By Josh Madson
On September 13, 2003, Alyssa Peterson tragically ended her life. The third female soldier to die in Iraq since the invasion, Alyssa was a devout Mormon who had served a mission in the Netherlands. Shortly after her religious service, Alyssa volunteered to serve in the military. She was adept at learning languages and was sent to Arabic training school. Alyssa later volunteered to go to Iraq in place of another who did not want to go.
It was about this time in a conference room at the Pentagon that Donald Rumsfeld, frustrated from a lack of good intel, ordered the military to “gitmo-ize the situation” in Abu Ghraib and Iraq. Results of which we have all seen in the photos and videos that emerged from Abu Ghraib. It was in this situation that Alyssa Peterson, then serving in Tal-Afar, Iraq, found herself shortly before her death. We know that “Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage. Army spokespersons for her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those techniques have now been destroyed. …” After a confrontation with superiors, she was put on suicide watch and assigned to guard a gate. Alyssa “avoided eating with her interrogation team and spent time reading at her desk when she did not have other assignments.” Shortly thereafter, Alyssa was found dead in a field with her service rifle in the grass next to her.
“The reactions to the suicide were that she was having a difficult time separating her personal feelings from her professional duties. That was the consistent point in the testimonies, that she objected to the interrogation techniques, without describing what those techniques were.” We may never know the specific reasons Alyssa ended her life because the government is yet to release her suicide note. What we do know however is that Alyssa who had spent 18 months of her life preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to complete strangers, seeing them as children of God was later placed into a situation where she was asked to treat human beings as objects and torture them. Perhaps she felt as Kayla Williams, a fellow soldier who talked to Alyssa one week before her death and also protested the techniques used at Tal-Afar, when she stated the real problem with such techniques is that it, “made me question my humanity and the humanity of all Americans. It was difficult and to this day, I can no longer think I am a really good person and will do the right thing in the right situation.”
In perhaps an even stranger irony, these techniques she was asked to perform were in part reverse engineered by two Mormons known in the CIA as the “Mormon mafia.” James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were part of a classified group known as SERE that trained US soldiers to withstand interrogation techniques. Mitchell and Jessen were handpicked to reverse engineer communist interrogation techniques and teach them to CIA interrogators. These techniques included waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and others. It was with the capture of Abu Zubaydah in March of 2002 that Mitchell and Jesse had their first chance to use their “enhanced” interrogation techniques.
Zubaydah was a mess when he was captured. Unable to eat, drink, sit, or control his bowels, the FBI began the process of nursing his wounds. At one point, Zubaydah turned septic and nearly died. While Zubaydah was being treated humanely by the FBI, he revealed one key intelligence detail: the identity of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. Shortly thereafter, the CIA interrogation team arrived and began the techniques designed by Mitchell and Jessen. Ronald Suskind reported that they strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, threatened him with certain death, withheld medication, bombarded him with noise and lights, and deprived him of sleep. At one point, the CIA had even began construction on a coffin to bury Zubaydah alive. It is no surprise that Dr. R. Scott Shumate, then chief operational psychologist for the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, packed his bags and left in disgust after witnessing Mitchell and Jessen’s techniques.
Under these conditions, Zubaydah began to “speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty.” Never mind that Zubaydah was in fact mentally ill and not the pivotal figure they believed him to be. Zubaydah’s diary he kept for more than a decade had three separate voices: a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. Dan Coleman, the FBI’s top al-Qaeda analyst, stated, “This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality,” and referring to the CIA stated, “They all knew he was crazy.” Newsweek reported that one FBI agent “was so offended he threatened to arrest the CIA interrogators.”
More revealing is the testimony of John Kiriakou, the CIA interrogator of Zubaydah, who when asked whether he had legal authority for his actions in an ABC news interview stated, “Absolutely. Absolutely. I remember – I remember being told when – the President signed the – the authorities that they had been approved – not just by the National Security Counsel, but by the – but by the Justice Department as well, I remember people being surprised that the authorities were granted.” Zubaydah’s interrogation went on for months and we now know that the hundreds of hours of videotapes of his treatment were destroyed in November, 2005. In the case of Zubaydah we have direct involvement of top government officials, including the president, barbaric forms of torture, and meaningless intelligence from an already mentally ill man. As Suskind writes, “the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.”
Soon these same techniques; first used in CIA blacks sites and then used in Guantanamo found their way to Iraq resulting in the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and in the crisis Alyssa Peterson found herself leading to her death. Meanwhile, Mitchell and Jessen got paid more than $1,000 per day plus expenses, tax free, for their overseas work and Mitchell finally purchased his dream house in Florida. It was Aldous Huxley who remarked that “the people who kill and torture and tell lies in the name of their sacred causes… these are never the publicans and the sinners. No, they’re the virtuous, respectable men, who have the finest feelings, the best brains, the noblest ideals.”
Often the discussion surrounding torture concerns its effectiveness. However, there is a much more fundamental discussion that is needed when we address torture. If we assume that torture works, then the decision we must face is whether it is better to suffer a nuclear attack than save human life through morally compromised methods. At what point are we justified in not only killing but torturing another human being for the chance that they might know something that might save lives?
Torture has been used by a variety of unsavory groups and governments in history including our own. From the tormenta de toca (water cure) used during the Spanish Inquisition to elicit confessions, sleep deprivation used by Stalin to elicit confessions, the “VerschärfteVernehmung”or “enhanced interrogation” used by Nazis, and the Khmer Rouge’s use of waterboarding on dissidents. The former Prime Minister of Israel Menachim Begin described his sleep deprivation torture by the KGB as “In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep… Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.” One individual who voluntarily submitted to a waterboarding experiment described the complete loss of control and willpower. It was not pain he remarked but “at the time my lungs emptied and I began to draw water, I would have sold my children to escape. There was no choice, or chance, and willpower was not involved.”
In our own history, US soldiers used a primitive form of waterboarding in the Phillipine-American war, “water is poured onto his face, down his throat and nose … until the man gives some sign of giving in or becomes unconscious … His suffering must be that of a man who is drowning, but who cannot drown.” This is the same technique Japanese soldiers used on US soldiers in WWII and were tried as war criminals and one Japanese soldier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. This same technique later found it’s way into police stations and military prisons particularly in the south.
In 1926 Mississippi’s highest court, in Fisher v. State, 110 So. 361, 362 (Miss. 1926), ruled a murderer’s confession be overturned because of “the water cure, a specie of torture well known to the bench and bar of the country.” This was based upon an earlier case, White v. State, 182, 91 So. 903, 904 (Miss. 1922), that overturned a murder conviction of a young black man whose hands “were tied behind him, he was laid upon the floor upon his back, and, while some of the men stood upon his feet, Gilbert, a very heavy man, stood with one foot entirely upon appellant’s breast, and the other foot entirely upon his neck. While in that position what is described as the “water cure” was administered to him in an effort to extort a confession as to where the money was hidden which was supposed to have been taken from the dead man. The “water cure” appears to have consisted of pouring water from a dipper into the nose of appellant, so as to strangle him, thus causing pain and horror, for the purpose of forcing a confession. Under these barbarous circumstances the appellant readily confessed.” We should never forget that in the years from the civil war to civil rights, thousands of people were tortured and many killed by our own citizens. In one infamous lynching in Paris, Texas, a crowd of 10,000 men, women, and children took photos, ate popcorn, all the while a black man was tortured and burned alive.
Torture does what the Russian writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn described in The Gulag Archipelago, it “befogs the reason, undermines the will, and the human being ceases to be himself, to be his own ‘I.’” All of these techniques and methods share the same goal: to break the human will. How should we react as Christians and Mormons to torture?
One of the fundamental values of Mormonism is the idea that God believes in free will and respects each individual soul. Mormons also believe that there was a decision made that free will was more important than using compulsion to prevent countless tragedies whether it was genocide, rape, child abuse, or even the salvation of our eternal souls. If free will is so sacred to God, how can we every justify doing what even God himself will not do: robbing a human soul of its will, its “I am.” It is a basic Christian tenet that we are to love our enemies and do good unto those who hate us. It is not just in the generalities that we are Christian, but in the particularities of turning the other cheek and enemy love. Christ is clear that this is how we become Sons of God. How we treat our enemies is an indicator of our level of discipleship. This says more about our Christianity than any professed creeds or ideas.
There are things more important than saving human life. This is not a question of self-righteous victimhood but an issue of self-preservation. Torture is ultimately about our own personal and national soul. When Peter learned of Christ’s future suffering and death on the cross, he rebuked the Lord and tried to prevent it. It is wise to remember the Savior’s words in response. He reminded Peter that we are to take up his cross and that if there are not boundaries we will not cross even to save our lives, we may lose our very soul. The real question is what will we exchange for our own soul, for our national soul? If we are willing to torture and break another’s will, we may be as worthy of Christ’s rebuke as Peter was, “Get behind me, Satan: you are a scandal to me: for you do not understand the things God, but those of men.”
Before Christ left he promised he would send us the comforter (parakletos). Satan is the accuser. The parakletos is the defender of the accused (Greek for defense attorney, the defender of victims). Jesus was tortured and crucified so that no one else would have to be a victim again. When we torture and when we kill victims, we deny the parakletos, the spirit. This is how we crucify Christ again and deny the holy spirit (the parakletos), the call to defend the accused. Stalin tortured men in the name of Russia, the Inquisition in the name of the church, Hitler in the name of German Nationalism, and our own government tortures in the name of freedom and liberty. At the end of the day, if we torture we are torturers and we deny the power and meaning of the cross.