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Resisting Evil

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The recent expose in the New Times about secret endorsements of severe interrogation techniques once again forces us as Americans to consider whether torture not only has been, but quite possibly continues to be committed in our name. Clearly, the current administration has been walking a fine semantic line between so-called “enhanced” techniques and blatantly illegal torture. Does it take a trained legal mind to name as torture practices such as keeping a person in prolonged darkness or cold, or denied food, or kept naked, or slapped in the head, or strapped to a board and drenched with water to simulate drowning? Perhaps just the opposite is the case, that it takes a team of lawyers to find a way to call it something other than torture.

Whether called enhanced interrogation or torture, the practice is illogical. If an enemy believes that capture leads to torture the incentive to surrender evaporates. A torture victim with no knowledge still has the incentive to provide information and thus will provide the interrogator with bad intelligence, leading to a need for more torture. The enemy with knowledge who is willing to die for his or her cause will never provide actionable intelligence regardless of the amount of torture.

A simple moral restraint is comes by considering that our actions against others open the door to the same treatment of our soldiers when captured. One way to find exemption from Golden Rule morality is to believe that the other is somehow incapable of good. This sort of reasoning also helps to maintain the illusion that torture has never been condoned by the authority structure, but is the result of a few “bad apples.” Phillip Zimbardo exposes this myth in his book, “The Lucifer Effect.” In 1971 he discovered the power of systemic evil in his landmark Stanford Prison Experiment. In the course of a single week in a mock prison with college-aged men pre-screened to assure their mental health he created a situation where unprovoked, but also unrestrained, the guards psychologically abused the prisoners. These young men were not evil, but they committed evil acts. Zimbardo admits that his participation in the creation of this situation was likewise evil. In human rights and war crime law this is known as command responsibility. So far in the investigations of prisoner abuse no one has been charged with command responsibility. In a democracy, there is a certain command responsibility that each citizen bears once the truth is exposed.

Zimbardo's research shows that under carefully constructed circumstances that include assurances from authority figures, relative anonymity and peer pressure most people can be persuaded to perform ghastly deeds. This explains how prison guards can be recruited from the general population to execute fellow humans in concentration camps. With the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity so pervasive in American religious practice accepting the possibility that each of us individually and all of us collectively are capable of evil ought to be easy. Yet, we so easily find ways to believe that we are always agents of goodness and truth. C. S. Lewis spoke of the battle of the two dogs within each of us, one good and one evil. The dog that wins is the one we feed. We can never be totally free from terror until we learn to resist the evil which lies within.

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Rev. Ian Lynch is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. He is pastor of First Congregational Church, UCC in Brimfield, MA He blogs at Culture Dove
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