Drowning, Death, and "Dehumanization"

Sarah Palin has people up in arms again. At her speech at the National Rifle Association Convention she launched a one-liner that offended a lot more than her usual liberal detractors:

Oh, but you can’t offend [terrorists], can’t make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.

This prompted angry reactions (here and here from Rod Dreher, and this from Joe Carter). 

I've got a few things to say.

It was a very poor analogy and a cheap laugh line. One shouldn't tie the sacrament of baptism to interrogation techniques. They're not related, and there are all sorts of negative overtones to it.

If that was the extent of their criticisms, I'd happily not be writing this. However, there are two aspects that I think need addressing.

First, Dreher and Carter obviously believe waterboarding to be "torture." That's the identification that provides the primary emotional charge. And I think that's a highly debatable point. We're not talking about racks, electrodes, and pliers, here. I think they might even agree that what we're talking about consists of a moral advance beyond measures of yesteryear. Maybe not advanced enough for them, but I don't know. An effective interrogation technique that doesn't involve risk of bodily injury or death seems an advance to me.

This point is glided over lightly by both of them, but this can't be done so easily, given their argument. While it might be rhetorically effective to accuse Palin of advocating torture, it simply begs the question. It isn't fair to assume (without argument) your categorization of an act (which she doesn't accept, and which is highly debatable), and then bash her for "advocating" your categorization of the act.

"Sarah Palin advocates torture, and how dare she? A Christian!" is just a thoroughly empty criticism. And I think that renders a great deal of Dreher's response moot. What the Christian tradition teaches about torture or what Richard Wurmbrand suffered are valuable and interesting topics, but simply irrelevant if we aren't talking about torture. She doesn't believe we are and, while I remain open to arguments otherwise, neither do I. It strikes me this is just as much emotive "red meat" for his audience as he's accusing Palin of peddling to hers.

Second, and I think much more problematically, there is this issue of "dehumanizing" raised by Joe Carter. You know, the danger of "becoming a monster to defeat a monster," "stooping to their level," and the need to maintain the "high moral ground" kind of stuff. 

Here's a (hypothetical, of course...) story.

A Special Forces group in Afghanistan organizes a school in a local village to provide basic education to little boys and girls. They recruit a young woman to be the school teacher. They have an opening ceremony, a big party. The whole village attends. A great time is had by all.

When they return a few days later the severed head of the school teacher is on a pike in front of the building.

Quick, now. What am I allowed to say, think, or feel about the perpetrators of such depravity?

"I want you to experience simulated drowning."

I am being told, I guess, that this is beyond the pale. "Dehumanizing" a person. Something outrageous for a committed Christian to say. A failure to recognize the Imago Dei.

Fair enough. But it also means that this is beyond the pale:

"I want you dead."

You see, in this context it seems to me these concerns about "dehumanizing" rhetoric only work if you're a card-carrying pacifist. It's a simple a fortiori, a "lesser to the greater" problem. If the lesser is prohibited, how much more is the greater? I'm pretty sure that death is a worse thing to wish on somebody than simulated drowning. It's the sort of problem Barack Obama's got. He thinks (so he says) giving you three-square a day in Guantanamo Bay is a grotesque violation of human rights; but, on the other hand, obliterating you with a Hellfire missile from a drone is the moral thing to do. Look: if incarceration, enhanced interrogation techniques, etc., are intrinsic denials of human dignity and value, killing people is worse. If you want to get rid of the former, you're going to have to give up the latter, too.

Speaking of human dignity, value, and the Imago Dei, God gets to set the terms of how we understand and interpret these things. And in Genesis 9:6 he tells us, precisely because human beings are the image of God, that these sorts of perpetrators are not even entitled to their lives, much less having only nice things said about their humanity, value, and dignity. I believe Carter and Dreher know and believe this: there are (all too many) situations where image bearers of God, precisely because of their wanton disregard for that image in others, need to be killed. Innocent blood cries out from the ground, and it is not more "Christian" to not want this kind of justice. It is less. And God established an institution to do exactly this: the civil magistrate (Romans 13). 

We can debate the merits or morality of this particular mode of interrogation and/or its purposes and ends. But I think we should save our protestations of "dehumanizing" rhetoric for instances of the real thing. We're not talking about tropes like Jews having certain facial features or Tutsis in Rwanda having lighter skin. We're talking about men who cut the heads off young women for no other reason than to strike fear in the hearts of other people they want to subjugate. And those who do even worse.

Pardon me for not worrying very much about them feeling undervalued, undignified, and dehumanized. I'm too busy wishing them dead (by God-ordained, lawful means).

Brian Mattson