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SBC’s Land: ‘Waterboarding’ never ethical

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–There is no room for torture as part of the United States’ intelligence gathering process, in Richard Land’s view. The practice known as “waterboarding” is torture, he said.

Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said there is no circumstance in which torture should be permissible in interrogations by U.S. officials, even if the authorities believe a prisoner has information that might involve national security.

Land’s position puts him among a minority of Americans according to a new Pew Research Center poll. Only a quarter (25 percent) of those surveyed said the use of torture “can never be justified” against suspected terrorists.

Nearly half of the sample (49 percent) agreed that torture is often or sometimes justified.

“I don’t agree with the belief that we should use any means necessary to extract information,” Land said in an interview with Religion News Service and Baptist Press May 4. “I believe there are absolutes. There are things we must never do under any circumstances.”

Furthermore, Land said, if he could not in good conscience “waterboard” someone, he would not — if he were a public official — have the right to authorize someone else to do it.

“For me the ultimate test is this: Could I in good conscience do whatever I am authorizing or condoning others to do? If not, then I must oppose the action,” Land said. “If I could not waterboard someone — and I couldn’t — then I must oppose its practice.”

Land said he considers waterboarding torture because included in the definition of torture is whether a procedure causes permanent physical harm, noting he is unable to “separate physical from psychological harm” in this instance. The practice contravenes an individual’s personhood and their humanity, he said.

“It violates everything we believe in as a country,” Land said, noting the Declaration of Independence says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In waterboarding, the captive is immobilized with his head inclined downward. Water is poured over the subject’s face and into their breathing passages, simulating drowning and near-asphyxiation.

While the term “waterboarding” is of rather recent origin, history is replete with examples of similar types of “water” treatment used to extract information from unwilling captives.

“I can’t imagine that being repeatedly subjected to the feeling of drowning would not in some cases cause lasting psychological trauma,” he said.

Land said that while he “appreciates the concerns and lengths to which the Bush administration went in limiting the use of any enhanced interrogation techniques,” the administration went too far in allowing waterboarding.

There is a distinction between an enhanced interrogation technique and torture, Land said, admitting for some it may be a “fuzzy line.”

“The line will be drawn differently for different people,” Land said, acknowledging he is not an expert on exactly what constitutes torture. He likened the effort to define torture to what the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart struggled with in defining pornography.

Land recounted that in the 1964 case, Jacobellis v. Ohio, Stewart wrote in his concurring opinion, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be [hardcore pornography] … But I know it when I see it….”

“I know the difference between an enhanced interrogation technique and torture when I hear them described,” Land said.

Land said the assertion that a procedure such as waterboarding is permissible, given the potential to save innocent lives, relies on faulty ethical reasoning: utilitarianism. “That is ‘the end justifies the means’ argument,” he explained, adding, “That is a very slippery slope to dark and dangerous places.

Waterboarding “goes beyond the line for me,” Land said, indicating he understands there are those who believe it is not.

“I understand mine is not the only position one can take on this,” Land said, “but it is the one I take.”

Land said that while Khalid Sheikh Mohammed deserves to be executed if found guilty of his alleged mastermind role in the Sept, 11, 2001, attacks on America, he should not have been waterboarded, “even if it did save thousands of lives.” According the media accounts about a 2007 Red Cross report, Mohammed underwent a total of five sessions of “ill-treatment.”

Likewise, Land said, “I could not support capital punishment if I were not willing to personally administer the lethal injection to a person convicted of a capital crime.”

News accounts revealed that senior Al Qaeda members Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri also were subjected to the waterboarding technique.

Land said there is a difference between many procedures known as advanced interrogation techniques and torture. He said he could “slap someone across the face with an open hand to extract information that would save lives,” saying that is not torture. He said making someone stand for an extended period of time, depriving someone of sleep or forcing someone to remain in an extremely cold room, practices included among those called advanced interrogation techniques, were not torture.

Torture is anything beyond temporary discomfort or pain, Land said. The risk of permanent damage is a “good guideline,” he continued, noting it is not a “hard and fast goal.”

Land said he could not strike someone with a closed fist or beat them even if he believed the individual was harboring information that might possibly save thousands of lives. “I could not do it, thus I cannot condone others doing it,” he said.

The Pew Research Center study, conducted in late April, revealed that support for torture in some circumstances was higher among white evangelical Protestants than the population at large. More than six in 10 (64 percent) individuals in this demographic said torture was often or sometimes justified in the interrogation of suspected terrorists. That compares with 49 percent support among all those polled.

A poll of Southern evangelicals, released last September (Sept. 11, 2008), indicated their support for torture in some cases involving possible terrorist suspects was softer, with 57 percent saying torture could often or sometimes be justified. The poll was commissioned by an organization named Faith in Public Life and by Mercer University.

Land said he expects many Southern Baptists will disagree with his stance on waterboarding, although the SBC is formally on record as opposing torture. “I am speaking to Southern Baptists on this issue, not for them,” he said. “I am speaking only for this Southern Baptist.”

In 1977, the convention adopted a resolution condemning “any use of torture as a sin against God and a crime against humanity” and affirming that “torture demonstrates the very opposite of love and violates the will of God revealed in Jesus Christ.”

Land sharply disagreed with the Obama administration’s decision to release Bush administration memos from 2002-05 involving a legal review by the Bush Justice Department that approved the use of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques.

President Obama made a “horrible mistake” in releasing the memos, Land said, noting the president claimed he wanted to move forward and not look back. Land also faulted Obama for not releasing similar memos that argue that these advanced interrogation techniques produced results.

“Why the selective release of classified memos? Where is the transparency or consistency in a selective release of these documents?” Land asked.

“If [the release of the memos] were to lead to trials of some sort, it would rip the country apart domestically,” Land warned.

Obama banned the waterboarding procedure soon after taking office.

Land recalled the motion picture, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” in which German government officials were on trial for their complicity during the Nazi reign. He said these officials were seduced by “the end justifies the means” argument and that during the trial the American judges were being pressured to go light on the Nazi-era officials in hopes of maintaining goodwill among the German people as Russia was threatening war.

Land said a character (Judge Haywood) played by Spencer Tracey in the 1961 film rejected the arguments of those who argued that the Allies needed German support against the Soviets, so their former leaders should be given lighter sentences.

In the film, Haywood replied: “A country isn’t a rock. And it isn’t an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for, when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world — let it now be noted in our decision here that this is what we stand for: justice, truth and the value of a single human being!” Land said in quoting from the film.

“I believed that when I was 15, when I first saw the movie, and I still believe that America is different,” Land said. “We hold ourselves to a different standard,” he said. “Each human being is of incalculable value.

“There are some things you should never do to another human being,” Land said, “no matter how horrific the things they have done.

“If you do so, you demean yourself down to their level,” he said.

Civilized countries should err on the side of caution, Land said. “It does cost us something to play by different rules than our enemies, but it would cost us far more if we played by their rules,” he said.
Dwayne Hastings is a vice president with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commisssion.

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