I have been reading Paul Kahn's book Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty. Since the release of the Bush torture memos I've been thinking through Kahn's analysis as I watch the reactions coming from the political left and the right on this issue. More specifically, I've been wondering what a distinctively Christian approach to this issue might me.
Kahn's basic point in Sacred Violence is that the debate between liberals and conservatives on the issue of torture is being conducted upon a foundational misunderstanding. A misunderstanding which leaves, and will continue to leave, liberals and conservatives at loggerheads.
Kahn's analysis is that there are two distinct forces governing political life: Law and sovereignty. Law is the shorthand for our social contract, the agreements we negotiate to live collectively. Law is the great product of the Enlightenment and liberal democracies. By contrast, sovereignty involves the sacred rights of a king or government to rule. By calling sovereignty sacred Kahn means that this is the space of sacrifice, the space of killing or being killed. The space of war, revolution, torture, terror and martyrdom. At stake in sovereignty is a deeper question than law: What, politically speaking, am I willing to die for?
According to Kahn, the mistake liberals have made is that they think the issues of sovereignty have been left behind or trumped by the Enlightenment. The era of the Divine Right of Kings, the scaffold, the rack and the guillotine have been surpassed by democracies and the rule of law. But Kahn argues that this is a misreading of history. The sacred space of sovereignty is still very much with us, only in a different guise. Rather than a single divine sovereign, a King, demonstrating power through torture (e.g., the scaffold), we have a democratic sovereign where every citizen is expected to take up arms in defense of a sacred union. The location of sovereignty has become internalized, it is a matter of allegiance. Kahn points out that this sacred pledge to sacrifice is best demonstrated by the naturalization oath one must take to become a United States citizen:
I hereby declare, on oath,
that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen;
that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic;
that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;
that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law;
that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law;
that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion;
so help me God.
In sum, liberals, working with Enlightenment categories, fail to understand that torture is located in the space of sovereignty. By claiming that torture is illegal or immoral liberals are, in the conservative mind, missing the point. The point, for the conservative, isn't about Kantian ethics (e.g., the Golden Rule) or utilitarianism (e.g., Does torture promote our interests in the long run?). The point is one of loyalty, of sacred allegiance.
This disjoint is most clearly seen in the ticking time bomb debates. If a terrorist had set up a bomb to detonate in a populated area and you had the terrorist in custody would you torture the terrorist to get the location of the bomb so that thousands of lives could be saved?
There is a lot of conversation swirling around the ticking time bomb scenario. Does the ticking time bomb apply to the US torture situation? Is torture effective in getting information? And so on. These are all important questions but, at the end of the day, Kahn suggests that they continue to miss the critical issue: Would you, in fact, torture someone in the ticking time bomb scenario?
If you answer yes then you admit that torture has a location, a place in our political world. We might not agree on the exact location or how large the area is, but we agree torture exists within the horizon of our world. For the liberal such an admission feels like a failure. Something medieval has slinked from the past into the Age of Reason.
But if you say no in the ticking time bomb scenario, even on moral grounds, your fundamental allegiances are called into question. You, as a part of this social contract, are not willing to protect your fellow citizens and neighbors. This is essentially a religious failure.
Now, for a moment, I don't want you to approach this issue as a Christian (if you are one). I want you to approach the issue as a secular politician, as someone whose sacred allegiance is to the United States of America. For the liberal politician we can see how the ticking time bomb places them in a bind. As a liberal the politician does not want to admit that torture has a location in our world, particularly our world. So he can't say yes, I'd torture. But he also can't say no as such a response implies that he would, for moral quibbles, fail to protect the US people.
The point here is that, although there are vitally important debates going on about the utility (e.g., is the information reliable, impact upon American's reputation, motivation upon terror recruitment) and morality of torture, the debate about the legality of torture, for Kahn, misses the point. Torture is an act of war. War isn't illegal. War is in a different location. Torture exists in that same space. This is why conservatives keep saying "this is a war" through the torture debates.
War and the Enlightenment social contract exist in two different spaces. Liberals want to eliminate torture by an appeal to the social contract (law, morality, reason) while conservatives locate torture in the space of sovereign warfare and sacrifice, a place outside the law. With the location of torture unspecified liberals and conservatives cannot reach an agreement. Each is working with two different sociopolitical topographies.