Human rights experts have long pressed the administration of former president George W. Bush for details of who bore ultimate responsibility for approving the simulated drownings of CIA detainees, a practice that many international legal experts say was illicit torture.The human rights community and a lot of other people are aghast that Americans would have used "torture" on a terrorist, and even more appalled, perhaps, that Bush would seem so unrepentant about it, but I've never been sure why. Before I explain, I think it's noteworthy that no one did anything to Mohammed until it was approved at the highest levels. "Enhanced interrogation" was not undertaken lightly by American interrogators. Whether to use such methods was considered a matter of the utmost gravity.
In a memoir due out Tuesday, Bush makes clear that he personally approved the use of that coercive technique against alleged Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed, an admission the human rights experts say could one day have legal consequences for him.
In his book, titled "Decision Points," Bush recounts being asked by the CIA whether it could proceed with waterboarding Mohammed, who Bush said was suspected of knowing about still-pending terrorist plots against the United States. Bush writes that his reply was "Damn right" and states that he would make the same decision again to save lives, according to a someone close to Bush who has read the book.
But was Bush's decision wrong? Let's leave to the lawyers the question of its legality and focus instead on its morality. Pundits an several shows this week have asserted the immorality of waterboarding Kalid Sheik Mohammed as if it were self-evident that doing what is illegal is ipso facto immoral, but I'm not sure they're right.
Surely it is morally wrong to torture someone for the reasons that many thugs use torture around the world today. To torture someone for revenge, for punishment, for amusement, even for routine interrogation purposes, is simply evil.
But the assumption that is being made when the pundits say it is morally wrong is that it is absolutely wrong, that there is no circumstance, nor can there be, in which it would ever be justified. If they really believe this, however, then I question whether they have thought the matter through.
About a year and a half ago I did a post in which I argued that if we love people there may be circumstances, in this fallen world we inhabit, in which torture is morally right. That sounds paradoxical, I know, so let me share with you what I wrote and then you can tell me where my error lies:
In my philosophy class we talk about love, distinguishing the sort of love we have for our fellow man from eros or romantic love. We define the former as treating people with dignity, respect, and kindness.The question to pose to those who condemn Mr. Bush is, do they really think torture is absolutely wrong in the moral sense or was it just wrong in the circumstances in which it was used against Kalid Mohammed. If the answer is the latter then we should ask what it was about those circumstances that made it wrong in that case. For my part I think it would be very difficult to provide a compelling answer to that question.
With that background I was asked the other day by a student how I reconcile the notion that we owe that kind of love to others with my belief that torture is not absolutely wrong.
This is a fair question and deserved an answer. Here's how, had I had the time, I would have replied:
Our obligation to love is a prima facie obligation. By that I mean that we owe respect and kindness to every individual until such time as the obligation to treat one person with love comes in conflict with our obligation to others who also have a claim, perhaps a greater claim, on our love.
When a man threatens the lives of others, particularly those I have a special obligation to protect and for whom I have a special bond of love, then it would be unloving to fail to do everything in my power to stop him. He has nullified my obligation to treat him with respect and kindness and forced me to choose between loving him and loving those he threatens. The moral course in such a circumstance, the course that I believe is demanded by the obligation to love, is to protect the innocent and to stop those who would harm them.
If stopping the guilty entails doing him harm then so be it, but the harm done should, whenever possible, be never greater than what's necessary to remove the threat. Nor should it ever be something one feels good about inflicting. A government which feels compelled to use "torture" (I use quotes because the definition of torture is so broad as to include almost any kind of incivility - a fact which really renders the word almost meaningless) to save the lives of its people is justified in doing so as long as that's the only reason it's used and so long as it's never continued beyond the point where it accomplishes its purpose.
Love is not a warm feeling toward other people, nor is it sentimentality. Sometimes, as in the case of a surgeon operating in a Civil War field hospital without anesthetics, doing the right thing means causing great pain. Sometimes, as in dealing with modern terrorism, doing the right thing for one person entails causing pain to another.
Perhaps you disagree and would argue that "torture" is absolutely wrong, that there's never any justification for it. Before you commit to such a view, though, ask yourself whether you would condemn a man who saved the life of your child by causing her abductor pain in order to coax him to reveal where his accomplices were holding her (cf. the movie Taken).
Before you say that the man was wrong to do this, imagine looking your child in the eyes after she has been rescued from people who were abusing her and preparing to murder her or sell her into child slavery or the sex trade, and telling her that you would rather she not have been rescued than for her rescue to have entailed that pain be inflicted on the man who kidnapped, molested and planned to kill her.
Perhaps you could say that to your child, but if not, then you agree that torture is not absolutely wrong. If that's your position then the question that next needs to be answered is not "should we torture?" but rather, "how should we define torture?" and "under what circumstances is torture morally justified?" The sooner we have that debate the better off we'll be as a nation.