“Why is shooting an unarmed man [Osama bin Laden] in the face legal and proper while enhanced interrogation, including waterboarding of a detainee under very strict controls and limits — why is that over the line?”

Chris Wallace posed this interesting question to National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon a couple weeks ago. This was one of the most intense dialogues I’ve seen in journalism in a while. Wallace doesn’t let Donilon hedge around the issue, but keeps asking probing questions until the contradiction is very clear. It seems odd to say that it is consistent “with American values” to shoot an unarmed Osama bin Laden in the head but inconsistent “with American values” to torture his counterpart Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Is torture that much different than death?

One might be called “cruel and unusual,” while the other seems more swift and normal. Yet ultimately, basic human rights are still being denied – and at least bin Laden’s punishment is far more permanent than Mohammed’s.

Chris Wallace seems to very clearly be using this as an argument that torture should be acceptable in the war on terror. As a Christian, I cannot subscribe to this view. I cannot accept that it is appropriate for one human being to treat another in such a manner, even if it is authorized by a collective body. I cannot look at Luke 6:31 or Leviticus 19:18 and think “except when the government says it’s okay.” A variety of arguments have been made both for and against torture, but one of the strongest ones to me was espoused by David Gushee in Christianity Today five years ago:

Loosening longstanding restrictions on physical and mental cruelty risks the dehumanization not just of the tortured, but also of the torturers. What may be intended as carefully calibrated interrogation techniques could easily tempt implementers toward sadism—the infliction of pain for the sheer fun of it, especially in the heat of military conflict, in a climate of fear and loathing of the enemy, and in the context of an endless war on terror. How many of us could be trusted to draw the line consistently between the permitted “grabbing, poking, and pushing” and the banned “punching, slapping, and kicking”? How much self-control can we reasonably expect people to exercise? Once the line has been crossed to torture, as Michael Ignatieff claims, it “inflicts irremediable harm on both the torturer and the prisoner.”

Frederick Douglass commented famously on how holding a slave slowly ruined the character of the woman who owned him. Martin Luther King Jr. frequently said that the greatest victims of segregation were the white people whose souls were deformed by their own hatred. And Alexander Solzhenitsyn, reflecting on the Soviet gulag, said, “Our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: They are turning into swine; they are departing downward from humanity.”

That is one of many, many reasons that I think torture is wrong. But if that is the case, and if Chris Wallace’s question is correct, then that poses the next problem: should I believe that it was also wrong to shoot Osama bin Laden, unarmed, in the head?

This is a question to which I don’t know the answer, but I would like to hear others’ thoughts. What do you think?