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.