Jesus never condemned torture. Search the Bible all you like, there is not a single instance where the Messiah pointed out an instance of torture and rebuked it. The opposite case can be made, actually, as Jesus several times described the torments of hell in a manner which implied He thought the suffering was just, if terrible. Even faced with His own crucifixion, Jesus neither condemned His killers nor the method. When He spoke with the thief on the cross, Jesus made no mention that the suffering they endured was wrong or unjust.
That’s not to say, of course, that Christ approved of torture. It merely notes an absence of specific denunciation. One might wonder why. In the end, consideration of the matter leads people to one of only two valid conclusions:
1. Torture is so heinous that denouncing it is not necessary; it is evil on its face.
2. The specific moral quality of an action sometimes depends on details which may not be available or clear; what is torture from one perspective may be valid behavior from another.
Obviously, the first answer is clear and simple, while the second answer risks being used to justify atrocities. Few people indeed would accept the second answer as reasonable, yet in the end it must be included in any honest evaluation.
Consider Khalid Sheihk Mohammed. This is a man who, beyond any dispute by now, masterminded the 9/11 attacks, and if anything was disappointed he could not kill more innocents than he did. KSM was a monster’s mentor, guiding Osama bin Laden in the ways of murder and pain, a man greatly experienced in his vocation of making people suffer. KSM was hardened to police interrogation, and he knew how to play the system. I mention this for the simple obvious reason that this is how terrorists operate – they perform asynchronous combat, using rules which protect themselves to attack their victims with protection from their own enemies. When the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in 1993 they failed, but they used the U.S. court system to collect and transfer critical data about the target which they incorporated into the successful 2001 attack. There’s no way around the fact that granting legal protections and privileges to the 1993 attackers helped them murder thousands more.
People who demand that terrorists be tried as criminals and given the legal rights and protections granted to any ordinary suspect, must accept that in doing so they are contributing to the suffering and death of innocent people. Terrorists are by their nature sub-human, not a lower class of person because of race or creed, but because of a choice of action which requires commensurate consequences. Throughout history the actions of terrorists, whether they are called hashashin, thuggees, the Black Hand, or any other name, have been ended only by the use of force to whatever degree is needed. Terrorists deal in fear and brutality, and know only that language. They stop at nothing, and are only stopped by greater force than they possess themselves.
This may appear to condone torture as a matter of practical realpolitik a ‘do whatever it takes’ approach which allows someone to do whatever they please, provided the proper argument is made. But if those who wish to protect terrorists must understand that by doing so they are helping harm and murder uncounted numbers of innocents in later attacks, those who are willing to use torture to defeat terrorists must accept that we are condoning torture. Waterboarding is torture. Not in the legal sense, for reasons I am not bringing up here because this is not the legal argument. But waterboarding someone is to cause deliberate suffering to that person, for the purpose of coercion. The question can be asked as to whether the torture is appropriate or necessary or defensible, but there can be no question that the line is crossed, and for a clear purpose – the terrorist believes that the western system of rights protects him from serious harm, and that belief must be obliterated. So the decision to act in a manner beyond what the terrorist considers possible is the lever by which his resolve may be undone and produce cooperation with the authorities. It would be false to pretend, however, that such a step can be taken without jeopardizing the precepts on which this nation and culture were built. And if the scale on which such actions are taken is large enough, the use of torture on innocents becomes increasingly likely to occur, which is unacceptable to the great majority of Americans. It’s one thing to torture Khalid Sheihk Mohammed, but quite another to – even accidentally – torture an ordinary person guilty of no crime.
Back in 1949, Justice Robert Jackson issued a dissenting decision in the case of Terminiello v. City of Chicago, in which he stated “There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact”. And in 1963, in the case of Kennedy v. Mendoza-Martinez, Justice Goldberg wrote that while “the Constitution protects against invasions of individual rights, it is not a suicide pact”.
These judges clearly stated that moral arguments have practical limits. This truth can also be seen in the way war is now waged. Some people argue that the use of torture would sully our nation, making us equal to the terrorists, but this is plainly false. That is, a person who takes pleasure in the suffering of others, who carries out violence and chaos for the principal reason of causing pain and misery, would be the same as a terrorist, but this is not the character or spirit of the American soldier or intelligence agent, no matter how the media and the enemy may claim. The men who carry out the nation’s missions can and do maintain personal standards of morality while performing violent actions, even the deliberate harm to the enemy. The liars in the media seem to be able to honor our military only when they are dead, and our intelligence agents only when they attack their President. In actual fact, many honorable actions involve doing great harm to the enemy. In the old days we honored men like Sergeant York and Audie Murphy, who were able to fight a long, violent war then return home and live decent, quiet lives. Those men still exist and we still depend on them, although it’s no longer acceptable in some quarters to honor them for taking on the duties and costs of modern warfare. We are not obliged to play by the terms dictated by those who would murder our children, although far too few people today are willing to pay the price.
If you started reading this article expecting or hoping for a clear argument for or against the use of torture, you will be unsatisfied by this piece. My point for here, is that we all have the moral obligation to consider that our comfortable personal moralities all have boundaries, and those boundaries are protected by those who do what we cannot or will not do for ourselves. We all, whatever our opinion, have the duty to think carefully about this issue, to respect the limits of our knowledge and personal authority, and to consider the debt we owe those who have endured those burdens we were unwilling to carry ourselves.