Turn Abu Ghraib Inside Out?


[1] In the July 2004 issue of the Lutheran, John Hoffmeyer, a theologian at the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia, comments on the Abu Ghraib scandal by posing a quandary of the sort that ethicists used to love: what if by torturing one person you might extract information that would prevent a major terrorist attack?  Hoffmeyer resists such a raw utilitarian choice by arguing, on deontic grounds, that torture is inhumane and destructive of social bonds.  This argument is morally powerful, but unlikely to satisfy hardbitten realists, neo-"Wilsonian" crusaders or other enlistees in the war on terrorism.  Perhaps for this reason, Hoffmeyer makes a further, consequentialist argument.  Torture is ineffective because it is unlikely to yield the information that the U.S. interrogaters want.  The humanitarian in us will prefer the first argument, if our moral consciousness is dominated by a deep revulsion against inflicting pain upon other human beings.  The hard-nosed realist or neo-"Wilsonian" in us might find the latter argument more compelling.  But that leaves us with split personalities, in a manner reflective of (insufficiently paradoxical!) two-kingdoms thinking.  Can we be both humanitarians and realists-that is, fully open to both kinds of arguments?   Or must we privilege one over the other, and simply default on the question of how to retain a unified moral self in the face of the temptation to commit human-rights abuses in pursuit of national interest?

[2] The way forward, it seems to me, is to back up to the basics.  To paraphrase the question H. Richard Niebuhr posed as war-clouds gathered in the 1930s, we need to ask: what is God doing in Iraq-particularly in a moral sinkhole like Abu Ghraib prison?  And how ought we to be responding?  These questions present us with a difficult problem of discernment, particularly if we seek a biblically responsible answer, as I will try to develop later in this article.  Three perplexing alternatives present themselves.  First, we might argue, with H. Richard Niebuhr and perhaps John Hoffmeyer, that God is with the victims; that God's blessing cannot be claimed by the torturers or any of the antagonists in the Iraq war, no matter how righteous a cause they may trumpet.  But to identify God strictly with victims ignores a considerable body of Biblical testimony that God is very actively involved with the actions and responses of combatants to each other, particularly in the historical narratives of the Old Testament.  Second, we might therefore argue that God is with whoever is victorious, but this claim ignores the testimony of the Isaiah's suffering servant, of Jeremiah, of Jesus and of other biblical figures who discern God's will in national defeat or suffering, whether deserved or vicarious.  Third, we might look to the quality of the cause the combatants pursue.  We might argue that God is with President Bush's crusade to establish democracy, or with the militants' crusade to establish theocracy, or with an apparently broad swath of Iraqi nationalists who simply want their country back, even at the price of renewed authoritarian leadership.  These visions of victory do not enjoy moral equivalency, of course, although it might be a close contest between tenuous democracy and familiar authoritarianism.  In any case, none of these alternatives provides us a distinctively biblical vision for discerning where God is in the Iraqi war, and in particular, Abu Ghraib prison.

[3] I propose a more modest approach, one which aims no higher than offering us insight about the treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib.  The Abu Ghraib prison was and remains an instrument for isolating prisoners from the general Baghdad population, for intimidating them into releasing information, and for punishing them by depriving them of liberty, privacy and comfort.  The question to ask is: to what extent, if any, does such punitive action reflect the will and action of God, as conveyed through the Old and New Testaments? 

[4] In a richly argued recent study of penal justice, Christopher Marshall begins by arguing that New Testament writers take a dim view of judicial power.  They affirm, in principle, the functions of the state in keeping order, butvoice suspicion about how coercive police power is used, particularly against Jesus.[1]   It would be easy at this point to cast a pall of moral restraint over the coercive authority applied by prison authorities, but Marshall, to his credit, does not.  He goes on to develop a detailed and persuasive argument about the priority of restorative justice over retributive justice in the New Testament.  God is engaged primarily in the work of reconciling and repairing relationships; the violence often interpreted to be retributive is actually aimed at this more holistic purpose.(2-4)  Now, I have reservations about Marshall's argument, which is insufficiently attentive to how the communal boundary between insiders and outsiders might play into the distinction between retributive and restorative justice.  Yet the Biblical writers offer a way to comprehend imprisonment and even coercive interrogation within God's agenda of restorative justice, and so suggest how we might re-envision what God calls us to do at Abu Ghraib. 

[5] On the one hand, the biblical writers deepen our understanding about what went so wrong within the prison.  While the Bible depicts much violence, it provides scant precedent for the U.S. practice of isolating Iraqi prisoners deep within the walls of a prison and inflicting humiliating punishment.  Recall how the punishments were imposed in a personalized manner, by isolating the individuals, then targeting their personal sensitivities and deeply held beliefs.  These punishments included, according to one list:

…shackling in a bent position to a ring in the floor for hours or days, isolation for weeks or months, being held naked, kept in freezing air conditioning, sleep deprivation, near-starvation, imposed injections, forced shaving of hair and beard, withholding of family mail, refusal of medical attention, beatings, interrogations, psychological torture to force false confessions or false testimony against others, being confronted with confessions they never made, sexual humiliation, being shown pornographic photos and videos.[2]

[6] Such torture appears to have been undertaken to satisfy the private sadistic lusts of certain guards (think of the Roman guards in Mel Gibson's The Passion).  The very idea of imposing, and enjoying, suffering in such a personalized manner reflects an atomistic individualism that is alien to the thought world of the Biblical writers and, for that matter, to much of the subsequent Christian tradition.  These problem with the sheer isolation, personalization and twisted gratification characteristic of punishment at Abu Ghraib is that they drive out any restorative impulses, which as Marshall argues, are central to God's sense of justice.  Justice is restorative when offender and victim are opened to the possibility of living beyond the offense and punishment.  Isolation, humiliation, and sadism clearly are antithetical to restoration.  

[7] On the other hand, a biblical perspective reveals the limitation of our own revulsion at what the guards did.  We are likely to focus upon pain and humiliation as the major counts in the moral indictment against the torture applied at Abu Ghraib, yet there is the equally deep offense of isolation.  Restorative justice requires, at the very least, that offender and victim be engaged in each other's lives-interpreting, responding, shaping each other in ways that begin to build trust, however minimally.  Clearly the isolation of Abu Ghraib from its surroundings, jailer from prisoner, prisoner from prisoner, prisoner from the wider population was working against such restoration.  Yet we are culturally ill-equipped to reflect morally upon isolation as pernicious to God's restorative justice.  Generations of individualism have blunted our capacity to appreciate the sheer interactive richness of the biblical worldview, and so limit our capacity to assess coercive interrogation.  Our individualistic thoughtworld offers a comfortably stern prohibition against invading the privacy, comfort and property of others, but few categories for evaluating the range of relationships which lie between sheer liberty and sheer coercion, with their thicker textures of pressure and counter-pressure. We are thus likely to swing between demanding an end to all coercive interrogation, at the one extreme, and caving in to arguments that the war on terror necessitates any means necessary to extract needed information from suspects-the two extremes that John Hoffmeyer, like the rest of us, voiced in his Lutheran article.  

[8] The biblical writers are not so limited.  They see God and God's people enmeshed in a vortex of mutual influences whose range and intensity are astonishingly rich. Consider, in contrast, the range of ways God seeks to shape the belief and actions of the people of Israel and the church, as narrated in the more historical sections of the Biblical record: God variously promises, tests, rescues, delegates, disciplines, punishes, forbears, commands, reassures, teaches and ultimately engages in self-sacrifice.  All of these actions are oriented to restoring a relationship of faith and trust with the people.  The people, for their part, variously question, resist, apostasize, misunderstand, obey, ignore, pray, sacrifice, learn, harden their hearts, hear, and follow-displaying a wide range of responses to God's initiatives.[3]   Pressure comes in many forms in the biblical narratives; not even Ecclesiastes is a self-sufficient, isolated monad. Achieving restorative justice is a messily interactive business.  As a result, the biblical writers have far richer intuitive resources than we for negotiating the morally slippery terrain of coercive relationship, such as between prisoners and guards. 

[9] Two startling, and perhaps disturbing, insights emerge from this resolutely interactive biblical perspective.  First, when God applies punishment, the ensuing violence takes place not in prisons, but out in the open, for the community to see.  From Korah who rebelled against Moses (Numbers 16) to the Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the fledgling Christian community (Acts 5), God reveals judgment in a public arena, through death or suffering dramatically inflicted-sometimes self-inflicted by the offenders.  The purpose of such theater is not to extract information, nor to humiliate, but to hold up the actions of offenders to judgment in the presence of the whole community.  God's aim apparently is to strike fear and pity into the hearts of all the onlookers-who include us, as readers of the book.  King Saul may have sought the help of a sorcerer in secret, but his failure to retain God's favor was demonstrated publicly on the battlefield.(1 Samuel 15: 31)  Sometimes those who suffer in public do not deserve to; the dramatic enactments of God's power can reveal judgment against offenders through the victims they afflict; consider what the execution of John the Baptist conveyed about Herod (Mark 6), or what the martyrdom of Stephen said about his opponents in Jerusalem (Acts 6).  

[10] Second, the violence of the punishment is aimed at restoring the community-even if not the stricken individual-to a right relationship with God.  Korah and his co-conspirators died in order to restore purity of worship by the Exodus community.  For the Old Testament prophets, the travails and very public deaths of errant kings served to call Israel back to fidelity and true worship.  In Acts, the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira served to draw a line against a kind of lying that would undermine the community.  At issue is shalom, that comprehensive biblical term for the wholeness and well-being-the justice-of the community.[4] 

[11] From these quickly sketched biblical considerations, we might infer a God who is intensively involved with the people who claim to be people of faith, and moreover is presumably interested in the fate of Iraq, even if the Bible offers little guidance as to what restorative justice means outside the communities of Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church.[5]   It might not be unreasonable to claim that God wills to restore the social and political health of Iraq.  U.S. prison authorities may claim they are seeking to restore Iraq by applying coercive interrogation against suspected terrorists.  But it is seems reasonably clear that such actions work directly against the kind of restoration that God wills us to practice, particularly when a large majority of the imprisoned appear innocent.  At the same time, it seems unclear that simply returning the treatment of prisoners to the most humane standards realistically possible in that war zone would contribute anything more to the restoration of Iraq as a social and political community.  U.S. authorities need a strategy for combating terrorism which extends beyond the guarantees of civil liberty to suspected terrorists. 

[12] Let me therefore offer, from an armchair perspective, a vision of detention loosely derived from the biblical precedent: public rather than private, restorative rather than retributive, communal rather than individualistic, immersed rather than isolated.  My proposal is simple: that Abu Ghraib be turned "inside out."  Rather than being sequestered far from public view, suspected terrorists could be clad with highly visible clothing and taken to the site of any and every terrorist attack immediately after the attack has occurred.  There they would be exposed to fellow members of the Iraqi community: relatives of victims, police, and bystanders.  They could be made to stand motionless for hours amidst the carnage of the attack.  They could be required to face the crowd, and to respond to the accusations or questions which might be hurled at them.  Whether applauded or more likely vilified, they would not be allowed to escape being linked to the atrocity.  This public exposure should be limited only to prisoners who have well-evidenced links with terrorism.   The prisoners who are likely innocent (estimates run as high as 70%, according to the Red Cross) might be offered a more neutral, praiseworthy role of helping to clean up the rubble. 

[13] This armchair vision may be wildly impractical.  Restoring the prisoners to public view is not without risk to both the prisoners and their U.S. guards.  Turning Abu Ghraib inside out might incite mob violence or it might expose soldiers to violent rescue attempts.  The prisoners both would have to be guarded against rescue attempts, and protected against lynchings. They would have to be kept from communicating with sympathizers (although interrogators might glean more from overhearing or bugging such conversations than they currently get from interrogations within the prison.)   These risks might be reduced by careful advance planning, a careful deployment of troops, and collaboration with Iraqi authorities.  Still, there may be strong reasons more evident in Baghdad than here as to why turning Abu Ghraib inside out would be inadvisable. 

[14] Beyond such practical considerations lies the question of whether the public exposure I propose would be any less humiliating than closeted brutality practiced by U.S. guards. The spectacle of exposing prisoners to civic scrutiny might not be tolerated in the U.S., where prisoners are not usually subjected to public view.  Defendants in most U.S. jurisdictions are permitted to hide their faces from news cameras.  The access of television into courtrooms is contested, if not prohibited.  Prison chain gangs have gone the way of Burma Shave signs.  Public executions are carefully scripted and sanitized.  These scruples reflect excellent legal and moral reasons for not turning Abu Ghraib inside out.  Since the Iraqi prisoners would not have been formally accused, tried, and convicted of perpetrating the particular terrorist incident they are forced to witness, their compulsory visibility at the scene would have more than a whiff of vigilante justice, of grossly violated due process.  It is difficult to see how they could be marched to the scene of a terrorist bombing in such a way that preserved the presumption of their innocence until proven guilty.  The Cultural Revolution in Maoist China and other totalitarian outrages suggest that the distinction between restorative justice and degrading humiliation may dissolve when the tactics of public confrontation are taken up by mobs.  Only under conditions of extreme social violence should an accused's claim to due process and privacy be so roundly violated.

[15] The moral question is whether there is a meaningful, enforceable distinction between public humiliation aimed at restoration, and humiliation primarily aimed at degrading individuals and gratifying torturers.  I suspect many Iraqi prisoners might prefer public exposure to the humiliation by U.S. guards, but there still remains the theological question: dare we "play God" by focusing the heat of public attention upon prisoners?  It might be argued that public humiliation belongs to God, not us, just as much as vengeance does. Matthew's Jesus commended that a congregation undertake discrete private initiatives before publicly confronting the fallen (Mt 18).  If it could be shown that God, through Jesus, works for the health of social and political communities primarily through means which stop short of public confrontation, the case for turning Abu Ghraib inside out would collapse.

[16] Turning Abu Ghraib inside out would be justifiable in biblical terms only if it helps the Iraqi people return to social and political health. The public spectacle of manacled prisoners will be tolerable only if it clearly serves to delegitimate terrorism, to restore the rule of law, to strengthen the role of legitimate policing, and to render the streets safe.  Over time, it would have to be proven that the popular anger focused upon the inmates actually does serve to blunt the recruitment of terrorists and bolster the authority and power of law-abiding police.  Perhaps under the pressure of fellow citizens, the prisoners might spill information useful to investigators.  They might confess to conspiracies.  At the very least, they would be forced to assert their innocence in front of angry peers.  Of course, these are the utilitarian calculations of power politics; what is more important is the kind of healing which can begin when conspirators and extremists are forced to face the consequences of their destructive politics, and victims are given someone to whom they can articulate their cry for justice.  

[17] This proposed biblical view of punishment seems to me to offer a way to link our humanitarian impulses with the power calculations of realists.  If we see that God sides not exclusively with the victims, nor with the victors, but is rather active throughout the struggle, we are freed to consider what strategies might best conduce to restoring the social and political health of Iraq.  The resolutely interactive perspective of the Bible-with its default assumption that God and the people are always, in manifold ways, attempting to shape the beliefs and action of each other-enables us to engage the apparatus of coercive detention and interrogation without either caving into its totalitarian logic or rejecting categorically the use of pressure in coercive interrogation.  What the biblical writers commend us to do is to keep in mind God's restorative justice, being fully convinced that this is what God wills us to do.  Then we are freed to exercise moral imagination as to how such justice might be furthered, even in the Abu Ghraibs where it is so clearly absent.

[1]  John Hoffmeyer, "Would you do it?". The Lutheran, July 2004, 13-4.

[2]  Christopher D. Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime and Punishment. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2001, 9-16.

[3]  Victoria Brittain, "Britain is complicit in this horror", Guardian Unlimited,
Wednesday August 4, 2004, The Guardian ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/guantanamo/story/0,13743,1275525,00.html)

[4]  Stewart W. Herman, Durable Goods: A Covenantal Ethic for Management and Employees. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1997, chapter 4.

[5]  Marshall, Beyond Retribution, 49, 53.

[6]  For an exception, see prophetic indictments of foreign kings and nations, such as in Amos 1.


© September 2004
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 4, Issue 9