Partisan or Prophetic?

I was disappointed, but not too surprised, to see lots of my Messianic Jewish and Christian online friends jump on the CIA-Republican bandwagon when the Senate Intelligence Committee released its December 9 report on CIA interrogation techniques. It was even more disappointing to see some of them take up the pragmatic argument—these methods are OK because ultimately they save lives.

It seems to me that we have to first address the moral issue before we argue whether the methods are effective—and moral issues never seem to prevail on the bandwagon. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote, “The Senate report overreaches in its claim that torture was ‘not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.’ Would that we could be so sure. It’s wiser to be agnostic about effectiveness, but clear about ethics.”

Right on target. The headlines speak of “CIA Torture.” Did the techniques in question cross the line into torture? If so, is torture ever acceptable, ever something to be sanctioned, however secretively, by a legitimate government?

Ironically, the argument against torture rests on the same biblical foundation as other positions that my conservative friends deeply hold—as do I. I’m thinking of support for the right to life and for traditional marriage. We don’t advocate for these causes just because of their beneficial influence on society (although they have that effect if they’re applied in a balanced and humane fashion), but because of the moral dimension, which depends on the biblical picture of humankind as created in God’s image.

This is precisely why laws that block same-sex marriage are being systematically struck down by the courts—they rest on a moral, and ultimately biblical, base that our society has foolishly decided to abandon. The kind of pragmatism that would justify torture (if that’s what the CIA was doing) would also ask how you can ban or stigmatize a relationship between two consenting adults that doesn’t hurt anyone else, or how you can define a tiny embryo within a woman’s very private body as a human creature with a right to life.

If we want laws to reflect the biblical definition of human identity and human worth in one case, we need to support the same in every case. A biblically-informed ethic trumps pragmatism. I don’t know whether David Ignatius believes in Scripture, but he gets it right again: “That’s why banning torture is a moral choice: Because in doing so, we may indeed lose useful information. That’s the risk we take in doing the right thing.”

If the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” constitute torture, we should know where to stand, regardless of the partisan divide on the issue. If we want to defend the Bible and follow Messiah Yeshua, we need to watch out for the snare of partisanship. Otherwise, we’ll just let our prophetic mantle slip off our shoulders.


7 thoughts on “Partisan or Prophetic?”

  1. Rabbi Russ,

    Though I appreciate your masterful ethical argument above in which we have much agreement. I will differ with you on your partisanship argument.

    For one you portray partisanship on this report as being only in one direction from the Republicans/CIA (which are not one group being that there are Democrat CIA personnel).

    Secondly, the report itself was delivered by a very partisan Senator Dianne Feinstein and included only investigation by Democrats. The report’s purpose was not ethics or truth-finding but partisan politics to publicly shame George Bush, Dick Cheney and the CIA (and even open them up to international criminal prosecution as the US Senate has declared them torturers). This clear partisan agenda on Feinstein’s part is being picked up by both Republicans and Democrats, CIA and non-CIA people that are criticizing the release of the report in it’s current form. This does not to even get into the lives of CIA and US Military personnel who are now endangered by this report.

    1. Shalom Yochanan,

      Just a quick reply. I’m not commenting on the partisanship of the political parties or other public policy actors (indeed, how can a party not be partisan?), but on believers who too readily take sides politically. One can oppose “enhanced interrogation” and still question the way the Senate Intelligence Committee handled this whole case. I did focus on those who seemed to automatically defend the CIA and its practices, but I’d also criticize those who toe the opposite party line. As Yeshua-believers we need to maintain a wider and deeper perspective on the affairs of the day.

  2. ‘There were a few exceptions to the partisan divide on Tuesday. One of them, Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), was a victim of torture himself, as a prisoner in Vietnam. He made an important point: Whether “enhanced interrogation” ever works is not the most important question.

    ‘”Torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use,” McCain said on the Senate floor on Tuesday. “This question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.

    ‘”We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them,” he said. “How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves, even momentarily.

    ‘”Our enemies act without conscience,” McCain said. “We must not.”‘

  3. If I had to choose between torturing a known mass murderer and terrorist to extract information that may allow for saving of hundreds of innocent lives that he was planning to extinguish, the lives of the innocent people will always come out ahead. Saving an innocent life trumps other considerations every time.

    However, there’s a greater danger here when showing mercy to the evildoers and choosing their welfare over that of their victims and that is danger to one’s moral compass. As midrash warns:

    “One who is merciful to those who are heartless will end up being heartless to those who are merciful.” (Midrash Zuta, Midrash Tanchuma, Yalkut Shimoni)

    1. Shalom Gene,

      My two main points were, first, that believers too quickly align along partisan lines on issues like this, and need to consider things on a deeper, more ethically rooted level. Before we discuss whether torture works we have to discuss whether it is ever permissible. My other main point is that the basis for opposing torture is moral, not pragmatic, and resembles the basis for opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. If we want moral considerations to prevail in those areas, we need to give them weight in the torture discussion–it can’t be simply pragmatic.

      I’ll assume you’re commenting after considering the ethical ramifications all around. I agree that it’s unethical to expose innocent people to risk, to leave them unprotected when you have the ability to protect. But you’re really presenting the most extreme example. If I had a known mass-murderer in custody, and he possessed information that could save hundreds of innocent lives that he was planning to extinguish, and if torture was the only way to get that information, and if it was sure to get the information needed to save lives . . . I guess it might be possible to set up a hypothetical situation in which one ethical imperative trumps another. (For instance it might be right to lie in some circumstances to save a life, like if you’re hiding an innocent person from a murderer and he asks if you’ve seen that person lately.) But that doesn’t make the action right as a matter of principle or policy.

      The article cited by Yochanan above on Torture and Jewish Law from Tablet mag deals with this issue. I say torture is wrong for the same reason abortion is wrong, because it desecrates the human as a divine image-bearer, and dishonors the creator. Might there be extreme situations that put that ethical value to the test? Yes, but that still doesn’t justify including torture as a matter of policy.

      One last point: We still need to consider a definition of torture, and be on guard against the blandishments of language. At what point do “enhanced interrogation techniques” become torture?

  4. Rabbi Russ, I give thanks to G-d for your insights.

    In my opinion, this is a wonderful expansion of the idea you give in Divine Reversal at the bottom of page 56 and top of page 57.

    “Are Yeshua’s instructions strictly personal—and therefore, compatible with participation in corrupt social and political systems—or do they have implications for those systems themselves? The answer is that individual transformation inevitably shapes our response to public policy. Yeshua doesn’t seem to call his followers to take over the system, or to even fix it, but to maintain a corrective prophetic stance toward it.”

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