Moral Contention: Can torture be justified?

Hans Albrecht Bethe once wrote, “If we fight a war and win it with H-bombs, what history will remember is not the ideals we were fighting for but the methods used to accomplish them. These methods will be compared to the warfare of Gengis Khan, who ruthlessly killed every last inhabitant of Persia.”

In the aftermath of two botched car-bombings in the United Kingdom, someone observed to me that British Intelligence must have used torture in order to learn so swiftly of pending attacks. He said that only torture could have loosened the terrorist tongues so fast. I felt compelled to question whether he felt this was right or wrong, and he said in a situation such as this, where you are certain of the guilt of the involved individual, and there are immediate lives to be saved, torture is a justified act.

I disagreed. My initial response was liberal, and idealistic. As a society, we can not afford to allow torture to become an option. Once it is a viable alternative, discerning what situation justifies the use of torture becomes a gray area. I went on to argue that a livable society requires making the choice not to engage in the activities of the lowest common denominator. The very fabric of civilization relies upon individuals choosing over and over again not to become barbarous, not to engage in the horror and darkness that reside in the human heart.

As in former discussions, I came under fire for applying these high-minded ideals to a concrete scenario. My opponent turned it around on me. “There has been a terrorist attack in Oregon. They have caught one of the terrorists. There will be more attacks. Your child is in a grade-school, and the information they could extract would save her life. Are you still against torture?”

For a moment I feel the singular light-bulb swinging over my head in a dark room. “Are you still against torture?”

There are problems in this scenario, and I will exploit them because a ‘this or that’ situation based on parental emotion is nearly impossible to address in a rational argument. My protective instincts for my daughter are not rational. If there were ever a situation where her life were in jeopardy, I would not be on a rational plane. My moral reasoning does not extend to a desperate situation of danger and volatile emotion. I would save my daughter’s life whether or not it was a good man or a bad man’s well-being at stake. I would save her life at the cost of other lives. Protection of my daughter is an animal instinct, and probably the predominant impulse of my being.

No thoughts will override a parent’s fundamental protective instinct, and that is why the parents of murder victims are not set the task of deciding justice for the perpetrator. That’s why we have provisions in our constitution that allow the nation’s leader to exempt himself from governing in situations of great personal trauma and distress. Revenge, panic and hatred are not meant to guide the policies we live by in a society.

In the scenario that my former friend described, the flaw lies in the knowing. If we knew the school was in danger, there would be no need for torture. Does the possibility of danger justify the mutilation of a human being?

My answer is still “No.”

There is risk involved in that choice, I know. The risk of security. But if I choose to accept whatever means are possible to secure the safety of innocents, I still can not make them safe.

During the discussion, my opponent did qualify his viewpoint, saying, ” I don’t believe torture should be allowed except in cases with 100% certainty of guilt, because it is a slippery slope.” He reiterated a thought sometimes voiced by liberals that “those who give up freedom for safety deserve neither.”

Since our discussion, he has changed his stance and poked snide at those same people. Maybe that’s why the issue keeps coming up in my head. He keeps changing his outlook to fit with the world he’s become a part of. Someone who was once outspoken about integrity and honesty is allowing more and more gray area in his own actions. In this same way, I see the world changing as the conservative trend reinforces its foothold. This is a confusing and complicated world, and people are afraid. Liberal idealism, the same ideas that founded this country are now held in contempt, and seen as dangerous viewpoints because the ‘kick their ass’ approach seems like a reasonable response to a volatile world. The idea to wipe people off the planet who pose a threat to our culture and way of life is a widely accepted outlook, nowadays.

No matter how I may try and prevent the world and its chaos from coming in, it’s coming. There is no such thing as safety in the  modern world. If I justify the use of brutality against my fellow man for the sake of those I love, I have only become what I fear. We have a responsibility to behave in accordance to the world in which we want to live. If you justify monstrous acts, you will live in a world of monsters.

Dignity, freedom, compassion and extraordinary kindness are the only reasons that human life has meaning. I would never presume to expect extraordinary kindness from a mother who has just had the heart cut out of her chest in the loss of a child. But I’ve seen it. I’ve seen that kind of love, that kind of compassion. I know it exists, and I believe in it.

So my reasoned choices are on the side of hope. I hope for a good world, and I’ll live as a citizen of that world, however the ravages of war and terror may frighten me. I believe in due process; I believe in dignity and allowing the expression of voices of dissent. I believe in the ultimate victory of reasoned exchange over the vice and the violence of terror. That’s what I believe in. That’s where I want to live.


11 thoughts on “Moral Contention: Can torture be justified?

  1. Torture dispels any notion of moral authority and those guilty of it, regardless of their high-sounding ideals, have abrogated any notion of human decency or the righteousness of their cause. Emotional arguments like “What if it was your child” cheapen the argument–moral laws and ideals are beyond such sophistry. The torturer, like any abuser, becomes inured to pain, indifferent to human suffering and thus poses a danger to the very society he/she has been charged to protect.

  2. Yes. I both agree and have some things I might add. I’ve had enough commenting for now so the additions will have to wait until another day.

  3. Cliff- Well said, and you managed to put in a few words what I was trying to express.

    Bongo- *grins* commenter’s fatigue, ah. Long walk and a jello shot, you’ll be just like new.

  4. Amuirin,

    Interesting post. While I realize it was meant to be more philosophical, I might add a few practical tidbits, for whatever it’s worth. With Jack Bauer morality all the rage these days, people take it for granted in this sort of debate that torture is an effective means to an end. After all, good ol’ Jack always manages to get to the bottom of a terrorist plot with a few well-placed broken fingers. But in fact, everyone with experience in the intelligence community that I have ever spoken with has asserted that the not-so-well-kept secret is that torture doesn’t work. People will say anything when being subjected to physical pain; this is actually pretty intuitive if you think about it.

    Going in a different direction, I also think it is interesting that most people assume a standard definition of what torture is, when it is actually pretty hard to approach conceptually. For instance, images generally come to mind of people being beaten or whatever, but there is a lot of gray area in between. So maybe we don’t think terrorists should be electrocuted even if we could get information that way, but what about solitary confinement? What about solitary confinement in the dark for a prolonged period of time? What about solitary confinement in the dark for a prolonged period of time with the same Michael Bolton song playing in the background over and over and over, and drugs that prevent them from sleeping? Frankly, I really have no idea where the average American envisages this line.

  5. The capybara!

    Almost missed your comment. You’re right there is that vigil-ante angle often produced in the media. I remember seeing ‘Independence Day’ in the theater, and the loudest, longest cheering during the movie was when Will Smith punched the alien in the head and said, ‘Welcome to Earth.’ All those fighters had been lost, and a sort of relieved eruption exploded through the audience when they say Will’s character knock out the bad guy.

    Defining torture, yeah. Again with the slippery slope. God forbid the Michael Bolton scenario. The best definition I can come up with was coined a couple hundred years ago: Cruel and Unusual Punishment. I think that’s as good a definition as any.

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  7. i admire folks who think like you. it’s nice. i wish everyone believed in the “ultimate victory of reasoned exchange.”

    unfortunately not everyone does. and not just our enemies. “we the people”, too. the u.s. is far from innocent when is comes to unreasonable exchanges. i know. i’ve been the “superior” in the peace through superior firepower. it was never very peaceful.

    but here’s the thing. i live here. so does everyone else i know and love. this is my country. the only place i have to live. the only place i want to live. sure, we have our troubles. we bitch liberals or conservatives. taxes. the price of gas. etc. etc. but none of this really matters. not in the grand scheme. nope.

    you see, the “world” as we know it does not exist most anyplace else. indeed, for all of it’s “problems” the u.s. is the most forgiving place on earth. and by most forgiving i mean that folks can think and believe in things like the “ultimate victory of reasoned exchange” and live to dream another day.

    i’m not making fun. like i said, i admire you. i just think that high-minded principles and words like dignity, freedom, compassion and extraordinary kindness are for those who’ve never seen the face of the enemy – or – who don’t fully comprehend the cost of defeat to those who hate our way of life.

    i’m not trying change your mind. i wouldn’t presume that i could. it doesn’t really matter anyway because your ideals will go unnoticed in the military and intelligence communities. there will always be “torture” or “cruel and unusual punishment” of folks who threaten us or have info on those who do. it’s so outrageously commonplace that the whole argument against it is almost silly.

    torture for information, psychological effect (fear), punishment, retaliation and plain old fun will continue. it’s all part of the business of war. complaining about it is like complaining about the i.r.s., and what good has that ever done? politicians who act shocked and dismayed because the u.s. tortures and then speak out against it are lying hypocrites trying to get your vote. it’s ludicrous to think that they didn’t know. that they don’t condone.

    for that matter it’s just as bad for the american public to act like they’re shocked by torture. give me a break. i bet you’d be really shocked to know then that american troops shoot prisoners of war. that american forces target hospitals and schools…on purpose. for those of you who are shocked i ask “don’t you watch cnn?” and for those who respond “yeah, but they said it was an accident” i say “why the fuck would you be so dumb as to believe ANYTHING you hear from ANYBODY on the tele?”

    here’s a pointer. pictures you can believe 50% of the time. words 0% of the time. you have to figure things out for yourself because there’s not a shred of news out there that’s isn’t engineered to sway your opinion one way or the other on things like…torturing asshole scumbags who would literally fuck your mother, wife and daughter and tear your toddler son in half right in front of you and execute the rest of your family if you didn’t convert to their way of thinking. i don’t know about you, but the red blooded and independent american in me says if i could get those fuckers alone in a room with a pair of pliers and a blow torch…well, lets just say there’d be a party and it wouldn’t be because i converted to islam.

    if you want to stop torture you have to stop politicians and madmen from making war. period. good luck with all that.

    p.s. torture is always effective. always. it’s not all about information. it’s about morale. it’s about demoralization. it’s about punishment. it’s about fear. it’s about fun. it’s about “because i fucking can”. sick. i know. but don’t thank me. thank war. and the pigs who start wars.

  8. i was SO bored last night. great reads though. sorry for the rambling. i was half asleep and very opinionated when i wrote that. it’s funny. right after i hit submit i was like, “oh who cares?” nobody is the answer, but it did give me 10 minutes of interactive entertainment.

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