RDPulpit: Torture Needs You

During his first week in office, President Obama issued an order to close the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center within a year, and the collective sigh of relief was almost audible.

But if we think a promise to close a single detention center marks the end of US-sanctioned torture, then we have bought the Bush administration line from 2004: that this was an isolated incident, that the soldiers were “rotten apples,” that the torture caught on film had not been authorized. Our relief signals that we remain in denial about just what those photographs—and the detainees’ testimony collected by the Red Cross and detailed by Mark Danner in a recent New York Times Op-Ed—reveal.

What if this denial is not a response to torture, but is, rather, a necessary part of torture?

Seen in this way, denial is not a response to torture; it is torture itself. I will argue here that the way out of denial—and therefore the way to stop torture—begins with imagination. And it just may be that the people most prepared to practice this kind of imagination are communities of faith.

Father, Forgive Them

In his sworn statement about the torture he endured while imprisoned at Abu Ghraib, Ameen Sa’eed Al-Sheikh details what happened to him: US guards put a bag over his head. They screamed at him. They threatened to rape his wife. They threatened to rape him in the shower. They refused to let him sleep. They forced him to stand for hours. They shoved him. They pushed him. They beat his broken leg. They took away his clothes and blankets. They shot him. They forced him to eat pork and drink liquor. They made him curse Islam and praise Jesus. They burned his skin with hot liquid. They drew a picture of a woman on his back and made him stand holding his buttocks. They suspended him with handcuffs from his bed. They beat him until he was unconscious. They hung him from a door.

In his testimony he says, “I asked the interrogators why? They said they did not know.”

In Luke’s gospel story about the crucifixion, after Jesus has been stripped, beaten, mocked, and hung on the cross, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

At the center of both torture narratives is denial—people doing violence to other human beings and somehow claiming they do not know what they are doing or why they are doing it. Some insist that Jesus merely means that they do not know to whom they are doing it; that they don’t realize they are about to kill the son of God. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus means. I think when Jesus says, “Forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” he is talking about denial, about the fact that when people hurt other human beings they often insist they are not hurting other human beings. They fire the gun, nail the hand, break the leg, twist the shoulder, burn the skin, even as they insist they do not fire the gun, nail the hand, break the leg, twist the shoulder, burn the skin.

How can one human being stand next to another human being in agonizing pain and not know it, not know it to the point where she inflicts that pain, again and again?


The interrogation room is an intimate space. Other than a bedroom or an operating room, there is perhaps no more physically intimate space. Unlike a pilot who drops a bomb on a city far below, the torturer touches his victim, talks to him, looks him in the eye, hears him scream. In 1985’s The Body in Pain—a groundbreaking study of torture, war, and human creativity—Elaine Scarry writes that torture happens in three sequential steps. First, the torturer inflicts pain. Second, the pain is objectified (that is, made visible to those not experiencing pain). Third, the torturer denies that another human being is in pain.

It’s not that the torturer doesn’t see the pain or realize that the person is in pain; rather, the torturer denies the pain by turning it into something else. The torturer transforms another person’s pain into a symbol—a symbol of strength, of empire, of sacrifice, of righteousness, of power. And because of this transformation, because of this denial, the torturer can return to step one, inflicting ever-increasing amounts of pain on the person standing right next to him.

Scarry calls this denial self-blinding.

She writes that “only this final act of self-blinding permits the shift back to the first step… for to allow the reality of the other’s suffering to enter [the torturer’s] consciousness would immediately compel him to stop the torture.”

In torture, pain is visible everywhere —on the bodies of the prisoners, in the photographs and films—and yet is “simultaneously categorically denied.”

Denial is stitched right into the fabric of torture. You cannot have torture without it. Denial serves a practical purpose: It allows the torturer to do his or her work.

Scarry writes, “[The torturer’s] blindness, his willed amorality, is his power.”

The point is not that power makes us blind, or that power is always accompanied by blindness; rather, that blindness is power. And empires are not possible without blindness. The development of civilization as we know it demands that we separate ourselves from the pain of others—that we discount it, justify it, turn away from it, deny it, laugh at it, blame the victim for it, economize it, theologize it—especially when we cause that pain.

For the person in pain, torture is world-destroying: it transforms what once gave life to the prisoner—his body, his needs and wants, his delight, his sexuality, his religion, his relationships with other human beings, his strength, his senses, his family—into a weapon used against him.

When we respond to torture with denial, we participate in the third step begun by the torturer and continue what began in that interrogation room. Torture needs our denial; it thrives on it. Our denial is permission-giving; it allows the torturer’s world to grow, to extend, to seem normal, to appear inevitable and necessary, to become “reality.” Our denial contributes to the expansion of the torturer’s world because the torturer’s world becomes our world. Denial transforms our living rooms and kitchens, our cars and classrooms, our offices and sanctuaries into Tier 1A at Abu Ghraib—into the “hard site,” into Guantánamo Bay.

The torturer uses denial to separate himself from pain by reading it as his own power; we use denial to separate ourselves from pain by reading it as our own powerlessness. This problem is so big, we say. And I am so small. What can I do to stop torture? Torture is being done in our names and we believe we can’t do anything about it. I can’t stop that. I didn’t start that. Abu Ghraib? I remember reading something about that a long time ago. Is that still going on? Those soldiers were crazy. Those pictures have nothing to do with me. Guantánamo? Didn’t President Obama close that place?

“They said they did not know.”

If we are not the cause of the problem, then we cannot be the solution, right? And so we continue to drive instead of taking public transportation, or forget our cloth grocery bags, or pay people less than a living wage, or blame the students in our public schools for our own failures. And as we do these things we insist there is nothing we can do, that we are powerless to make the world a more just and life-giving place.

We fire the gun, nail the hand, break the leg, twist the shoulder, burn the skin even as we insist we cannot stop the gun from firing, the hand from being nailed, the leg from breaking, the shoulder from twisting, the skin from burning. Our denial works like the passive tense. We, too, stand in that interrogation room at Abu Ghraib and say, “I did not know.”

Here is the good news: Living in denial requires effort; it takes an incredible amount of energy to stay shut down and disconnected, to separate ourselves from the world around us, to deny the consequences of our actions, to insist we do not know what we are doing even as we do it. Surprisingly, letting go of denial—waking up, taking responsibility, claiming our power—is the easy part.

Denial is an act of imagination: you choose not to see what is right in front of you. Breaking out of denial is also an act of imagination: you choose to see what is right in front of you, and then you envision how things might be different. You choose to see the world as it is and as it could be. Imagination is the human power “to convert… actuality into possibility, what-is into something-other-than-it-is.”

Who is more practiced in the art of imagination than communities of faith?

Faith is not possible without imagination.

The center of faith—God—is mystery, a reality that we cannot see or touch, but around which we nevertheless orient our lives. To have faith in God is to imagine God, and to believe that what we imagine might help bring into being a better world. The words we use to talk about God, the images we use to think about God, are human words and images, infected with our limitations, interests, and biases. We must engage, therefore, in relentless criticism of our faith and its symbols, always knowing we might be wrong, and those we torture might be right.

The kind of God we imagine affects the kind of world in which we live. Will we imagine a God that demands we hang men from their prison beds? That we beat them and burn them and drown them? Or will we imagine that when we torture, we torture God? Will we imagine a God envisioned by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a God who sees the victim of torture and weeps, saying, “You, you, you, I made you,” a God who sees the torturer and weeps, saying, “You, you, you, I made you.”

In the PBS documentary Soldiers of Conscience, a former Abu Ghraib interrogator tells the story of being in the room with the man he is supposed to torture. The man looks at him and says, “I have read about your Jesus. Why do you do these things?” The interrogator says that in that moment he saw the man, saw another human being, and could not do what he was sent to do in that room.

In Genesis, we find the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham’s faith that he is doing what God demands blinds him. Seeing only his duty to God, he cannot see his son. By turning violence into God’s will, Abraham denies Isaac’s pain. So he takes Isaac to the top of the mountain. He binds him. He lays him on top of the wood. He raises the knife. And in that moment, with a deadly weapon raised above his child, he sees Isaac and imagines a different ending. And only when he sees Isaac, can he put the knife down. God did not need Abraham’s faith; Isaac did.

Before the weapon can be put down, before the torture can be stopped, you have to be willing to see Isaac. You have to be willing to see the knife. And you have to be willing to admit that the hand that holds the knife, locks the handcuffs, places the bag on the head, attaches the electrodes, strikes the face, takes the picture, belongs to you.

* * * *

*For more on the topic see Virginia Classick’s post on the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

**Note: for more on theology as imaginative construction see the work of Gordon Kaufman.