Walsh: On opposite poles: two Mormons on torture

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Just weeks into the war in Iraq, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said the conflict could be justified as an effort to defend liberty and depose a dictator.

God would not hold soldiers responsible "as agents of their government in carrying forward that which they are legally obligated to do."

But, like church leaders before him, he said nothing about torture.

Into that gap, two faithful Mormons -- an interrogator and a government attorney -- reached very different conclusions of conscience:

Long before Hinckley spoke, Justice Department attorney Jay Bybee signed the infamous memo outlining a 10-step checklist of horrors that ended with making al Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed think they were drowning -- a total of 266 times.

Just five months after that conference talk, Army interrogator Alyssa Peterson killed herself after refusing to use the degrading techniques Bybee endorsed on prisoners at her air base in Tal Afar.

Since President Barack Obama released four Justice Department memos detailing this country's post-9/11 descent into the heart of darkness, Peterson and Bybee's stories have been spliced and splashed about the blogosphere, in newspapers and on cable. Along with the two CIA psychologists known around the office as the "Mormon Mafia," they're a curiosity: Members of the same faith who arrived at opposing extremes of the torture debate with very different results.

For his good soldiering, Bybee got a tenured post on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

For her conscientious objecting, Peterson was reprimanded and relegated to grunt work.

Six years on, it's easy to second-guess. The day after the twin towers fell, we all wanted revenge. America was consumed by the kind of xenophobic blood lust that led our grandparents to round up Japanese-Americans and deposit them in detention camps. But 60 years later, we were supposed to have learned from our mistakes.

A few American churches have belatedly condemned torture, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Only the pacifists really shine at moments like these," says Sarah Barringer Gordon, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She says Mormon players in President George W. Bush's torture program are being singled out unfairly.

"This looks like the actions of people, Mormons as well as others, who made enormously dangerous and inhumane mistakes about what our national policy should be," Gordon says. "The media is isolating a few individuals and the issue is swirling around them relentlessly."

Fair enough. Still, this has to cause heartburn within Utah's community of the faithful. Repeatedly slamming someone into a false wall isn't like choosing between caffeine-free Coke or the original. It should be clear. And yet, Bybee and Peterson ended up on opposite poles.

"Torture is a moral issue. Torture is the legacy of the darkest era of mankind's history," human rights attorney Scott Horton told a conference of the Presbyterian Church a year ago.

And still, South Temple remained silent.

More than three years ago, retired Army Gen. David Irvine asked the church's Military Affairs Committee to issue a statement condemning torture and prisoner abuse. With so many bilingual Mormons working in military interrogation and intelligence, Bush administration torture policies put "LDS interrogators in positions of extreme moral conflict," Irvine says.

Nothing came of it.

Peterson, a 27-year-old returned missionary and Arabic speaker, was reprimanded for showing empathy to the prisoners held on the U.S. air base in Tal Afar. Eventually, she was demoted to gate duty watching Iraqi guards and suicide prevention. She noted the irony in her farewell note.

A Washington Post story over the weekend hinted that Bybee, a Brigham Young University law grad, may regret his role in this shameful period of American history. But with The New York Times and others calling for his impeachment, the judge has stayed silent.

Reprising a statement issued several years ago, LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter on Monday told me: "Abuse of any kind is incompatible with the Church of Jesus Christ."