This past Tuesday evening, the Council co-sponsored an event on the topic “Coming to Terms with Torture: Truth, Accountability, and Renunciation” at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. The primary speaker was Dr. David Gushee, Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Dr. Christina Cowger of North Carolina Stop Torture Now and the Rev. Dr. Luke Powery, Dean of Duke Chapel, also spoke.
This program was scheduled to coincide with Torture Awareness Month in June and sought to bring back into public discourse the very troubling issue of state-sanctioned torture. In his remarks, Dr. Gushee pointed out that this issue has largely fallen off of the national radar recently, and public polling shows that the national conscience has perhaps even dulled to the ethical reprehensibility of such practices. Dr. Gushee spoke to the audience about his participation in the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, a bipartisan group of political, medical, legal, military and ethical experts who carefully investigated the United States’ extra-judicial intelligence-gathering tactics used on detainees following 9/11.
Dr. Gushee presented on the three major findings of the Task Force. First, the group concluded that the United States indisputably engaged in acts of torture against detainees following 9/11. The Task Force concluded that “enhanced interrogation” is a misleading title for what actually constitutes torture. Second, the group found that U.S. leaders at the very top are largely responsible for such practices becoming commonplace. The Task Force found that in the aftermath of 9/11, the executive branch took a “whatever means necessary to protect the country” approach to intelligence gathering from detainees, which contributed to a diminished moral climate that spread down the ranks and impacted how lower-level military officers treated detainees as well. Third, the Task Force investigation found that there was no evidence that using torture actually led to credible intelligence gathering; in fact, there was evidence to suggest to the contrary. As a Christian and an ethicist, Dr. Gushee shared with the audience his dislike for the utilitarian nature of this particular assessment, arguing that even if torture had been shown to be effective in gathering intelligence, it would still be morally wrong and should not be practiced.
Following Dr. Gushee’s speech, Dr. Cowger told the story of Abou Elkassim Britel, an Italian citizen of Moroccan descent who was detained while on a trip to Pakistan and subsequently tortured by the CIA and affiliated governments/organizations. The company that the CIA contracts with to transport detainees, Aero Contractors Ltd., operates out of the Johnston County Airport, here in North Carolina. Dr. Cowger’s speech showed the complicity of North Carolina in such cases of torture and called for North Carolinians to take a stand in decrying these practices.
The final speaker of the evening was the Rev. Dr. Powery. He began by lamenting the practice of torture by singing an African-American spiritual, and he then gave a historical-cultural account of the torture of African-Americans at various points throughout US history. Dr. Powery offered a theological reflection on torture. In Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion, Jesus Christ experiences torture, condemning it on the cross and inaugurating the defeat of death. Thus, to engage in torture is to reject the body, which Christ has shown to be good through the incarnation. To engage in torture is to reject Christ who has experienced torture, and condemned it.
The Council extends its heartfelt thanks to these speakers, to Pullen Memorial Baptist and to all those who attended the program. It is our hope that this event and the additional media attention will contribute to greater torture awareness and activism, not only among people of faith but among all civically engaged North Carolinians.