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Think. Discuss. Act. Torture

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Thinking About and Discussing the Issue of Torture


When a human being suffers, that suffering sends a ripple effect across the human community—torture causes cultural shockwaves that go beyond a hidden cell. And yet, we are understandably reluctant to talk about such suffering.

Torture, according to Google’s definition, is “the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain.” – q=Torture, accessed 10/07/2016.

From those being tortured in political or wartime struggles, to those who suffer the pain and consequences of sexual abuse or forced human trafficking, various forms of torture are global and near to all of us.

Yet, without specific urging or instructions to do so, most of us will find ourselves avoiding actual experiences of torture inflicted on our neighbors, seemingly trapped as uncaring bystanders.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University has cautioned: “In our current political climate, there is an attempt to make torture so ambiguous that we are not sure we know it when we see it. Therefore it is very important for Christians to say, “We know it when we see it.”

Beyond that statement, we hope those of all faiths or without faith will seriously consider what their nation’s stance on torture is… and what it should be.

The use of torture against enemies or despised community members is apparently as old as civilization itself. Means of torture included gruesome dismemberment, pulling a body apart by horses or rack, crucifixion (causing slow painful death from heart failure, shock, acidosis, asphyxiation or pulmonary embolism). Convicted murderers in Roman times sometimes had their victim’s body chained to their own bodies and set out in the wilderness until contamination caused their death. Torture methods included the condemned person put into a position where they would be slowly devoured by insects.

Modern societies have mostly condemned inhumane punishments. The U.S. Constitution establishes the principles of: (1) not imposing “cruel and unusual” forms of punishment and (2) of proportionality regarding punishments according to varying severities of crimes. Still, we continue to see exceptional extreme forms of treatments and punishments that approach “cruel and unusual.”

Modern methods of torture include electric shocks to delicate genital areas and waterboarding (which produces the first stages of drowning—which some have claimed not to be torture). The disturbing pictures of demeaning or tortuous treatment of Abu Ghraib detainees by U.S. soldiers and personnel (GRAPHIC CONTENT, USE DISCRETION, released by the Washington Post (, accessed 10/11/16) brings back troubling memories.

Whether or not forced feeding is a means of torture has also been argued. Its history goes back at least to treatment of U.S. suffragettes who put themselves on a hunger strike against a government, which would not let them vote.

The force-feeding of some 44 prisoners on hunger strike protesting being held without charge at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention center has fostered current debate. A video released by Yasiin Bey (previously Mos Def) depicts in gruesome fashion the pain and indignity of this procedure. (GRAPHIC CONTENT, USE DISCRETION. If you are able to view graphic upsetting images, you might watch this dramatic video on YouTube, but be cautioned; it is shocking:

The U.S. government promised to accommodate Muslims by force-feeding them only at night during Ramadan (July-August, 2013). President Obama decries the practice—and further wants to shut Guantanamo down. But he says his hands are tied legally. Human rights advocates disagree and want him to take immediate action in spite of strong objections from some in Congress. And so suffering, if not torture, continues among those detained by the U.S.

It is important to know something of torture as a national policy of an autocratic government as a means of intimidating its citizenry against all possible protest and democratic opposition. Studies of torture in Pinochet’s Chile during the 1970s and 80s would be an example. Today in the twenty-first century, Asian countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines are accused by human rights groups of allowing police, army or other security forces to use torture as a regular aid in interrogation.

In closing, consider these quotes:

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be either good for evil. —Hannah Arendt, “The Banality of Evil”

The greatest tragedy is not the brutality of evil people, but rather the silence of the good people. —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. —Edmund Burke


  1. What is your initial response to this article? Is this a fair and appropriate introduction to the topic of torture?
  2. Do you think it is ever right for a government to inflict torture on a detainee? If not, why? If so, under what circumstances and to what extent?
  3. Are the threat and experiences of terrorism legitimate reasons for the use of selective torture?
  4. Would it be out of the question to ask defenders of waterboarding or forced feeding to demonstrate its use on themselves for a Congressional Committee—and to be seen by citizens?
  5. Are you in favor of a general discussion on the use of torture? How do think such a discussion could best be carried on in your own circles?
  6. What does the Bible (or, your sacred book or general source of wisdom) say about torture explicitly and/or implicitly?
  7. What initial discussions might be carried on in your family, circle of friends, an organization, classroom, or youth group?


  1. There are two basic questions behind this discussion: (a) Are intimidating methods of terror the most effective means for obtaining reliable information? and (b) Is the use of cruel and unusual torture ever justified in civilized societies of the twenty-first century? There are strong arguments being offered on both sides of these two questions.
  2. Similar to the debate about national secret surveillance of private communications, the issue here may hinge to some degree on our sense of security versus our sense of the sanctity of human dignity.
  3. Although religious differences are a part of serious conflicts globally, religious/moral codes and principles have not been widely conspicuous in the general discussion of methods and use of terror today.

Dean Borgman

© 2019 CYS

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