The Nation's Pulse

Religious Fretting Over Waterboarding

So what if President Bush, like any chief magistrate of a nation, had a moral responsibility to protect his people.

By 11.19.10

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Former President George W. Bush has famously declared in his new memoir any lack of regret for waterboarding three al Qaeda killers in 9-11's immediate aftermath. He plausibly asserts that their waterboarding produced actionable intelligence saving lives from impending terror international attacks. Of course, all three al Qaeda operatives remain imprisoned and are reportedly in good health. Despite the passage of eight years, the waterboarding of three beastly mass murderers still excites selective outrage, especially on the Religious Left.

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), which includes a host of Mainline Protestant denominations, left-leaning, Catholic orders, liberal evangelicals, and the Islamic Society of North America, naturally is indignant. Responding to Bush's recollection, it wants a "comprehensive investigation of our nation's use of torture" and asks: "Should we as a nation hold accountable those who violated U.S. law and our most fundamental moral standards?" NRCAT presumably wants formal charges against President Bush.

Like most such religious groups, NRCAT's interest in "torture" is focused almost entirely on the U.S. and its aggressive interrogation of al Qaeda prisoners in the hair-raising months after 9-11. Ongoing and less ambiguous torture polices by various communist and Islamist regimes, widely practiced against political and religious dissidents rather than terrorists plotting murder, do not much interest NRCAT.

National Council of Churches (NCC) chief Michael Kinnamon, whose group belongs to NRCAT, even penned an aggrieved column in the Huffington Post contrasting President Bush's "claimed" Christian faith with his approval of "torture." Kinnamon helpfully quoted Jesus' Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," as an ostensible command against waterboarding. 

Personally, if I were so demonically possessed as to plot the vicious mass murder of innocents, I would much prefer to be waterboarded into revealing the scheme rather than some day stand before God responsible for such horror. But Kinnamon admits no moral complexity. And in typical fashion, like most of the Religious Left, which is essentially pacifist, he confuses Gospel commands for nonviolence by believers against personal enemies with the divinely ordained punitive obligations of civil states.

President Bush, like any chief magistrate of a nation, had a moral responsibility to protect his people, by force when necessary, against the depredations of foreign enemies. Christ's apostles specifically affirmed the state's divinely ordained vocation to "wield the sword" against evil doers. But the pacifist Religious Left shuns these Scriptures and instead insists that cheerfully turning the other cheek is the state's virtuous response to aggression and murder.

"Bush's prideful defense of torture in his new memoir, Decision Points, is utterly incomprehensible to me," Kinnamon tut-tuts, referring to the waterboarding recollection. "It's also unrecognizable to the fundamental values of this country, and of Bush's own professed Christian faith." The church official claims the admissions extracted from the three waterboarded terrorists saved no one and actually "cost the lives of both American soldiers and civilians." He offers no evidence for either assertion. And even if Kinnamon admitted their information had saved lives, would he then refrain from criticizing Bush? Almost certainly not. Confronted by the "sad and shameful moment" of a U.S. President having "acknowledged ordering torture," Kinnamon insists President Bush "has left us no choice" but to hold him "accountable" under "our own laws" against "torture." So like NRCAT, Kinnamon seems to want Bush prosecuted for waterboarding three conspiring al Qaeda killers eight years ago. 

Also writing for the Huffington Post, former National Association of Evangelicals lobbyist Richard Cizik, now working for the reputedly George Soros-supported New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, similarly excoriated Bush in an open letter to him. Cizik ominously asks: "Should we as a nation hold you personally accountable for violations of U.S. law and our most fundamental moral standards?" Evidently also hoping for a show trial of Bush, Cizik's answer is clearly YES!

Cizik asserts waterboarding is "unquestionably torture," more than a "mere dunk in the water," and intended to "scare the victim into a desperate condition where he would reveal critical information." For Cizik, of course, the "victim" is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al Qaeda plotter behind 9-11, the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that murdered over 200, the beheading of Daniel Pearl, and other grizzly crimes that Cizik, Kinnamon, and NRCAT prefer not to describe.

Evidently Cizik has been very embarrassed during his travels to North Africa and the Middle East, where "ordinary citizens, "with a "pained expression," purportedly have asked poor Cizik: "'Do you know that your government, allegedly a 'Christian country,' is conducting torture? You should be ashamed.'" Cizik does not mention whether he asked these offended North Africans and Middle Easterners about their own regimes' far more vigorous, ongoing and undisputed torture policies.

Largely uninterested in torture elsewhere, Cizik wants a "Commission on Inquiry" to really get to the bottom of "torture" in America. He scoldingly concludes: "Messrs. Bush and Cheney, you brought us to this place. Shame on you!"

Such scolding purists insist that all waterboarding is "torture" and therefore a grave crime whose perpetrators from the Bush Administration must be punished. Even if waterboarding does meet this definition, does the simulated drowning of three mass murdering terrorists eight years, all of whom are very much alive and well, rank as one of our century's great outrages, as critics seem to believe? How far back in history would their "Commission on Inquiry" go? Perhaps President Franklin Roosevelt's quick 1942 secret trial and execution of six Nazi saboteurs, who had yet even to commit their planned terrorism, should also be examined.

And in the interests of clarity, religious critics of waterboarding should directly articulate their seeming theology. Preferably thousands of innocents should die anguishing deaths before one terrorist must endure even a few moments of simulated drowning. Such clarity would help us understand their arguments better.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.