Southern Baptist ethicist, Richard Land, who helped advance the social issues agenda of the administration of former US President George W. Bush, has said the formerly officially-sanctioned U.S. practice of waterboarding suspected terrorists is torture and "violates everything we stand for" - writes G. Jeffrey MacDonald of ENI-RNS.
Land, who is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, repudiated the simulated drowning techniques in an interview with Religion News Service.
"I consider waterboarding torture," Land said. "One of the definitions of torture is that it causes permanent physical harm. I can't separate physical from psychological. And I can't imagine that being repeatedly subjected to the feeling of drowning would not, in some cases cause lasting psychological trauma."
According to recently released memos, federal agents under Bush waterboarded two suspected terrorists 266 times in attempts to extract information.
But Land also criticised US President Barack Obama for publicly releasing Bush-era documents that authorised particular interrogation techniques.
"To leave open the possibility of prosecuting men for what the Justice Department had declared was legal, I think is a horrific mistake," Land said. "If it were to lead to trials of some sort, it would rip the country apart."
The Southern Baptist Convention groups 16 million members who worship in more than 42 000 churches in the United States.
Land's comments came amidst ongoing public debate about what constitutes torture, whether harsh interrogation techniques result in useful information and what should happen to Bush administration officials who advised that waterboarding was legal, not torture.
The Southern Baptist leader explained that while he supports capital punishment for convicted killers, he denounces torture in all cases because he is compelled to honour the image of God as reflected in all human beings - even suspected terrorists.
To justify waterboarding on the grounds that it helps save lives is to suggest that the end justifies the means, Land said. "That is a very slippery slope that leads to dark and dangerous places," he stated.
"If the end justifies the means, then where do you draw the line?" Land asked. "It's a moveable line. It's in pencil, not in ink. I believe there are absolutes. There are some things we must never do."
Former US vice president Dick Cheney has defended waterboarding as part of a "remarkably successful effort" to gather information about the al-Qaida terrorist network.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]