*I just learned that I am being misinterpreted in a news article at the International Business Times. The reporter misquotes the title of this blog post (saying I find the report to condemn the Church, rather than to condemn the moral reasoning of some members) and then takes quotes out of context to make it seem like I am basically anti-Mormon (she says I conclude by saying we are morally bankrupt if we consider Bybee and Jessen to represent the best LDS moral thinking; I do say that, but I keep talking. In fact the next sentence is “I believe that the Church, the Gospel, and the Doctrine are great.”). I am not anti-Mormon and neither is this post. If you come here from that article, please know that this is not the post you are looking for.*
Since the release of the Senate torture report yesterday, one thought has refused to leave me: we contributed to this. Not just in the sense that Mormons overwhelming supported the Bush administration that implemented this approach nor in the sense that Mormons reportedly are very overrepresented in the intelligence community. No, two Mormons were very prominent in the drafting and the implementation of these policies and they are, by all accounts, considered to be good Mormons. Our brothers did this; so are we their keepers or no?
Bruce Jessen and Jay Bybee are our fellow saints. Jessen was called to be a bishop in 2012, years after having made a cool $80 million by developing the guidelines for developing the torture techniques used on Al-Qaeda terrorists and, possibly, anybody else who happened to wind up in the CIA’s black sites. He resigned from his calling one week after accepting it. Bybee, at the time a Justice Department Official, gave the protocols legal authorization, in spite of the fact that before and since a host of legal scholars and other politicians have declared the protocols illegal under international and U.S. law. Bybee has since become a federal judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and he continues to defend his decisions as legally correct (although, reportedly, he has expressed regret behind closed doors).
Certainly Bybee was under tremendous pressure (and was possibly influenced by deceptive information) when he signed the memos. Certainly Jessen was hoping to help his country. Neither of these factors mitigate what they did, while they may contribute to our understanding of how they acted. The truth is they were asked by their superiors to find a way around the most basic human rights and they did.
Mormons are known for being good folk, quick to help in a disaster, organized and generally happy. But there are also assumptions about our behavior, our deference to authority, that frequently appear. Take this quote from an article about Bybee, for instance.
Professor Blakesley said that while he liked Judge Bybee, “he has some basic flaws including being very naïve about leaders.”
“He has too much respect for authority and will avoid a confrontation no matter what,” the professor continued.
Consider the famous Milgram experiment. Should we consider what happened with Bybee and Jessen to be just another example of this? Possibly we are just average Americans, unlikely to question authority if it assures us that we act for the greater good and bear no personal responsibility. But I think that they aren’t wrong to note our deference to authority.
Am I alone in having met Mormons who argue that they hope to have the faith of Nephi or Abraham? Specifically the faith to take another person’s life because God asks? Does God or do the Twelve simply require yes-men? When, in Abraham, God states that we’ll be tested to see if we will do all things whatsoever [he] shall command [us], if we do that, is it to our salvation or our condemnation? After all, as God says in Ezekiel 25:25, after establishing that the people would not live according to the good commandments he had already given them, “I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live.”
I am no prophet and I don’t seek to counsel the Lord. But if we, as a people, are creating good men who do not understand that it is inherently wrong to torture even the worst offenders, then we are not doing a good job at creating good men. If we create men who understand that torture is wrong in the abstract, but when faced with the pressure of keeping a job, the greed of potential government largesse, the opportunity to justify revenge and torture in the name of national security, they fold and authorize it, we are not doing a good job at creating good men. This should not be a position up for debate. I’m disgusted that it ever was.
I believe in repentance and I believe that the Lord can and will forgive these men their sins. I certainly hope he’ll do it for me. But if they represent the moral judgment of Mormonism’s best and brightest, the people who succeed in Washington and elsewhere, then we are morally bankrupt. If we can rouse ourselves to condemn young girls for wearing short skirts or or the terminally ill for wishing for a relatively quick and painless death, but we can’t find the wherewithal to come out strong and publicly against torture, then we are morally bankrupt.
I believe that the Church, the Gospel, and the Doctrine are great. They are all capable of inspiring people and movements to greatness. I’ve seen glimpses of it in my life. If we wish to build Zion, it is necessary that we find this inspiration. But we won’t and can’t so long as we are also capable of raising up torturers who consider themselves, and are considered to be by the church at large, good Mormons.