Terrorism and Torture

Posted on July 23, 2013 at 11:16 am,

This is the latest in our series critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today we’re looking at part of the chapter on Defence policy, specifically looking at what he says about torture and terrorism. We should note that Grudem only looks at Islamic terrorism – whilst other forms of terrorism (e.g. separatist groups) probably kill more people worldwide, his country is not really threatened by them.

What Motivates the Terrorists?

Grudem spends some time going into the history of Islamic terrorism, drawing on a book called The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, which he says is the most extensive and authoritative history of Islamic terrorism in recent times. The picture he paints is that its roots are a particular extremist version of Islam, rather than poverty, or a reaction to Western foreign policy. He says that their motivation is to establish Islamic rule over as much of the world as possible, and that they focus on the US because it is the only power capable of blocking the restoration of the ancient Caliphate (i.e. restoring a single religious government over the Islamic world).

Grudem dismisses any suggestion that American (and, by extension, Western) foreign policy is even partially a contributing factor. He rejects any suggestion that Western military action in the Islamic World is a cause of resentment. He thinks that the idea that successful military attacks on terrorists might help them is absurd, and that terrorist attacks will dry up once the terrorists realise that they will be defeated by superior military force.

This view is seems naïve in two respects. Firstly, there is lots of evidence that Western intervention in the Middle East (particularly Iraq) has increased sympathy for groups like Al Qaeda within sections of the Islamic world, and served as a very effective recruiting tool for them. Secondly, there are many examples of terrorist groups continuing to thrive for decades despite being faced with overwhelming military force (the IRA and various Palestinian groups being the first ones to come to mind). Grudem believes that, because there is nothing that can be negotiated, violence is the only way to beat these groups, even though military solutions have a very bad track record against terrorism – negotiation and tradtional counter-terrorism strategies (e.g. infiltrating the groups) have, historically speaking, been far more reliable.

Grudem also makes the point that it’s rather difficult to capture a suicide bomber after the crime.

Security vs Liberty

Grudem also looks at the issue of what the security services get up to. He refers to a story in the New York Times that revealed the US government was trying to trace terrorists through the banking system, claiming that it led the terrorists to change banks, which apparently prevented things from being traced. He thinks that the person who leaked the story should be prosecuted for endangering lives. Grudem seems to think that the main impact of the story was that the terrorists were now aware that they could be traced that way. However, that suggests that they had either very little common sense, or no real knowledge of how the banking system works (despite being perfectly capable of money laundering).

Grudem also brings up objections to “warrantless wiretapping” – the security services listening in to whatever phone calls they want. The objection is often raised that such surveillance should only be undertaken if a judge issues a court order allowing it – thus ensuring that there is some form of legal oversight. Grudem rejects this because he believes that you would have to get a court order for each phone call you tap, and that terrorists keep changing mobile phones in order to avoid the phone call being listened to. He doesn’t consider the possibility that wiretapping court orders could be issued against the person, rather than against their mobile phone. Concluding this point, Grudem rejects the idea that wiretapping should be subject to due process because the “small threat” of invasion of privacy is “insignificant” compared to the potential protection against terrorist attacks.

Grudem also has a section praising the CIA. He says that criticism of the CIA (or, by implication, any other part of a nation’s security services) is destructive to the nation, as it undermines the morale of their employees, makes it more difficult for them to recruit, and more difficult to carry on their work. He, therefore, considers that “opposition to the CIA as a general attitude of mind” is opposition to the United States itself. He does say that it is necessary for there to be some oversight of their activities, but laments that such oversight has sometimes led to damaging security leaks.

I find Grudem’s attitude on this whole issue slightly worrying, as he completely downplays the need for some kind of oversight of the security services. His answer to the old question of “who watches the watchmen?” is “as few people as possible, as little as possible”. Yes, we shouldn’t get hysterical about organisations like the CIA. But we do need to be aware that the kind of powers they have can easily be abused, and that the security services need to be held accountable to ensure that they do not abuse their powers. There is certainly a case to be made that the reaction to 9/11 has put all the pieces in place to turn several Western nations into police states.

Hearts and Minds

Whilst Grudem’s main theme on dealing with terrorists is to use military force, he does point out that we need to turn people away from terrorists. He says that it is important to get governments on board, because it is apparently hard for terrorist training camps and cells to remain for long in a nation without at least passive tolerance by national government. This is somewhat overstating the case – separatist terrorists don’t seem to have a problem keeping their cells going under a hostile government. But it is true that it is easier to fight terrorism if the relevant government is on your side, rather than the terrorists’.

He also says that we need to persuade people in Muslim nations to turn against the terrorists. This is where I would place the emphasis – persuading Muslims to reject the particular stream of Islam that the Islamicists depend on. Grudem says that doing this will require a strong US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan for some time to come, in order to provide the neighbourhood security necessary for peace-making efforts. Whilst he is right that it will be difficult to win hearts and minds without some measure of security, he is wrong that it needs to be provided by the US. It could equally well be provided by the Iraqi and Afghan governments, or by an international (United Nations?) peacekeeping force. In fact, since Grudem wrote his book, British and American forces have begun withdrawing from both nations – leaving the security to the locals.

Whilst Grudem doesn’t acknowledge that Western intervention in the Muslim world helps terrorist propaganda , he says that American morality does. He says that because Americans (and, presumably, Westerners) have lax moral standards when it comes to things like alcohol, sex, drugs, gambling, pornography, and the like it is easy for the Islamicists to say that the world needs a strict implementation of Sharia law.


Grudem spends a lot of time talking about the issue of torture, though he insists that the word itself is useless – preferring to use terms such as “enhanced interrogation”. He begins with the Geneva convention – that prisoners of war should be treated with respect. He believes that this is because the aim of holding them should be to prevent them from rejoining the war. Grudem also believes that somebody who deliberately attacks civilians and fights out of uniform forfeits the right to any such protections, and thus some torture techniques are justified. He doesn’t explain why such people should not be treated like normal criminal suspects.

Grudem cites the “ticking time bomb” scenario – where we know for certain that the suspect is a terrorist, and that there is an imminent terrorist attack that they know the details of, and which we could prevent if we had that information – as a situation in which torture might be necessary or useful. He ignores the fact that such a scenario will almost never happen, as we cannot be certain we’ve got the right person. Also, if a terrorist cell has any brains, they would change their plans as soon as they realised that their colleague had been picked up by the security services.

What are the limits?

Grudem lists five things that should never be part of an interrogation.

  1. Inherently immoral actions (e.g. raping the prisoner)
  2. Denying medical treatment
  3. Sadistic humiliation (such as what happened at Abu Ghraib)
  4. Forcing a prisoner to violate religious convictions that pose no threat (e.g. giving a Muslim prisoner pork and alcohol)
  5. To carry out any actions that would “shock the conscience” of a US court, such as causing lasting physical damage

Grudem is in favour of allowing interrogators to inflict some level of physical pain on prisoners. He cites things like using pressure points on the body, using drugs like Sodium Pentathol (“truth serum”), and waterboarding.

Does it work?

Grudem rejects claims that torture doesn’t work, citing a handful of cases where it is said to have produced some useful intelligence. He doesn’t really do justice to the claims that it doesn’t work. Nobody is saying that torture never produces correct information. Instead, opponents of torture claim that it will often produce incorrect information – people will say what they think the torturers want to hear in order to get the pain to stop. This claim has been repeatedly made by intelligence agents with experience. (references here, here, here, and here

2 Trackbacks

  1. By This Blog Was Torture | Annika van Oosbree on January 21, 2014 at 8:26 pm

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  2. […] some Islamic Jihadists to attack them as well. This is in contrast to his claims in the chapter on Defence policy that US actions in the Islamic world have nothing to do with the reasons the US is a target for […]

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