presumptive presidential nominee, the director of the CIA admitted to the United States Senate that members of the intelligence community had engaged in waterboarding while interrogating prisoners suspected of being linked to Al Qaida. Continue reading

Torture is Sin: My Speech in Front of Jeppesen

On Friday, November 16, I spoke at a rally in front of a building in downtown San Jose, California in front of the offices of Jeppesen International, a flight planning company that reportedly is in charge of organizing the flights used by the CIA to move terror suspects to countries where they are tortured. The text of my speech is below. This speech was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on Nov. 19, 2007.

Before I get started I have to say to you that my remarks contain a lot of old fashioned religious language. You see, for me it is painful to be standing here, in the city that has become my home, talking about how my government has chosen to use torture against real and perceived enemies, and about how so few of our elected leaders—both locally and nationally—have had the courage to join us in speaking out against the use of torture. My path to understanding what I feel about torture has taken me back to a religious place I seldom visit.

Ever since the New Yorker broke the story of Jeppesen International’s alleged involvement in the rendition of American-held detainees to countries where they might be tortured, I have been convinced that people of faith cannot talk about the American use of torture in the so-called “War on Terror” until we reclaim the language of morality and sin. Continue reading

Tintin and the Moral World of Hergé

This column was published on June 4, 2007 on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality forum.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007 was a day that came and went without too much incident nearly two weeks ago. This much I remember: I took my son to work with me so that my wife could recover from a minor bit of outpatient surgery and I had a relatively productive day despite the fact that my son is just a month shy of his second birthday and likes to climb bookshelves.

I wish I had known that May 22 of this year was the centennial anniversary of the author who, more than any other, has shaped my moral character.

Georges Remi, the son of a children’s clothier, was born a hundred years ago in Belgium. He began his literary career working for a fascist magazine where, under the nom de plume Hergé, he introduced the world to my childhood hero—OK, I should be honest here: he’s still my hero—Tintin. Continue reading