Torture: evil and ineffective

By George Clifford

Why write about torture?

After all, only a sadist, or perhaps a masochist hoping to be tortured, would attempt to argue that torture, per se, is moral. Although some form of the word “torture” appears in the Bible 87 times, not once does Scripture explicitly and directly classify torture as wrong or prohibit Christians from torturing others. Scripture consistently portrays those who torture others as bad and the recipients of torture as good. For example, the Romans tortured Jesus, flogging him, mocking him, shoving a crown of thorns upon his head. Their motivation for torturing him was partially to deter others from committing capital offenses and, probably, an expression of sadism that emerged through years of service in the very harsh and unforgiving context of the Roman army. Remember, the Romans crucified tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. Similarly, in the Apocrypha we read a narrative that dramatically emphasizes the evil of torture, the story of Hannah and her seven sons, viciously tortured one at a time and then killed in sight of the those still alive as each refused to compromise their Jewish faith by eating the flesh of swine.

Torture is inimical with belief in a loving God who cares for all people. Indeed, the Bible exhorts the Church to remember prisoners subject to torture (Hebrews 13:3); the context suggests that the text is referring to Christians tortured for their faith, but might mean anyone subject to torture. Remembering those subject to torture certainly entails praying for the tortured; additionally, remembering almost certainly involves caring for the families of those tortured, advocating justice, and campaigning to abolish torture.

The United States government maintains that torture is, on certain occasions, morally imperative. The government’s argument is strictly consequentialist: Only by torturing terrorists, forcing them to divulge operations and plans that threaten others, can the U.S. avoid great harm. For example, if authorities believe terrorists have planted a dirty bomb that will expose thousands to radiation, cause an indeterminate number of deaths, and very likely spread widespread panic, then torturing suspected terrorists to obtain timely, essential information is morally justifiable. Conversely, not torturing the suspects in that case, according to the government’s position, would be morally wrong, allowing great harm at the cost of protecting the well-being of one just person, and an evil person at that.

In response, a Christian might contend that viewing torture as an expression of love for one’s neighbor is impossible. A terrorist, no matter how evil, whether or not we like it, remains a person, a fellow child of God. Terrorists, in other words, are neighbors. Sadly, reliance on God’s command to love our neighbors fails in the eyes of many to rebut the consequentialist argument. Advocates of using torture in interrogations simply respond that we must love all of our neighbors; Christians cannot truthfully construe allowing our neighbors to suffer grievous harm from terrorists as expressing love.

A Christian might also object to torture as an act incompatible with Jesus’ character. As people called to pattern themselves after the Prince of Peace, how can Christians endorse anyone abusing and dehumanizing others by torturing them? Again, the advocates of torture will simply respond that terrorists seek to abuse and dehumanize larger numbers of people; the information obtained through torture will potentially avoid much harm and suffering that are incompatible with Christianity. These advocates choose the lesser evil to attain the greater good.

As that hypothetical dialogue suggests, meaningful debate between consequentialists and those who stand on either moral principles or virtue rarely occurs. People who abandon a morality founded upon firm principles or unwavering virtue for consequentialism lack a moral floor below which they are unwilling to proceed. No act is too bad to contemplate if the potential benefits are of sufficient magnitude. Torture involves acts that should lie beyond the bounds of acceptable morality – always. Fortunately, debates about torture do not have to end with neither side speaking in terms the other cannot really understand. Not only is torture antithetical to Christian principles and incompatible with Christian virtue, torture is also ineffective. In other words, the evil of torture very rarely if ever results in a greater good.

Consider torture’s efficacy at obtaining critical information from a non-cooperative person in two types of situations, those with and without imminent, avoidable danger. First, imagine a crisis when time is short, e.g., authorities know a bomb is about to explode that will kill hundreds or thousands of innocents. Obviously, the alleged perpetrators have a strong commitment to their cause and its success or they would not have become part a terrorist conspiracy.

Under the best of circumstances, torture rarely produces immediate results. Suspects will think that enduring a few moments of pain from torture to allow the mission to succeed is a small price to pay. Torture reinforces rather than erodes a suspect’s commitment to the cause. Under torture, even a dim-witted suspect will divulge false information, hoping to gain temporary relief from torture. Determining that information’s veracity requires sending the forces of good on a potential wild goose chase, wasting precious time and resources better spent searching for the bomb.

Continuing to torture the suspect in the interim between the suspect divulging information and security forces proving that information false constitutes self-defeating behavior by the torturers. Without hope that information will end the torture, the suspect has no incentive to cooperate. Torture itself provides the suspect no reason to tell the truth; the imminent nature of the threat provides the terrorist with an incentive to provide disinformation. The terrorist must only stave off telling the truth long enough for the bomb to explode. This analysis relies upon several dubious assumptions: (1) that the apprehended suspect(s) knows the information necessary to prevent the catastrophe; (2) that the interrogators know how to torture without killing (e.g., the suspect dying of a heart attack before divulging the critical information); and (3) that interrogators, suspects, and any necessary equipment are all in the same room. Bottom line: the consequentialist argument fails. Torture in the face of imminent danger is unlikely to yield information that will save the day and justify the evil employed. Yet proponents of preserving torture as an optional interrogation technique most often cite exactly this type of scenario to make their case.

Second, consider the category of scenarios in which the danger is not imminent, e.g., a terrorist group has obtained radioactive material to use in a dirty bomb against an unspecified target at an unknown date. Again, the consequentialist argument fails. This time the problem is that professional interrogators have learned through experience that torture produces inferior results. Time-tested, psychologically-informed interrogation techniques that avoid abuse and torture consistently produce better results. In the words of one senior U.S. Army interrogator, now retired: “In my two decades of experience as an interrogator, I know of no competent interrogator that would resort to torture. Not one.” (Ray Bennett (pseudonym), interviews with J. M. Arrigo of November 13, 2006 and August 18, 2007, in “Having a conscience and going to Gitmo—Oral history of an interrogator,” J.M. Arrigo, Intelligence Ethics Collection, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.) Throughout WWII, the U.S. avoided the use of torture, successfully obtaining vital information from German and Japanese prisoners through morally sound interrogation methods. Psychological research supports the anecdotal evidence that coercive interrogation methods yield less useful, less significant information than do morally acceptable methods. Furthermore, many U.S. military personnel believe the adverse international consequences of the U.S. using torture more than offsets any tactical advantage from information gained through torture.

Whether or not an immediate threat exists, the consequentialist argument fails on its own terms. The harm inflicted through torture to the suspect, interrogator, and society outweighs any potential benefit because torture is an inferior interrogation technique. Those who use consequentialist arguments to support interrogation through torture have simply failed to do adequate homework before staking out their position.

Christians should not feel too smug. To its shame, in prior centuries the Church developed and used some of the most notorious current torture techniques, e.g., waterboarding – simulating the feeling of drowning by laying a person on his/her back on an incline, covering the face with cloth, and then pouring water on the cloth. Nor have Christians always remembered those tortured and sought to end torture. Now is the time to atone for that tragic history.

First, we Episcopalians should encourage General Convention in 2009 to pass a resolution calling upon all nations, including the United States, to prohibit the use of torture – abusive, coercive interrogation methods – under all circumstances. The resolution should address policymakers and call for them to adhere to existing international law that forbids torturing captives. The resolution should also ban rendition, the U.S. turning suspects over to another nation for interrogation, presumably through torture. No sound moral argument, not even a consequentialist argument, exists that justifies the use of torture under any circumstance. This resolution will provide the Presiding Bishop, the Episcopal Public Policy Network, and others the basis for vocally and assertively opposing the use of torture.

Second, the Church should remember those tortured. Pray for them regularly. Insist that all captives receive their rights to legal counsel, due process, and a fair and speedy trial. Support their families pastorally and with humanitarian aid. I may detest a terrorist group’s ideology and find its methods morally repugnant, but terrorists and their families remain human beings.

Third, Christians must fight the good fight. We must get actively involved in campaigns for justice. In the struggle with terrorism, winning at too high a cost is really losing. Jesus knew this, choosing to die out of love rather than succumb to the temptation to organize an army and lead a revolt against Rome. Only by adhering to the standards of justice do we resist evil; when we adopt immoral tactics in the fight against evil, it signals that we have failed to overcome evil and that evil has overcome us.

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years.

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