What Are We Enhancing?

Mary Zeiss-Stange November/December 2009

Thursday morning, July 30: The mainstream media and punditocracy continued to obsess over “Gatesgate” and that evening’s impending “Beer Summit” on the White House lawn. Meanwhile, in a barely reported story, U.S. district court judge Ellen Segal Huvelle finally ran out of patience with the U.S. Department of Justice over a human rights violation, compared to which Professor Henry Louis Gates’s travails are absurdly trivial. Issuing a blistering critique of the Justice Department’s case for the prosecution—she called it an “outrage,” and “full of holes”—Judge Huvelle ordered the release of detainee Mohammed Jawad from the federal facility at Guantanamo Bay.1 The following day the Defense Department dropped all charges against Jawad, who at the time was thought likely will be free to return home to Afghanistan in short order.2

Mohammed Jawad had been held at Guantanamo for six and a half years. He was arrested in December 2002 in Kabul, on charges that he had tossed a grenade into an Army Jeep, wounding two soldiers and their translator. He may have been as young as 12 at the time of his detention; he unquestionably was a minor. And he was subjected to torture, first by Afghan authorities, and subsequently at Gitmo: torture so severe that the adolescent reportedly attempted suicide in his cell.3 Justice Department lawyers acknowledged that their case lacked substance, owing to the fact that everything to which Jawad “confessed” resulted from what has genteelly come to be called “enhanced interrogation.”

A few weeks earlier, in a case similarly and surprisingly underreported, stories began appearing about Lakhdar Boumediene, the successful plaintiff in last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling Boumediene v. George W. Bush, which invalidated the Bush administration’s denial of habeas corpus rights to prisoners at Guantanamo.4 An Algerian national, Boumediene was arrested in October 2001 in Sarajevo by Bosnian authorities alerted by the CIA to the suspicion that he was a terrorist. He was, in fact, a humanitarian aid worker with the Red Crescent (the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross), whose only apparent contact with any known terrorists came in the form of offering assistance to the family members of one man who had been apprehended. Boumediene spent seven years in Guantanamo. Exonerated by the Bosnian high court, along with five other Algerians arrested at the same time, he was never formally charged with any crimes by the U.S. Now free since mid-May, looking far older than his 43 years and relocated with his family to France, he recounts having been tortured repeatedly at Gitmo. So unbearable were the conditions of his imprisonment that Boumediene twice went on hunger strike; both times he was kept alive by force-feeding, arguably a form of torture in itself. He and the other Algerian detainees, also now released, claim the torture of detainees continues under the Obama administration.5

Mohammed Jawad (R), one of
the youngest detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is greeted by his grandfather at a family home in Kabul on August 25, 2009, the morning after he returned to Afghanistan. Jawad was accused of throwing a grenade that injured two U.S. soldiers and their interpreter in Kabul in 2002.

That stories such as Jawad’s and Boumediene’s capture far less public attention than the president’s choice of brew for an evening’s photo op is perhaps unsurprising, given the unpleasantness of the questions they raise. Yet, and this surely is cause for real concern, there is mounting evidence that many Americans are fairly resistant to seeing torture as all that much of a problem, let alone an outrage. At the end of July, The Economist published poll numbers derived from research conducted last year by World Public Opinion tracking global attitudes toward torture. “Surprisingly,” they noted, “democracies are not necessarily more hostile to the practice than non-democracies. According to the polls, Americans are more willing to tolerate the use of torture than are Chinese.” In the poll, the U.S. fell between Egypt and Russia, with a mere 53 percent of Americans saying “all torture should be prohibited,” as compared with 82 percent of respondents in Britain, France, and Spain.

Of course, these numbers are a year old, but as Jason Linkins noted in his July 31 blog on HuffingtonPost.com, even taking into account more recent American numbers collected by World Public Opinion, we still lag well behind the 66 percent of Chinese who oppose torture in all its forms. One way, Linkins notes, to account for this is the fact that China has a long established public history of torturing, and therefore a better organized base of opinion against these practices.6

But arguably another factor influencing U.S. responses is that we are unaccustomed to thinking about what we do as torture. We may from time to time engage in “enhanced interrogation” or “harsh questioning.” Or “special tactics,” as law professor and CNN consultant Richard Herman recently characterized the treatment of Mohammed Jawad in an interview with Fredricka Whitfield.7 But torture is something other regimes do. Obviously, it is not much of a leap from this line of thinking to the sanctioning of extraordinary rendition.

Inject religion into the debate, and things begin to look even worse. Survey data released last spring by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that a majority of regularly attending churchgoers in the U.S. say that torture is acceptable, at least under some circumstances. Questioned by the Associated Press as to whether Jesus would condone torture, Conservative commentator and Religious Right spokesman Gary Bauer speculated that Jesus Himself, being the Son of God, probably wouldn’t be a torturer (or, Bauer ventured, a Marine or a law enforcement officer), but He’d regard as “morally suspect” any of His followers who shrank from torturing for the sake of the greater good.8

One of the most vexing questions that keeps surfacing in the ongoing debate about torture is also the most chillingly pragmatic. Whatever you label it, does a technique such as waterboarding—the source of so much recent ideological hairsplitting—yield reliable information? This is not the same as asking, “Does it work?” Indubitably, it works, to the extent that it yields answers to questions posed under extreme duress. But—and the Mohammed Jawad case is merely the most recent illustration of this fact—those answers are not trustworthy. This crucial point cannot be overstated, as it gives the lie to the “ticking time-bomb” canard, promoted by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, among others, that in a post-9/11 War on Terrorism, torture may be the only last resort to prevent a major disaster.

This past May former FBI special agent Ali Soufan testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee panel that techniques such as waterboarding, “from an operational perspective, are slow, ineffective, unreliable, and harmful to our efforts to defeat al-Queda.” Soufan related that when he and other FBI agents were interrogating accused al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah using informal, trust-building techniques, they made significant progress in eliciting information from him. However, when CIA contractors took over the interrogation, at the point when they began to employ waterboarding, Zubaydah stopped producing reliable information.9 Indeed, over the course of a month during which he was subjected to waterboarding 83 times, in addition to other forms of torture ranging from exposure to extreme cold to stress positions that opened his partially healed wounds, Zubaydah revealed a prodigious amount of baseless “information.”

This could have been anticipated. After all, history provides ample arguments against the use of torture—and some of the best of these arguments derive from a religious source that might surprise those torture-condoning churchgoers Pew surveyed. I am referring to the most spectacular case of systematic torture in Western history: the Inquisition, and more particularly that aspect of it known as the “witchcraze,” which lasted roughly from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries in Europe. It offers definitive proof that torture is a highly unreliable way to secure good information.

Since Conservatives have likened calls for the investigation of alleged torture under government auspices to a latter-day “witch hunt,” it may be a good idea to take a look at those original witch hunts, which were conducted under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. There are, in fact, some interesting similarities between then and now.

The Inquisition targeted a particular population of dangerous individuals who were deemed to be an immediate threat to the public safety. It was held that witches killed babies. They caused male impotence and female infertility and miscarriages. They spoiled the crops by manipulating the weather. They caused the plague. And so on. The population identified as witches was mostly female. Indeed, the witchcraze has been called a “women’s holocaust.” However, it’s worth noting that as in the Nazi Holocaust, those accused of witchcraft also included mentally and physically disabled persons of both sexes, children, homosexuals, and Jews. Collectively, questions of individual guilt and innocence aside, these “heretics” were arguably the demonized “terrorists” of their time.

Title page of Malleus Maleficarum, a treatise
on witchcraft and demonology.

The witch trials were devised by the church on the expert advice of lawyers, many of whom were also priests. A key focus for these lawyers was the appropriate use of torture—they didn’t hesitate to call it that—in order to gain a confession, and hence a conviction. The inquisitors had at their disposal a handbook: the Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer Against Witches”), which was published with a papal imprimatur in 1484 by two Dominican priests, Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger. The logic employed in this document—covering areas such as the relative merits of red-hot irons as opposed to boiling water, and how to strike the right balance of food and/or sleep deprivation—is strikingly similar to that revealed in the Bush administration’s “torture memos” released in April by Obama’s Justice Department.

In the witch trials, as at Guantanamo, there was a general presumption of guilt, not innocence—although, ironically, accused witches had somewhat more habeas corpus rights than did Gitmo detainees before the Supreme Court’s Boumediene decision. Meticulous trial records were kept, and among the thousands of condemned witches (and to be accused was almost always to be condemned), a remarkably consistent pattern of testimony emerged. Their stories of their dealings with Satan, and of the precise details of their evil practice, were uncannily similar.

The stories were forced out of them. The point of the increasingly heinous three degrees of torture—this is the origin of our term “third degree”—was to get the accused persons to crack and admit to being witches according to the program laid down in the Malleus. They would also then admit to whatever it was that they had been accused of doing. To escape further torture, they would name neighbors as witches, and attest to their strange witchy behavior: their ability to fly, for example, or to cast spells, or to turn themselves into animals, or, in one of the inquisitors’ favorite fixations, to magically castrate men, in one striking case keeping their stolen “members” in bird nests where they fed them grain and corn.

In short, the witches said whatever the inquisitors wanted them to say, no matter how bizarre, based upon the latter’s preconceived expectations. So many people were implicated in this way at the Inquisition’s zenith that entire villages in northern Europe were basically wiped out. Farther south, the practice of waterboarding was one of the favorite torture techniques for Inquisitors in Spain and Italy. Indeed, while it appears to date back at least to the thirteenth century, the technique essentially as used today is described in considerable detail in documents from the Spanish Inquisition.10

Catholics weren’t the only ones employing torture to hunt down witches. In northern Europe, in Switzerland and in Britain, Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries exhibited their own gusto for hounding heretics, and—perhaps in part because it formed a counter-reaction to Catholic orthodoxy—with about as much rationality as the Catholic authorities displayed. A notable example, in this regard, were the North Berwick witch trials of 1590, in which more than 100 suspected witches in Scotland were tortured, tried, and many of them burned at the stake. Their collective crime? Causing the bad weather that put a damper on the honeymoon of Scottish King James VI (later James I of England) and his Danish bride. A century later, on American shores, Protestant witch-hunting reached its zenith in Salem, Massachusetts. Whereas Catholics had appealed to papal authority, Protestants used the Bible as their “hammer against witches,” with essentially the same irrational, and often tragic, outcome.

To draw a parallel between the witchcraze and the current torture debate is not to say that Gitmo detainees, or other suspected terrorists, should not be brought to justice. I do mean to suggest, however, that torturing them is not the way to get there. The contemporary Roman Catholic Church agrees. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Vatican are squarely opposed to torture in any and all circumstances. Last year, the USCCB issued a study guide, “Torture Is a Moral Issue,” that explicitly condemns practices such as waterboarding.11

Similarly, the National Council of Churches (NCC)—the country’s largest affiliation of Protestant and Orthodox churches—has launched a National Religious Campaign Against Torture. In June, under its auspices, 150 religious leaders representing Jewish, Muslim, and Christian denominations held a vigil outside the White House, calling on President Obama to form a commission of inquiry to investigate all past uses of torture by the government. “The churches that make up the National Council of Churches do not agree on all things,” the Reverend Dr. Michael Kinnamon, NCC general secretary, said, addressing the group, “but on this we agree: all human life is precious because it bears the image of God. Torture, by reducing victims to the status of despised objects, denies this preciousness, debasing tortured and torturers alike.”12

Speaking purely pragmatically, anyone who wonders about the practicality of waterboarding should look into, and learn from, the results achieved by the folk who perfected the technique in the first place. But One need not rely upon Christian theology to acknowledge this fact. But neither should one duck the implication that there is too markedly something of religious zeal in the defense of torture.


Mary Zeiss Stange is professor of Women’s Studies and Religion at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Earlier this year she wrote an op-ed in USA Today giving much of the same analysis as in this article.


  1. www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/07/30/world/main5197744.shtml
  2. www.mcclatchydc.com/homepage/story/72848.html
  3. andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/07/quote-for-the-day-6.html
  4. www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/25/AR2009052502263.html
  5. www.sanfranciscosentinel.com/?p=35790
  6. www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/07/31/ieconomisti-us-more-permi_n_248811.html
  7. CNN, Saturday, Aug. 1, 2009.
  8. Eric Gorski, “Torture Debate Prompts Evangelical Soul-Searching,” AP Report, abcnews.go.com/us/wireStory?id=7575979
  9. Deborah Tate, “Former FBI Agent Says Harsh Interrogation Techniques Not Reliable,” Voice of America, May 13, 2009, www.voanews.com/english/2009-05-13-voa55.cfm
  10. David M. Gitlitz, “Waterboarding and Inquisition,” The Providence Journal Online, Feb. 8, 2008, www.projo.com/opinion/contributors/content/CT_torture8_ 02-08-08_LJ8NASA_v18.38d1627.html
  11. USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, www.usccb.org/sdwp/stoptorture/
  12. www.ncccusa.org/news/090612nrcatdemonstration.html

Article Author: Mary Zeiss-Stange