Tortured debate: the morality of prisoner abuse

Is torture ever justified? The answer is clear to American believers – but for some that answer is clearly “yes,” for others it is definitely “no.” And that stark moral divide is shaping a debate that is growing more intense even years after the first revelations of prisoner abuse.

The arguments have been fueled in part by the Obama administration’s 2009 release of graphic Bush-era documents related to what some called “enhanced interrogation,” and also by the lobbying of religious groups and others who are demanding a national accounting of what they say was government-sanctioned torture. Others say the tactics were not torture, but many Americans who worry about the prospect of terrorist attacks back measures they feel can protect American lives. At the same time, the eroding support for the war in Iraq contributed to continued questioning over whether U.S. policies are morally just.


The religious dimension of the furor is set out in a Pew Forum survey showing that nearly half of Americans (49 percent) agree that torture can often or sometimes be justified to gain information from suspected terrorists. And the more often people attend church, the more likely they are to say that torture can be justified. Among those who attend at least once a week, 54 percent say it is often or sometimes justified. And the rate is highest among white evangelical Protestants, with 62 percent saying it is sometimes or often justified. In a follow-up analysis, Pew researchers noted that religion is just one of several factors influencing views on torture. The political divide–64 percent of Republicans say torture can be often or sometimes justified, compared with 36 percent of Democrats–is wider than any religious split, for example.

Still, the findings present an interesting dichotomy: Church leaders across the spectrum reject the use of torture as “morally intolerable,” in the words of U.S. Catholic bishops. Theologians in various denominations – from Martin Marty, a Lutheran and pre-eminent religion commentator, to David Gushee, a Baptist professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University – have bemoaned the survey’s findings.

Yet for many Christians in the pews (there are no statistically useful surveys of Jews and Muslims), torture is acceptable in some circumstances. As commentators have pointed out, white evangelicals are also disproportionately Republican, and they were among Bush’s most ardent supporters, even as he and Vice President Dick Cheney called for the use of harsh interrogation techniques.

To some, the issue is basic: The shadow of Sept. 11, 2001, still looms large in the public imagination, and support for torture may reflect an ongoing desire to defend the country from another attack. Some even point to the popularity of television shows like Fox’s 24, featuring the agent Jack Bauer, who regularly uses torture to extract useful information – which experts say does not correspond to real-world results.

But theologians and ethicists are apt to probe deeper. Is this a case where situational ethics and principled moral guidelines collide? Are evangelicals dualists who see the world careening between good and evil? Or have church members simply confused patriotism with faith? All these are powerful questions to explore.

Important events

• On Oct. 9, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Khaled el-Masri, a German who claims he was tortured by the CIA. On Oct. 4, The New York Times published reports of secret U.S. Department of Justice memos authorizing harsh CIA interrogation techniques.

• On Feb. 13, 2007, four Democratic senators introduced a bill, called “Restoring the Constitution Act of 2007: A Bill to Provide for the Effective Prosecution of Terrorists and to Guarantee Due Process Rights,” (search Thomas for S.576) that is aimed at reversing provisions of the Military Commissions Act signed into law in October 2006 by President Bush. The bill would restore the right of habeas corpus, reinstate the United States’ commitment to the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of detainees, and restore elements of due process to hearing procedures for detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay. The bill is co-sponsored by Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Robert Menendez of New Jersey. The bill has the support of several religious groups opposed to torture. For more information, contact Katie Barge at 202-481-8147, [email protected].

• In January 2006 the Rev. George Hunsinger, a theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary, convened a three-day conference at the seminary to launch the National Religious Campaign against Torture. NRCAT is gathering signatures on a petition to the Bush administration, and it appears to be the largest and best-organized faith-based protest against torture to arise out of the Abu Ghraib revelations. Details about the founding conference, titled, “Theology, International Law, and Torture: A Conference on Human Rights and Religious Commitment” are available on the NRCAT web site along with lists of participants, signatories to the petition, and member denominations. Contact Hunsinger at 609-252-2114, [email protected] or the Rev. Robert Moore, 609-924-5022. See this Religion & Ethics Newsweekly story about the Princeton conference.

• In April 2004, the world became aware of prisoner torture and abuse taking place at the U.S. military’s prison facility Abu Ghraib in Iraq after reports by 60 Minutes II and The New Yorker. Reports and photos surfaced of American soldiers and guards committing sexual, psychological and physical abuse to Iraqi prisoners. The United States Department of Defense removed seventeen soldiers and officers from duty, and eleven soldiers were convicted in courts-martial, sentenced to military prison, and dishonorably discharged from service.

Why it matters

The debate over officially sanctioned torture raises questions about whether the county is acting morally or not and whether the United States is a “righteous nation,” as some call it. Because Americans tend to be people of faith, they often view such moral questions through the lens of religion. The answers they find will go a long way toward determining future U.S. policy.

Angles for reporters

There are lots of opportunities for local, national and international angles on stories related to prisoner abuse in Iraq. Here are some places to start:

• Human rights advocates, organizations and research and teaching centers have extensive experience dealing with similar issues. Sources are provided throughout this issue.

• Torture survivors’ treatment programs, advocacy centers, and research institutions exist in every state. Sources are provided throughout this issue. Some may be able to recommend victims of prisoner abuse who are willing to be interviewed.

• Religious organizations, both national and local, have always been involved in caring for the imprisoned and working for their fair treatment. Many local congregations of all faiths have active prison ministries. How do members’ experience in U.S. prisons shape how they react to what’s happened in Iraq?

• Ethicists can address what is morally right and wrong, either from a secular or religious perspective, depending upon their background. Military ethicists study what is appropriate during times of war. Ethicists can be found at seminaries, universities and other organizations.

• Psychiatrists and psychologists can talk about the mental effects of prisoner abuse on both victims and perpetrators.

News articles and research

  • “Is Force-Feeding Torture?”

    An May 31, 2013, opinion piece published in the New York Times that asks if force-feeding prisoners on hunger strike constitutes torture. The question came about after detainees in the U.S.’s Guantánamo Bay prison facility in Cuba refused to be fed in protest of new rules.

  • “‘Zero Dark Thirty’ tortures the truth about interrogations”

    A Religion News Service piece analyzing the portrayal of torture in the 2012 movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”

  • “Catholic activists protest torture practice”

    Read a May 1, 2009, National Catholic Reporter story about a rally of human rights activists in Washington, D.C., to support a criminal inquiry.

  • “APA Rules on Interrogation Abuse”

    Read a Aug. 20, 2007, Washington Post story on the American Psychological Association vote to prohibit psychologists from participating in several interrogation techniques that have been used against U.S. terrorism detainees because the methods are immoral and psychologically damaging.

  • “The moral debate about torture”

    Read and listen to a May 1, 2009, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program about the morality of torture.

  • “The dark art of interrogation”

    Read an October 2003 Atlantic Monthly story about the thin line between interrogation and torture.

  • “Torture in the United States”

    Read an October 1998 report on torture in the United States prepared by the Coalition Against Torture and Racial discrimination, a working group of non-government civil and human rights groups in the U.S.

  • “Stanford Prison Experiment”

    Read about the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 and view a slide show of the experiment, which put ordinary Stanford University students in the position of guarding “inmates” – other students – while, unknown to the participants, their behavior was videotaped. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, one of the experiment’s authors, says today that the sexual degradation of Iraqi prisoners of war by guards reminds him of the behavior of the “guards” in the experiment. As the guards on the night shift became bored, they used the prisoners for amusement. Zimbardo recalls that “guards” got “prisoners” to simulate sodomy and other homophobic behaviors, stripped them naked for various offenses, removed their sheets and mattresses and put them in solitary confinement for excessive periods. The researchers ended the study a week early because of abuse by the student guards.

National sources


Ethics institutes

  • W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics

    The W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics is located at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C. It focuses on the research on and teaching of applied ethics in fields such as science and technology, health, research, and animal welfare.

  • Emory Center for Ethics

    Center for Ethics at Emory University in Atlanta focuses on the study of ethics in decision-making. The Center focuses on four pillars: health, science, and ethics; citizenship and the public good; organizational and corporate ethics; and ethics and the arts. Paul Root Wolpe is director.

    Contact: 404-727-3150.
  • Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics

    The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University studies and researches ethics in professional and private life. Eric Beerbohm is director.

  • Consortium Ethics Program

    The Consortium Ethics Program at the University of Pittsburgh is a regional health care ethics network. It educates health care professional and institutions in clinical health care ethics. Rosa Lynn Pinkus is director.

  • Ethics Resource Center

    The Ethics Resource Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization whose vision is a world where individuals and organizations act with integrity. Its focus is organizational ethics. It is based in Arlington, Va. Contact through the website.

    Contact: 703-647-2185.
  • Dartmouth College Ethics Institute

    The Dartmouth College Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH focuses on applied and professional ethics, ranging from medical and business ethics to teaching and research ethics. Aine Donovan is director.

  • Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

    The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., is dedicated to researching modern ethical issues and attempting to create solutions in diverse fields such as bioethics, the Internet, government and character ethics.


  • James T. Johnson

    James T. Johnson is a distinguished professor of religion at Rutgers University in New Jersey where he specializes in religious ethics, religion and society, and just war theory. He is considered one of the deans of contemporary just war theory and has written many articles and books on the topic.

  • Albert C. Pierce

    Albert C. Pierce is the first Director of the Institute for National Security Ethics and Leadership, established in the fall of 2007 at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, DC.  and the former director of the Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He served in the U.S. Defense Department and was a defense correspondent for NBC News.

  • Sanford Levinson

    Sanford Levinson is W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair in Law and Professor of Government at the University of Texas School of Law and editor of the book Torture (Oxford University Press, 2004).

  • M. Cherif Bassiouni

    M. Cherif Bassiouni is president of the International Human Rights Law Institute and law professor at DePaul University in Chicago. Read about the institute’s International Criminal Court-Arab World Project.

  • Mark Danner

    Mark Danner is author of Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror (New York Review of Books, 2004), as well as a writer and journalism professor. He divides his time between New York and San Francisco.

  • Mahmood Monshipouri

    Mahmood Monshipouri is co-editor of the Muslim World Journal of Human Rights, based in Berkely, Calif., and professor of international relations at San Francisco State University.

  • Glen H. Stassen

    Glen H. Stassen is the Lewis Smeades Professor of Christian Ethics at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. He is an expert on religion and social justice and specializes in war, peace and ethics. He wrote Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War.

  • David L. Perry

    David L. Perry is a professor of ethics and holds the Gen. Maxwell Taylor Chair of the Profession of Arms at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. He teaches courses on ethics and warfare and on world religions in strategic context, and he writes core-course lessons on ethical reasoning and ethics of the military profession. His publications include “Why Hearts and Minds Matter: Chivalry and Humanity, Even in Counterinsurgency, Are Not Obsolete,” in the September 2006 Armed Forces Journal, and “Ethics and War in Comparative Religious Perspective,” in U.S. Army War College Guide to National Security Issues, 2008. His book Partly Cloudy: Ethics in War, Espionage and Covert Action was published in 2009.

  • Philip Zimbardo

    Philip Zimbardo, Stanford University professor emeritus of psychology, is the author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. He was director of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

  • Russell Moore

    Russell Moore is editor-in-chief of Christianity Today.

  • Karen Greenberg

    Karen Greenberg is director of the Center on National Security at the Fordham University.

    She was editor of The Torture Debate in America (Cambridge University Press) and co-editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

  • Richard Land

    Richard Land is president of the nondenominational Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., and previously served for 25 years as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

    In May 2009, Richard Land said that waterboarding – one of the most controversial tactics – is torture, and he condemned it and all forms of torture. But Land also said that President Barack Obama’s decision to release some Bush-era documents authorizing the techniques was wrong because it could lead to investigations that could “rip the country apart.”

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Saul Kassin

    Saul Kassin, professor of psychology and chair of legal studies at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., studies the interrogation and confessions – particularly false confessions – of suspects in the criminal justice setting.

  • Martha L. Minow

    Martha L. Minow is professor of law at Harvard Law School in Massachusetts. She has expertise in human rights and transitional societies, and religion. She is co-editor of Imagine Coexistence: Restoring Humanity After Violent Ethnic Conflict and author of Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence.

  • Reuven Kimelman

    Reuven Kimelman is a professor of classic rabbinic literature at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., where he is an expert on contemporary Jewish life and ethics and the moral meaning of the Jewish Bible. He says a major challenge facing Jews today is finding a cogent Jewish voice on contemporary moral issues.

  • Omer Bartov

    Omer Bartov, Brown University professor of European history, is the author of The “Jew” in Cinema: From the Golem to Don’t Touch My Holocaust (Indiana University Press, 2005). The book looks at how stereotypical portrayals of the “Jew” have informed European, American and Israeli cinema since the 1920s. In fall 2005, 200 students took his class, Modern Genocide and Other Crimes Against Humanity.

  • Susan Niditch

    Susan Niditch is professor of religion at Amherst College in Massachusetts and has expertise in Hebrew Bible, war and women.

  • Lori Fisler Damrosch

    Lori Fisler Damrosch is Henry L. Moses Professor International Law and Organization at Columbia University Law School in New York. She is a member of numerous international law and human rights organizations and has published extensively.

  • Michael W. Doyle

    Michael W. Doyle is Harold Brown Professor of U.S. Foreign and Security Policy and professor of international and public affairs and of law at Columbia University Law School in New York.

  • Hadar Harris

    Hadar Harris is executive director of the Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law at American University’s Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C. She is an international human rights attorney and has specialized in issues of civil and political rights, gender equality and fighting impunity for torturers.

  • Diane Orentlicher

    Diane Orentlicher is a professor at the Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law at American University’s Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C. Her scholarly work has focused on issues of accountability for human rights crimes, transitions to democracy, corporate responsibility in a transnational context, and the relationship between ethnic identity and political participation.

  • Harry Dammer

    Harry Dammer is an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. He is expertise is in the role of religion in prisons.

  • Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma

    Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma is a Baltimore treatment center for survivors of torture. Contact through the website.

In the South

  • John Kelsay

    John Kelsay is distinguished research professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee.  He specializes in comparative religious ethics, religion and war, and peace and has written extensively about Islam and war. His publications include Arguing the Just War in Islam. He can speak to Islamic law and warfare.

  • James Childress

    James Childress is the John Allen Hollingsworth Professor of Ethics in the department of religious studies at the University of Virginia. His research interests include religious ethics, social and political ethics, biomedical ethics and methods in ethics.

  • Forrest Harris

    Forrest Harris is director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on African-American Church Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., as well as an associate professor of the practice of ministry. He teaches courses on the theology of ministry in the black church tradition and can discuss liberation theology and social justice.

  • Robin Lovin

    Robin Lovin is an ethicist at Southern Methodist University, the author of Christian Ethics: The Essential Guide (Abingdon Press, 2000) and a frequent commentator on war and peace issues.

  • The Center for Survivors of Torture

    The Center for Survivors of Torture in Austin and Dallas, Texas, is dedicated to helping the survivors of worldwide torture with their mental and physical health.

In the Midwest

  • Ann Annis

    Ann Annis is a researcher at the Center for Social Research at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

    She, along with Michelle Loyd-Paige and Rodger R. Rice, wrote Set Us Free: What the Church Needs to Know From Survivors of Abuse (University Press of America, 2001). The book cites dozens of interviews from a 1990 survey of the incidence of child abuse among members of the Christian Reformed Church who felt religion played a part in their abuse.

    Contact: 616-526-6420.

In the West

  • Martin L. Cook

    Martin L. Cook is the Adm. James B. Stockdale Professor of Professional Military Ethics at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

  • Khaled Abou El Fadl

    Khaled Abou El Fadl is an internationally recognized law professor and the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Fellow in Islamic Law at the University of California, Los Angeles. He teaches a course on Islamic law and has also taught about Middle Eastern investment law, immigration law and human rights and terrorism. His books include Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women, and he wrote the entry on Shariah for The Oxford University Handbook of Islam and Politics.

  • Craig Haney

    Craig Haney, an author of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, is professor of social psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Haney went on to earn a law degree from Stanford and a doctorate in psychology. He has been a leading legal consultant on prison reform litigation. He teaches psychology and law and the psychology of institutions. Contact 831-459-2153.

  • The Simon Wiesenthal Center

    The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles is an international Jewish human rights organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust by fostering tolerance and understanding. The Center contemporary issues including racism, antisemitism, terrorism and genocide.

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