Examining religion and public life
Nathan C. Walker | December 18, 2014
Article published by Grieboski Global Strategies
The “it” he was referring to was the Central Intelligence Agency’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” for Guantánamo detainees. His stated rationale was, “We were very careful to stop short of torture”—obstinately refusing to classify hooding, waterboarding, stress positions, exploitation of phobias, deprivation of light and auditory stimuli, sleep deprivation, extended isolation, rectal rehydration, and rectal feeding as acts of torture.
The United Nations Convention Against Torture, coauthored and ratified by the United States in 1994, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted.”
According to defense attorney David McColgin, who represented Guantánamo detainees, female government interrogators played a particularly disturbing role in torturing Muslim suspects. FBI agents observed female interrogators pressing their knees against and aggressively grabbing detainees’ genitals. These interrogators were fully aware that the detainees believed that a man touched by a woman other than his wife during Ramadan is considered unclean and consequently cannot engage in obligatory prayer five-times a day.
Many of these authorized techniques used the detainees’ religious beliefs against them, which we call “theotorture”in the book Whose God Rules? For instance, Guantánamo Chaplain James Yee reported that, “religion was the most important issue for nearly all the prisoners” at Guantánamo, and “it became the most important weapon used against them.” In Whose God Rules? McColgin offers this example of the CIA’s theotorture techniques:
A female interrogator told a detainee that she was having her period, asking him how he would feel about her touching him. She then slipped her hand into her pants and pulled it out with a red liquid smeared on it meant to look like menstrual blood. She showed her hand to the detainee and then wiped it on the detainee’s face. The detainee screamed at the top of his lungs, began shaking, sobbing, and yanked his arms against his handcuffs. The interrogator explained… that the detainee would now feel too dirty to pray and that she would have the guards turn off the water in his cell so he would not be able to wash the red substance off. “What do you think your brothers will think of you in the morning when they see an American woman’s menstrual blood on your face?” she said as she left the cell.
These odious and reprehensible acts appear to be a direct consequence of “The Religious Foundations for Cooperation” strategy. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden described this strategy as a set of “burdens,” otherwise known as intentional psycho-theological duress, designed to elicit confessions from a “religious zealot.” In defense of this strategy, Hayden explained that the intent was to use the detainees’ beliefs to force them to “enter into this cooperative relationship with our debriefers.”
These religion-based techniques also proved ineffective and resulted in severe consequences. Even the Quran became an instrument of torture. FBI agents reported CIA interrogators’ squatting over the Quran during interrogations and desecrating it, including dropping and kicking the Quran across the cell, breaking the binding. Detainees began to riot and attempted suicide in mass—23 detainees tried to kill themselves in one day. Every 15 minutes, Chaplain Yee reported, a detainee would use a sheet to try to hang himself.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported that the CIA’s techniques proved “not to be an effective means of acquiring intelligence” and did not help locate Osama Bin Laden. Rather, the Committee forcefully proclaimed that these interrogations “damaged the United States’ standing in the world,” in part, because at least 26 men who were tortured were wrongfully detained—one in five of the men were innocent.
When asked about these human beings, former Vice President Cheney said, “I am more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.” This lack of compunction may explain why he “would do it again in a minute.”
This leaves we, the people, to determine what to do with the remains of morally bankrupt leadership, as disturbingly illustrated by Cheney’s callous confession.
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Nathan C. Walker is the co-editor “Whose God Rules?” (Palgrave Macmillan) and the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Religion and Education in the United States. He is a doctoral candidate in Law, Education, and Religion at Teachers College Columbia University and a former fellow at Harvard Divinity School.