Is Torture Justifiable?

With the release of the Senate report on the use of Torture by the CIA, I thought it worth reprinting a piece that originally appeared in my column at the Lompoc Record in 2007 and then again in my book Faith in the Public Square (Energion 2012).  I'm not sure there is anything more to add to the current conversation beyond what I've already written, except to say this -- if one is a Christian, whether or not torture led to actionable intelligence, is it appropriate to support its use in any situation?  As an American, I wonder as well how we can ask other nations to abide by international law when we refuse to do so.  This was not simply a matter of making mistakes; it was a choice to do something we condemn ourselves.  


People driven by fear can engage in the most heinous of acts. They’re like a cornered animal who lashes out at anyone or anything that’s nearby. Whether it’s communism, crime, or perhaps terrorism, if fear is the driving force, we might even try to justify torture. It’s unlikely that we’d use the term. A euphemism,  “enhanced interrogation techniques,” would be preferable, but the action is the same.

During a presidential primary debate in 2008, candidates were asked how they’d respond to a scenario seeming taken from a “24” script. No one gave a nod to torture, but several leading candidates came very close. The question is: how far are willing to go to protect ourselves in the name of national security? This isn’t a hypothetical question. It’s[1]  common knowledge that the George W. Bush administration[2]  sought to find ways around the Geneva Conventions, which they deemed quaint and too limiting in this conflict of ours. Then we learned of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Even if these weren’t ordered from on high, our attempts at evading longstanding treaty obligations give at least tacit permission for such activities.

With torture there are two different issues to be considered. One has to do with the effectiveness of the actions in question, and the other relates to its morality. The argument for such coercive techniques such as water boarding or sleep deprivation is that they produce information that saves lives, and we all want to save lives. But many experts in the field of interrogation believe that these techniques are largely ineffective – wouldn’t you say anything to free yourself from pain. Just tell them what they want to hear! One of those experts is Chuck Blanchard, a former General Counsel to the United States Army, who wrote on his blog: “For decades, it was the official position of the U.S. Government that torture (defined to include the techniques approved by the current Administration) was counter-productive, wrong, and a violation of both domestic and international law.” The commanding general in Iraq at the time and now Director of the CIA, David Petraeus, seems to concur and suggests that much of the information gathered in this way is of little use to them. One reason why the military has resisted such techniques is that they could easily be used against our troops – and if we use them how can we tell others not to use them?[1]

            Such is the utilitarian response, but what of the moral response? The idea that we should use whatever means necessary (short of torture, of course) has a certain resonance with many our nation, but there’s significant opposition from within the religious community to this sentiment. For a response, there’s no better place to start than the statement produced by the National Religious Coalition against Torture. It reads:
“Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved – policy-makers, perpetrators, and victims. It contradicts our nation's most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable” ( 05/thoughts-on-torture.html.)
One of the persons involved in drafting this statement is David Gushee, an Evangelical philosopher and ethicist, who has written extensively on this subject. Among the reasons why we should reject the use of torture, Gushee offers these five responses:

  1. “Torture violates the intrinsic dignity of the human being, made in the image of God.”
  2.   “Torture mistreats the vulnerable and thus violates the demands of public justice.”
  3.    “Authorizing any forms of torture trusts government too much.”
  4.  “Torture invites the dehumanizing of the torturer.”
  5.  “Torture erodes the character of the nation that tortures.”

Morally, torture not only dehumanizes the victim, it affects the moral bearing of the torturer and the nation that authorizes it.

If, as my faith tradition teaches, we’re called to love our neighbors and do good and not harm, then where does torture or even enhanced interrogation methods fit? Jesus tells us to even love our enemies; so if Christianity has influenced this nation at all, this command precludes torture or actions akin to torture. And if that passage doesn’t get your attention, then perhaps this one will: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3 NRSV). The biblical writer suggests that we put ourselves in the shoes of the one being tortured and then decide what’s appropriate.


 [1]George Bush administration

 [2]Is it still the current one?


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