Last year at this time, Americans were debating the findings of a report released by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that denounced the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program. This year, on the heels of Congress passing legislation renewing its policy barring transfer of enemy combatants held at the Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) detention facility into the United States, Americans are debating President Barack Obama’s declaration that he will determine “when and where to transfer” detainees.

Both of these debates are part of the larger debate over America’s response to 9/11—and how far that response has pushed the ethical-moral boundaries. As Christians and Americans—in that order—we have a responsibility to enter into this debate.

Let’s start with Gitmo. In January 2009, Obama directed the Pentagon to close the Gitmo detention facility “no later than one year from the date of this order.” So why is the prison still open?

First, bipartisan majorities in Congress—including the Democratic-controlled Congress of 2009-2011—have repeatedly blocked the administration from transferring detainees to stateside facilities.

That leads us to a second reason Gitmo remains open. Trying to build support for stateside transfer, Obama notes, “No person has ever escaped from one of our super-max or military prisons.” But escape is not what worries most critics of stateside transfer. What worries them is that once placed in the U.S. prison system, Gitmo’s lifers will radicalize other prisoners—something they cannot do from Gitmo. Indeed, an al-Qaeda training manual instructs captured fighters to “create an Islamic program” inside prison. Radicalization is serious enough that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched an initiative to thwart “terrorist use of prisons for radicalization and recruitment.”

Third, sending detainees back to their home countries is the very definition of self-defeating. DHS reports 16.9% of paroled detainees have returned to terrorism.

According to the president, Gitmo is “contrary to who we are” and “hurts us in terms of our international standing.” That’s a valid perspective. But like a Rorschach inkblot, there’s another perspective. Consider what Obama’s defense secretaries have said in reaction to his desire to close the facility:

  • Concluding “there are people in Guantanamo Bay who cannot and should not be released because they will return to the terrorist fight,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter says he’s “not confident” the facility can be closed.
  • Chuck Hagel “refused to sign certifications that the future threat posed by the prisoners could be adequately mitigated,” according to published reports.
  • Leon Panetta expressed “serious concerns” about releasing Gitmo prisoners.
  • Robert Gates called for legislation “preventing any former Guantanamo detainee from living in the United States,” as Reuters

Banishing our stateless enemies to endless sentences in a hopeless place is difficult to square with love of enemy and forgiveness. But governments are held to a different standard than individuals, and hence are expected to do certain things individuals shouldn’t do—and arguably shouldn’t do certain things individuals should do. For example, Jesus calls on individuals to turn the other cheek, “put away the sword” and forgive enemies “seventy times seven” times. Scripture challenges Christ followers to not keep a record of wrongs, to die to self and to stop worrying. But a government that turned the other cheek, “put away the sword” and offered its sworn enemies seventy times seven chances would be conquered, leaving its citizens defenseless. A government that didn’t keep a record of wrongs, defend itself, or worry about the future would expose itself and its people to enormous risks.

Risk is what spawned the enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) program. A number of former CIA directors report the program was created at a time when there were credible threats of nuclear weapons being smuggled into New York City and al Qaeda trying to manufacture anthrax. “It felt like the classic ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario—every single day,” they explain.

Still, the tactics were rough: CIA operatives subjected detainees to slapping, slamming against walls, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, involuntary feeding, liquid-only diets, water-dousing, ice-water baths, removal of clothing, prolonged standing, standing in stress positions, extended isolation, incarceration in complete darkness, threats of harm to their families, and other harsh tactics.

The question we are left with is not only whether those techniques amount to torture, but whether such techniques are ever morally justified. As Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary observes, “Definitions represent the first great challenge” in this debate.

The United Nations Convention against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person.”

By that definition, elements of the CIA’s interrogation program crossed a line. However, would a majority of Americans say that slapping, sleep deprivation, liquid-only diets, isolation, or incarceration in darkness constitute “severe pain or suffering”? Would a majority of Christians?

A 2005 measure proscribes “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of detainees. However, Mohler notes, “Some human-rights activists contend that yelling at a prisoner represents the kind of ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading’ treatment” banned by that measure.

Involuntary feeding sounds as unpleasant as it is. However, it’s commonly authorized by courts to keep prisoners and patients alive in cases of hunger strikes.

The EIT that has drawn the most attention is waterboarding—a technique in which water is poured onto a detainee’s face to induce the sensation of drowning. It sounds horrible. However, many policymakers refuse to characterize waterboarding (or other EITs) as torture because thousands of U.S. military personnel have been subjected to waterboarding in Survival Evasion Resistance Escape training. In fact, in developing guidelines for the post-9/11 interrogation program, the Justice Department relied on U.S. military training programs.

None of this is to suggest that EITs raise no moral questions. But all those “howevers” underscore the problem with definitions.

Jose Rodriguez Jr., former director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, notes that “leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees and of both parties in Congress were briefed on the program more than 40 times between 2002 and 2009.”

In other words, not only were EITs “approved and determined to be lawful” by the Justice Department, as CIA Director John Brennan notes, they had the blessing of relevant congressional committees.

They also were effective. Former CIA directors say the program “prevented mass-casualty attacks” and thwarted al Qaeda’s plan to mount a “second wave, 9/11-style attack on the U.S. West Coast.”

While calling some of the CIA’s methods “abhorrent,” Brennan confirms, “The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al Qaeda and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day,” adding: “Detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques provided information that was useful and was used in the ultimate operation to go against bin Laden.”

It may be tempting to defend our discomfort with EITs by paraphrasing Justice Potter Stewart’s wry observation about obscenity: “We know torture when we see it.” But when policymakers invoke words like “torture,” after-the-fact judgments are counterproductive.

The same rule applies to Gitmo. The Bush administration concluded Gitmo was the least-bad option for detaining captured fighters. The alternatives—letting America’s sworn enemies loose, bringing them into the U.S. and according them constitutional protections, executing them on the battlefield, handing them off to untrustworthy regimes—were considered self-defeating or contrary to America’s values.

The Obama administration found a way around this conundrum: drones. It’s estimated that, along with the 2,600-plus militants killed by drone strikes in Pakistan during the Obama administration, some 430 non-militants have been killed. According to The New York Times, the Obama administration has embraced a controversial method for determining drone-strike casualties that “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

This, too, has alienated America. The UN Human Rights Council, for instance, formed a special unit to investigate U.S. drone strikes.

If Gitmo is “contrary to who we are,” to borrow Obama’s language, if EITs “caused immeasurable damage to the United States’ public standing,” to quote the Senate report, then what exactly is a drone war that metes out punishment based on guilt by association and amounts to execution without trial?

The defense that the Obama administration employed drones to protect America is fair, but then so is the defense that the Bush administration used EITs and Gitmo to protect America.

As Dr. Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School argued, “There are extraordinary circumstances when harrowing judgments must be made by those we tax with the responsibility of keeping us safe, and at those times there may be a ‘lesser evil’ kind of calculation to be made.”

“The issue of ‘torture’ itself needs to be put in a moral context and on a moral continuum,” argues Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

“It is very facile for people to say ‘Oh, torture is terrible,’” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia observes. “You posit the situation where a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people…You think it’s clear that you cannot use extreme measures to get that information out of that person?”

In such a case, Dr. Seumas Miller of the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics argues, “The terrorist is more akin to someone in the process of murdering an innocent person, and refusing to refrain from doing so.”

Fr. Brian Harrison of the Pontifical University would seem to agree, concluding that “infliction of severe pain” for “extracting life-saving informationremains open at present to legitimate discussion by Catholic theologians.” However, Harrison later noted that Pope Benedict XVI declared, “The prohibition against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstances.’”

Harrison’s retreat provides a bridge to the other side of this debate.

Dr. Shaun Casey of Wesley Theological Seminary argues, “It is never right to torture another human being.” He cites the Gospel injunction to not repay evil for evil and the notion “that each person is created by God.”

“The Christian just war tradition holds that killing in a just war is permissible—even morally praiseworthy—when those killed are enemies who pose a direct threat,” explains Dr. Darrell Cole of Drew University. “In the same way, it is morally permissible, even morally praiseworthy, to kill any terrorist in the act of terrorism. But when the terrorist is captured, he poses no further harm.” That’s where Cole says we must draw the line. “To do intentional harm to a defenseless human being is a moral evil.” Cole rejects the moral-continuum methodology. “For Christians, there are no ‘emergencies’ that would justify moral acts displeasing to God.”

Some say the way out of this debate is to cling to the idea that biblical admonitions about loving your enemy and the like are intended for individuals, not governments. Governments, as noted earlier, are held to different standards than individuals. As Paul writes, “Rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.” However, unlike in Paul’s day, our government carries out policies with the consent of the people. Thus, we cannot put our heads in the sand and pretend we know nothing about what the government does in our name. And as followers of Christ, we cannot keep our heads in the clouds and declare ourselves above it all. Ignorance really is bliss. Perhaps God wants us to wrestle with these hard issues.

Cole says, “There are no ‘emergencies’ that would justify moral acts displeasing to God.” He is right that ours is not an ends-justifies-the-means faith. However, when Pharaoh ordered Shiphrah and Puah to kill newborn Hebrew boys, they disobeyed him and lied about it (Exodus 1). They saw a continuum of good and evil, and chose to commit an immoral act to prevent something worse. Their story seems to caution against the sort of rigidity that concludes EITs are wrong in all cases—especially given the debate over whether EITs even constitute torture.

Innocent lives matter more to God, as evidenced by His blessing for Shiphrah and Puah, His Passover protection of Israel, His warning about “little ones” and millstones.

The imperfect means we employ to protect innocents—a midwife lying to prevent genocide, a judge banishing serial killers to super-max prisons, a president banishing jihadists to Gitmo, a cop knocking a confession out of a child-predator, a CIA interrogator knocking intelligence out of a mass-murderer, a SWAT team lobbing superheated flash-bangs into a suspected drug house, a drone operator launching Hellfire missiles into a suspected terrorist hideout—are sometimes the only way innocents can be protected.

As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization.” More on this at byFaith.

Alan Dowd is a contributor to the Providence journal’s daily blog.

Photo Credit: GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – Spc. Emely Nieves from the Puerto Rico Army National Guard guards her post over the Joint Task Force Guantanamo detention facility at sunrise, Jan. 7, 2011. JTF Guantanamo provides safe, humane, legal and transparent care and custody of detainees, including those convicted by military commission and those ordered released by a court. (JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Gino Reyes) via Flickr.