Dick Cheney, torture and teshuvah

According to press reports, Dick Cheney’s memoir, set to be released this week, is one long exercise is not regretting any decision he made while serving as Vice-President of the United States. This is a shame. The first step in teshuvah, repentance, is recognizing the wrongs that one has committed. Cheney, rather, articulates his continued support for interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, extremes of heat and cold, sleep deprivation, long-term isolation, sensory deprivation and stress positions. It’s clear he will continue to defend his authorization of such torture and has no remorse for the criminal acts of torture he authorized. Cheney could have helped in the effort to repair the harms caused by torturing prisoners by expressing some regret for his actions. He has not.

I have found that the greatest challenge for me in talking about torture, about why torture is, from the point of view Judaism and from the point of view of the larger faith community, completely forbidden, is getting beyond the initial gut level response of—but of course it’s forbidden, how can any sentient being think otherwise. However, as with many things, the obvious needs to be articulated for those, like the former Vice-President, for whom, as a result of force of habit or willing blindness and moral obtuseness, the obvious is not so obvious. So we begin at the beginning.

Genesis Chapter one verse 27.

And God created the human in his own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female he created them.

The basic facts that the Torah wants us to know about the creation of the first human is that God created the human as male and female and that God created them in God’s image. This divine image, the tzelem elohim in Hebrew, is the guarantor of the human’s humanity. The biblical answer to the question: “what is it to be human?” is: to be created in the image of God.

To be created in the image of God brings with it the very notion of a life worth caring for, a life precious for its own sake. In chapter 9 of Genesis, the Torah records God saying:

He who sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.

The reason that an accounting for the blood of a human will be demanded by God (from person or animal) is that humans are made in the image of God. The corollary of this is that denying a person their divine image, and even more so erasing that Divine image, is at the same time denying or destroying their very humanity.

Having been created in the image of God means many different things. For the midrash, it is the extraordinary synthesis and integration between body and mind or soul that is emblematic of the Divine image. For this reason the Torah (Deuteronomy 21:23) says of one who was executed as a result of a death sentence:

you shall not let his corpse stay the night on a tree but you shall surely bury it on that day, for a hanged man is God’s curse.

The midrash explains that leaving the executed corpse hanging overnight is the same as if the bust of a king were being desecrated. It is the human being, body and soul which represents the Divine and cannot be desecrated, for in that desecration God is desecrated.

For the medieval rationalist philosophers like the great 13th century Sage Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, being created in the image of God means having an intellect and intellectual capacity. The ability to make rational choices and arrive at rational decisions, the ability to acquire knowledge and to know God, these are all aspects of the Divine image in a person.

When one human being tortures another, the point of the torture is to destroy the humanity, the Divine image of the person being tortured. Pain, in the torture situation, is not applied towards any specific end. The words that are used in torture interrogations, as Elaine Scarry has argued, are not the actual language of the torturer. The questions which seem to be requesting information are only the background to the language of pain in which the torturer refocuses the torture victim’s whole consciousness on their body and its pain. The torturer assumes the role of God in that room and the torture is deployed so as to undermine any sense of free will, any ability to formulate actual rational thoughts and choices. The distortion of a torture victim’s body and soul through torture is not a by product of the torture, it is its purpose. The lasting effects and long-term insidiousness of torture is that very loss of tzelem, humanity which is hard to regain.

This moment of the destruction of a person’s tzelem elohim is the reason that torture needs to be absolutely forbidden. Beyond the arguments that torture is not reliable (since torture victims will say anything to stop the pain) or whether or not there really might ever be an actual “ticking time bomb” situation, beyond all this is the prohibition against destroying a person’s tzelem elohim. This is what we affirm when we read the decalogue.

God introduces Godself by declaring: “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of Egypt out of the House of Bondage.”

What is the content of this introduction? God took Israel out of slavery, out of the state of being a slave. What is that state? It is a state in which one’s tzlelem elohim is erased. When Moses came to the Israelites with the message that they were to be redeemed by the God of their ancestors, the Israelites “did not heed Moses out of shortness of breath and hard bondage.” They were unable to comprehend because their bodies and souls had been distorted by the torturous slavery.

The corresponding prohibition to the opening saying (as we think of the two tablets in parallel) is: “Do not murder.” Slaves are those who can be tortured or killed with impunity since their essential humanity, which is their Divine image is not recognized.

We manifest God’s presence in the world by recognizing that God is the guarantor of every person’s humanity, that every person is made in the image of God and that it is absolutely forbidden for another person to demean and destroy that image of God.

As a first step towards a national teshuvah, we have a moral obligation to fully investigate the government’s past use of torture, not to brush it under the rug or excuse it in the name of national security. The United States must establish a Commission of Inquiry that fully investigates all aspects of the use of torture by the United States to ensure that U.S.-sponsored torture never happens again.  We must refuse to allow Dick Cheney’s moral obtuseness define us as a nation.