Brian Johnstone.

terrorism protest
Witness Against Torture: Reverend Billy Joins the Protest, Justin Norman, flickr cc

How can we make sense of the contemporary situation of increasing violence whereby some groups engage in terrorism against other groups, and these in turn engage in torture as a means of defeating the terrorism of the others?


In liberal states, torture is condemned as immoral; some seek to prohibit it by law, others defend it as a necessary and effective means to defend freedom. Historical experience suggests that torture will continue.

Paul W Kahn in Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, & Sovereignty (Ann Arbor 2011) argues that secular, liberal philosophy and the theories of rights it has developed cannot deal with these issues. The key is a religious notion he calls ‘sovereignty’. By this, Kahn means a notion of ultimate reality. Both sides of the contemporary war on terrorism appeal to an ultimate reality.

For the jihadist, this may take the form of a distorted notion of ‘god’. But western, liberal states have their own conceptions of a sacred reality. We may call this ‘our freedom’. To defend this, these states send their young women and men to kill terrorists and be ready to sacrifice their own lives in the service of the sacred reality. Once we begin to speak of ‘sacrifice’, we move into the realm of religious experience and discourse.

WAR AGAINST TERROR, cows_at_home, flickr cc

We can relate Kahn’s analysis to our Australian situation. If we have any doubts about the importance of the religious dimension in Australian political imagination, we need only think of the veneration attached to the sacrifices of Anzac. In the conflict between the two sides – terrorists and their opponents, as interpreted by Kahn – each side seeks to ‘degrade’ the other and ultimately prove the other’s ‘god’ is false.

This degradation is what is going on in the macabre beheadings carried out by ISIS; in the logic of such groups, it is not enough to kill members of the other group. The killing must be done in such a way as to mock and debase the values of the other group. The same dynamism drives the exhortations to kill as many ‘unbelievers’ as possible.

It is a requirement of justice to repel the violence of such groups. But the response of the ‘West’ has gone beyond this. As example, we can cite the degrading practices of torture as revealed in the recent US Senate Intelligence Committee’s Torture Report. The twisted arguments invoked to justify these practices are not examples of good reason; they are the utterances of distorted, self-justification, more akin to pseudo-religion.

Other nations have been no better. For example, in 2013, the British government finally agreed to compensate 5,228 Kenyans tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s. Other cases of torture for the protection of the British Empire are coming to light.

Torture is not the only issue. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have killed 416-959 civilians, including 168-204 children and injured 1,133-1796. It is reported that the CIA has now recognised that such ‘targeted killings’ can strengthen extremist groups and be counterproductive. Killing by drones, it is now realised, may actually increase support for the insurgents, “. . . if these strikes enhance the insurgent leaders’ lore, if non-combatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semi-legitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent.” (The Age 19 December 2014). We may note the logic of these reservations; they are not based on considerations of morality and virtue. Drone strikes are questioned because they have been found to be a counterproductive use of power.

It is facile to present the current conflict as between unmitigated evil on one side, and absolute good on the other. We are told by politicians that, “They hate us for what we are”, as if ‘they’ hated the virtue that ‘we’ represent. In an interview in Le Monde 26 November 2001, René Girard explained the social and cultural mechanisms involved. The terrorist groups do not hate the virtue that ‘we’ represent: they envy the power we have and desire intensely to acquire similar power.

The contemporary terrorist is in fact caught up in a relationship of mimesis or competitive imitation with the ‘Great Satan’, as he calls the USA and its allies. The terrorist desires what the opponent has, namely great overwhelming power. The more violently ‘the Great Satan’ exercises that power, the more attractive that becomes to the terrorist, and the more violence the terrorist will use in an endeavour to acquire that power. The more ‘productive’ the power of the terrorist, the more he is convinced that his ‘god’ is true.

We cannot counter terrorism and defend our values by the use of violent power contrary to those values. Torture and targeted killing are not only counterproductive, they are also a denial of what we claim to stand for. They are irreconcilable with faith in the ultimate reality, or in the God that we hold to be true.

Brian Johnstone is a Catholic priest who taught moral theology in Rome for nearly 20 years, and more recently at the Catholic University in Washington. He is currently writing in Melbourne. This article appeared in the blog of John Menadue in December 2014.

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