Every Human Life

It is easy to forget what it was like in the days and weeks after the terrorist attacks and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center falling on September 11, 2001. Americans were afraid. The church I was serving at the time sits directly across the street from the 100 story John Hancock Building, a potential target if, as many feared, there were more attacks coming. I will never forget the sight of residents and office workers streaming from the Hancock Building and walking down the middle of the street past the church, west and away from the building. We sent the children and the staff of our pre-school home as well. I will also never forget the eerie sensation of realizing that the constant flow of incoming flights over the city heading toward O’Hare had ceased. The sky was empty– and the equally unsettling sensation days later when flights resumed and United and American planes – the same planes that were hijacked and turned into lethal weapons slamming into buildings, were descending over the city again.

For the first time in our lives we realized that there are people in the world who want to kill us for simply being who we are – citizens of the United States of America, and that our nation was terribly vulnerable. And so, at that moment of fear and vulnerability, our government moved as quickly as possible to prevent another attack, using every resource at its disposal to track down the people who planned and carried out the attacks, their support networks and other organizations and networks and individuals who had made no secret of their intent to harm us again.

Twelve years later we are discovering the methods our government employed. Before we condemn those methods – and some of them are abhorrent and worthy of condemnation- it is good simply to remember the situation that precipitated them and suggested to reasonable people that they were worth employing.

In addition, religious faith requires, I believe, realism about the human condition and the world we live in. The distinguished 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, broke with prominent pacifist academics and journalists in the 1930’s who, in his estimation were failing to take seriously the implications of the rise of fascism in Germany and Japan. It is not morally responsible – it is irresponsible – Niebuhr taught, to ignore evil and its potential for enormous human suffering and tragedy. Sometimes faithful people must resist, fight and overcome. So, before I begin to assess what we now know about the methods we used to combat terrorism, I must affirm my gratitude for our armed forces and intelligence agencies and the men and women who devote their lives to our security through them – and who are on the front lines in ways that the vast majority of us are not.

That said, what I now know about our practice of torture, secret prisons, renditions, makes me deeply sad and ashamed of us, all of us. There is no way, ultimately, to argue morally that the ends (national security) justify any means (torturing prisoners). There are simply things we should not do and torturing another human being is one of them. Our military has always understood that and forbids torture, not only because torturing one’s enemy invites the enemy to reciprocate, but more importantly, because it is wrong. Our nation, even in all-out war, has always held to certain core values that we like to think are particular to us as a nation and which must never be violated, and the God-given value of every human life is at the very center of them.

It is not, after all, as if torture is a proven method for getting at the truth. Reasonable people argue both sides, but even if it were proven that torture works, it would still be a denial of our highest and best national values.

My moral guide in this matter in addition to Reinhold Niebuhr, is Senator John McCain, certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to using military force, and anything but a pacifist. Yet, Senator McCain continues courageously to argue forcefully against the use of any form of torture. The authenticity of his argument is grounded in his own experience. He understands as few do. He was subjected to years of torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors during the Vietnam War. John McCain says torture doesn’t work and is wrong. I believe him.


  1. What is interesting to me however, is that it wasn’t quite the case that a handful of people, terrified and hurried as you suggest, in a fit of desperation, slapped a prisoner, or threatened him in an instant, or even did more terrible things to him. This was torture by plan, by policy. They even took the time to shop around and get lawyers to weigh in and call what they did “legal.” This wasn’t Bonhoeffer choosing a difficult option and agonizing over it later, not at all sure that his soul was safe having done what he’d done. This truly doesn’t feel like people behaving as best they could, willing to get their own hands dirty, so afraid were they for the fate of innocents. Somebody had to negotiate with two psychologists, who were eventually paid 81 million dollars. Can you imagine taking that kind of money for what you knew had crossed a horrific line, but which you believed was your only option? Who becomes a psychologist planning to make that kind of money?

    And its worth noting, this wasn’t done simply in the months following 9/11, when we were all waiting for the other shoe to drop, as you say. This was done for years. One could say it is still happening in Guantanamo, for no purpose whatsoever.

    I’m also surprised that we are not remembering Abu Ghraib in our recent discussions. How did low level soldiers get the idea that this behavior was acceptable — didn’t they get wind of the contempt with which prisoners were already being treated?

    Niebuhr also wrote “Moral Man and Immoral Society” in which he observed that groups of people will behave worse than individuals. This seems to be what happened, some sort of reinforcement loop in which the worst instincts prevailed.

  2. I’m surprised by your essay, John. What our country did (continues to do?) requires a deeper insight into the world we live in and the human condition. As a political idealist, I believe in my bones that people will ultimately organize themselves around interests beyond their own selfish needs as we are doing in the Black Lives Matter movement. But if men and sometimes women need to willfully, gleefully torture their fellows as they have from the beginning of time, don’t we have a greater responsibility to explore this evil as a part of who we are as humans? Senator McCain may be a good moral guide in this one aspect of evil-doing due to his own experience but what would he be without that experience? He is certainly no moral guide when it comes to war-mongering. He is a warrior whose first instinct is to kill the other guy.

  3. Of find the last reply unsettling, a self described political idealist likely understands that without “warriors” political discourse would have many restrictions. The fact is most warriors have a short term of service. Even John McCain did not remain a professional member of the Military. However I was a professional military member, I studied and practiced Military Science for 24 years. I as a soldier did not hope for war and I have no instinct to kill anyone. No soldier has an instinct to kill, we receive training to learn to fight, as a matter of fact humans do not have instincts, and in spite what is implied soldiers are human, and serve as humans our Country.

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