The Story: Alaska Governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin explains one way U.S. counterterrorism policy would change if she were president: “Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”
The Background: In a speech to members of the National Rifle Association, gathered in Indianapolis this weekend, Sarah Palin made the sacrilegious remark about how she would treat terrorists.
Why It Matters: For anyone to confess Christ as their savior and to compare one of the means of God’s grace to an act of torture is reprehensible. I hope members of Gov. Palin’s local church will explain to her why her remarks denigrate the Christian faith. Such remarks bring shame on the Body of Christ and to our witness in the world. Even more shameful, however, is the fact that so many Christians would cheer her support of torture (and yes, waterboarding is torture).
Gov. Palin was attempting to appeal to the basest political populism (nothing in her remarks could be construed as genuinely conservative) by claiming that current U.S. counterterrorism policy is overly-tolerant and empathetic toward our enemies. She contends that proper policies would “put the fear of God into our enemies.”
Unfortunately, what Palin is proposing is a mixture of pagan ethics and civil deistic religion. She could have provided a more useful recommendation by supporting a Christian view, for on this issue in particular, Christian anthropology not only provides the correct view but the only one that can provide an adequate framework in which to form our conception of our “enemies.”
As political scientist Glenn Tinder notes, the human being is both fallen and exalted, sacred and yet morally degraded. These two aspects of humanity cannot be separated. A fact, Tinder admits, that is “hard for common sense to grasp.” Indeed, it is almost impossible to grasp when we try to apply this concept to our enemies. We often fall for one of two extremes.
The “liberal” position criticized by Palin (more accurately framed as the liberal cosmopolitan elite position), tends to be overly empathetic in an attempt to understand and “humanize” our foes. As Palin notes (albeit hyperbolically) they take the view that we cannot “offend them” or “make them feel uncomfortable.”
But this is just one of the ways in which we can err. The “right-wing populist” position supported by Palin, seeks retribution and “dehumanizes” our opponents in order to distance them from ourselves, can be just as dangerous, particularly for those who must carry out the fight against terrorism.
Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles In Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, found that dehumanizing the enemy during the Vietnam war caused psychological damage to American troops:
Restoring honor to the enemy is an essential step in recovery from combat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). While other things are obviously needed as well, the veteran’s self-respect never fully recovers so long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy. In the words of one of our patients, a war against subhuman vermin “has no honor.” This in true even in victory; in defeat, the dishonoring makes life unendurable. (Achilles, pg. 115)
In our attempts to dehumanize our enemy we end up becoming less than human ourselves. It would be a Pyrrhic victory to save civilization and lose our humanity.
We must never hesitate to defend our culture, our future, and our lives against those who seek to destroy us. The liberal cosmopolitan elite appeal to tolerance and understanding in the face of such an enemy is suicidal. However, the right-wing populist position, which is willing to face up to and address the evil of terrorism, fails to understand the ramifications of becoming like the enemy by dehumanizing them.
The truly Christian position is to never forget that evil comes not just from the actions of “terrorists” or “enemies” but from the heart of fallen, sacred yet degraded, human beings. If we are to preserve our own humanity we must not forget that our enemy differs from us in degree, not in kind. Like us, our enemies need to accept Jesus and to be baptized by water and the Spirit. That is the Christian way, not as Palin would have it, to have our enemies fear a pagan god and have their spirit broken by water.