I’ve been thinking a lot about torture lately. It continues to be front-page news, at least in some newspapers. Just recently we’ve heard about two deaths caused by torture in a U.S.-run prison at Bagram, Afghanistan. The New York Times published a long article on this tragic story. We’ve also read about the torture of two American citizens held in Pakistan. Human Rights Watch has charged our government with either directing or turning a blind eye to the torture of these men of Pakistani descent. Apparently it was falsely hoped that they might yield some useful information about al Qaeda.

Torture is utterly morally repugnant. Yet I was neither surprised nor shocked when the news first broke about U.S. torture practices at Abu Ghraib. There was plenty of talk before the pictures appeared about the possible usefulness of torture to extract information leading to the terrorists who purportedly were behind the 9/11 attacks. Americans who were paying attention had to know that somewhere U.S. officials or their surrogates were torturing prisoners for information they believed could help put an end to such terrorism. Whenever governments go so far as to sanction torture, whether openly or by private memos and twisted definitions, torture that cannot be justified by any moral calculus is to be expected.

Moreover, Abu Ghraib came as no surprise because torture has been an instrument of U.S. foreign policy, at least within the C.I.A., for several decades. U.S. officials may not often be direct participants in torture, but the C.I.A. has supported regimes in Central and South America where torture has been a common instrument of political repression. In some cases “we” (that is, our C.I.A. and possibly other government agencies) have directly funded the torturers. In many cases we have provided the training in torture techniques. For a stunningly moving first-person account of torture at the hands of a U.S.-supported regime, see Dianna Ortiz’s eloquent testament in The Blindfold’s Eyes (Orbis, 2002).. Sister Ortiz, an American citizen and an Ursuline nun, was tortured in Guatemala City in November 1989 by men who appeared to be receiving instructions from an American. She survived to tell her story. Thousands of others did not. Under Rios Montt and his successors, many Guatemalans were “disappeared”-- tortured and killed-- by military and police, some of whom were funded by the C.I.A. Other Latin American torture regimes in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, to name a few, have received varying degrees of U.S. support.

We should know better than to think that what happened at Abu Ghraib was some sort of aberration, to be blamed on a handful of rogue enlisted military personnel. Torture is a widespread and common practice, often covertly supported by the U.S. against dissenting groups who are viewed as threats to American-allied interests. Christians, of all people, should know better. After all, in Latin America it is often Christians who are among the primary targets of oppressive regimes–Christian religious leaders, teachers, social workers, and workers for justice--Christians who identify with and work on behalf of the poor. Usually it is not American Christians, but Christian leaders within the indigenous population, who are singled out. But sometimes “mistakes” are made, as in the case of Sr. Ortiz.

Christians should know better than to be shocked or surprised by torture, because Christianity alone, of all the world religions, was founded by a man who was tortured to death. Jesus of Nazareth, a Palestinian Jew, was tortured to death by officials of an empire that employed crucifixion to terrorize the population, to exterminate insurrectionists and their sympathizers, and to secure ultimate loyalty to the State. Jesus was one of untold many who were tortured to death by officials of the Roman Empire for the sake of political and military domination, economic exploitation, stability, and security. It should not surprise us that this is the sort of thing empires do to quash not only violent armed insurgency but also non-violent political, social, and religious opposition.

The failure of Christian churches and other religious communities to be more vocal and vigorous in opposition to our government’s torture practices is an intellectual and spiritual failure to come to grips with the dark underside of our national political life. We should not be surprised that our government engages in torture when it suits, and winks at torture practiced by allied regimes. But we should be morally outraged! And we should work for a different sort of regime and a different sort of world.

Copyright 2005 by Byron C. Bangert