I love Sarah Palin, the former Governor of Alaska who ran for Vice-President of the United States back in 2008. She’s one of those political figures, like Rob Ford in Canada or George Galloway in the UK, who can be counted on to regularly make wild pronouncements that would never pass the lips of a PR-conscious “mainstream” politician. Now and then, there might emerge a golden nugget of painful truth that few other public figures would dare to articulate. Rather more often, what comes out is oddly skewed and impressively disconnected from reality.
Palin’s latest is a lot closer to the second category, combined with a hefty dose of personal conviction:
“They obviously have information on plots to carry out Jihad,” she said at the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting on Saturday evening, referring to prisoners. “Oh, but you can’t offend them, can’t make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”
Naturally, her comments have sparked angry disbelief in some quarters. Some responses have expressed outrage at the very idea that torturing prisoners could ever be morally acceptable, which is fair enough. More surprising have been the thoughts of certain Christians who seem to be unhappy with Palin mainly because she compared something as nasty and unpleasant as waterboarding to their lovely sacrament of baptism. Lutheran journalist Mollie Hemingway offers a superb entry in this genre:
Is waterboarding how we baptize terrorists? However powerful waterboarding might be (and whether or not it is defensible, a good idea or achieves the goals of those who advocate its use), it doesn’t hold a candle to the power of the Christian baptism, as historically understood. Does it deliver those who are subjected to it from the devil, as Christian baptism does? Does it give them eternal life, as Christian baptism does? Is it voluntary, as Christian baptism is? It is none of these things.
Joking about baptism in the context of this aggressive action suggests that we don’t think baptism is as life-giving or important as it is.
Whether waterboarding is defensible is apparently up for grabs, in Hemingway’s worldview, but whether it holds a candle to the “power” (ha!) of Christian baptism apparently isn’t. One might expect a good Christian to be more concerned with questions of whether waterboarding people is consistent with loving them in a neighbourly fashion, or doing unto them as one would one hope to be done unto. Would Jesus have waterboarded Pontius Pilate, given the opportunity, in order to find out what the Romans had planned for Judaea? If so, I hope he would at least have had the decency to turn the water into wine beforehand.
One thing I haven’t seen much of, this time around, is reiteration of the common but rather extraordinary claim that torture “doesn’t work”. Perhaps people are tacitly conceding that it sometimes does, or perhaps they’re simply moving on to the more reasonable position that, whether or not torture can sometimes elicit useful information, it’s a brutal enough tactic to be morally out of bounds in any case. The similarities and differences between any given form of torture and Christian baptism, however, would seem to be somewhat beside the point.