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Bioethicist Steven Miles -- author of Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror  -- sends us this extremely moving talk he gave to St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church. Miles deals here with the moral challenges posed by torture and the ways in which torture affects all of us by destroying community.

Torture and the Courage to Be Inconvenienced

Steven Miles MD

[I was invited to give this talk at adult education at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church on  May 4, 2008 and lead a discussion of this topic on the evening of May 6.  The Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul informed me that Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life encouraged people to contact the diocese to not allow me to speak because I am pro-choice on abortion and pro-euthanasia.  Although I am pro-choice on abortion, I have written and spoke against physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia.  This talk on torture addresses neither.  My wife and I have adopted and raised a disabled foster child. The Archdiocese <span style="text-decoration: underline;"> </span>instructed St. Joan's that I could not appear at the adult education in the church.  St. Joan arranged for a college venue.

The author hereby grants permission to redistribute, download, copy and use this material in any electronic or printed form.  No further permissions need be requested.]


I am deeply honored to be able to speak with you today about the issue of torture.

Torture is not an exotic or esoteric topic.  Although we rarely speak of it, it has directly wounded most of us.  It is government policy in more than half of the world's 200 nations. Our relatives fled the torture in East Europe, Latin America, or East Asia. Some of us were dispossessed by torture which enforced United States racial policies. Some of us have lost colleagues to torture in mission.  Some of us sent or lost relatives who fought against torturing regimes.  Forty thousand families in Minnesota have a torture survivor; we all bear the costs of their diminished parenting abilities, earning power, and sadness.

My family has been touched by torture too. My wife's ancestors disappeared in the Holocaust of Belarus.  Our adoptive son survived the Cambodia's killing fields and as a nurse put himself in service of the refugees of Ruanda.  I have worked with survivors of torture on three continents and assist several groups, including Minnesota's Center for Victims of Torture, which strives to treat or prevent torture.


The word "torture" comes from the word for "twist" capturing the design of devices like the rack or the wheel that contort the body.  We should however not allow our empathic recoil from the image of a person's agony to cause us to miss the point that torture is aimed to destroy a community.  The destruction of a person is the path-the destruction of a community is the goal.  The Passion story has all the elements of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

The ostentatious and unnecessary use of an inside informer,

The mocking purple robe and the public label, "The King of the Jews,"

The scourging and the nails.

Jesus was not some Nazarene carpenter who was picked at random.  He was selected and tortured in a manner that was designed to destroy the community carrying His message.  In today's scripture, Jesus reflected on that communitarian nature of his impending arrest and execution,

I glorified You on earth

by accomplishing the work that You gave me to do.
I pray for them. And I have been glorified in them.
And now I will no longer be in the world,
but they are in the world, while I am coming to You.
<span style="text-decoration: underline;">John 17:1-11a</span>

Torture is generally used to attack and suppress civil society. This is why it is aimed at the monks in Burma, the political leaders of Zimbabwe, the playwrights of Czechoslovakia, the journalists of Russia, the students of Chile, or the union leaders of Uruguay.

In this use, torture is a strategy to maintain

  • The corrupt against the civic minded,

  • The empowered over the disenfranchised, and

  • The best fed in lands where most are poor and hungry.

Torture is government by intimidation, horror, fear and division. It is antithetical to those who would create societies to flourish by lovingkindness, justice, and inclusion.


In the still space of our confession, we must speak of our active and acquiescent, personal and collective, complicity with the culture of torture.

  • We must acknowledge that torture is a problem for all of us. It has found fertile ground in the lands of Islam, on the Buddhist ground of Cambodia's killing fields, in the fatherland of the Reformation, in the topsoil of communist nations, in the democratic motherlands of Turkey and the United States and in the loam of the Catholic lands of Latin America.

  • We must confess that every people seem capable of torture, even the United States - Convener of the Trials at Nuremburg, co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and instigator of the Geneva Conventions for the protection against "torture, or cruel or inhuman or degrading treatment."

  • We should note that the National Catholic Reporter of March 24, 2006 reports that Catholics--more than the public at large, more than Protestants, and more than Evangelicals, support interrogational torture. Secular Americans were most likely to reject interrogational torture.

Then, we must turn from confessing complicity with the culture of torture to the abolition of torture and to reconciliation in societies of justice and lovingkindness.


After the crucifixion, Jesus' community-the real target of His torture--gathered at Olivet.

All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, Acts 1:12-14

They reaffirmed their faith in the message, the movement, and the kind of civil society that had been entrusted to them.

Whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed,
but should glorify God because of the name. 1 Pt 4:13-16

Reconciliation means accepting our responsibility for building a culture against torture.

We are responsible for knowing the facts.  Research by the CIA, the Army, and the National  Defense Intelligence  University all show that interrogational torture is ineffective.  It does not defuse ticking time bombs.  The television show "24" lies.  Torture:

  • Produces bad information that leads to bad policy and needless dangerous battlefield sorties.

  • Radicalizes survivors

  • Makes it impossible to recruit human intelligence.

  • Alienates populations.

  • Causes an enemy to fight to the death rather than to surrender.

  • Undercuts the possibility of appealing for the humane treatment of our own soldiers who are taken POW.

We are responsible for resisting the culture of torture.

  • Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela were freed by our solidarity with their cause.

  • Our amens enabled Martin Luther King to beat back the culture of Jim Crow.

  • Our complacency allowed Major Roberto D'Aubuisson to assassinate Archbishop Romero and his forces to oversee the defiling and murder of the Maryknoll sisters.

  • Our complacency allowed the sadistic guards at Abu Ghraib to go about their business; but our unwillingness to put their photographs aside saved countless lives.

Oona Hathaway, a law professor at Yale  University studied 160 nations some of which torture and others of which do not.  She found that the witness of the Mothers of the Plaza in Argentina, the honesty of the Chilean Medical Association, or the dignified protests of the lawyers of Pakistan summoned nations towards curbing the scourge of torture.

In such facts and examples, we can discern the path of reconciliation.

We must summon the courage to be inconvenienced by the culture of torture.

We must accept responsibility for rejecting the culture of torture in our personal and collective actions, including our acts of citizenship.

We must lift our voices and hands in solidarity with civil communities of justice and lovingkindness in order to move from confession to the abolition of torture.

[Cross-posted on Psyche, Science, and Society.]

Originally posted to stephen soldz on Sun May 04, 2008 at 10:56 AM PDT.

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