Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Crucial Question on Torture

Yesterday, the Senate Intelligence Committee under Senator Dianne Feinstein released their report on the CIA's interrogation methods in the wake of 9/11, and has set the media all aflutter. I acknowledge up front that I haven't read the report, so I'll not comment on its contents except in the general sense that the report condemns the CIA for its use of torture to extract information about future attacks from some of the men responsible for the 9/11 atrocity.

Also, we should set aside at the outset the hypocrisy of politicians like Feinstein who condemn the CIA for engaging in tactics which both she and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were made aware of at the time and which they at least tacitly condoned and encouraged.

Perhaps, too, we should set aside the unseemly political nature of a report drafted by Democrat staffers and released on the same day that Jonathan Gruber was testifying before the House on his claim that dishonest methods were employed to secure passage of the Affordable Care Act. Lest anyone think the roll out of the report was not political just ask yourself whether you think it would have been released at all had Democrats been in the White House when the events it describes occurred or released on the same day that some Republican was being grilled by the Democrat-controlled Senate.

But I want to set aside the hypocrisy and the sordid political motives because as awful as they are, they're irrelevant to the main issue, an issue I haven't seen or heard anyone in the media yet discuss. It can be put in the form of a basic question: Is torture absolutely, categorically, always wrong?

If the answer is no, then the next question is, under what circumstances might it be justified? Was it justified, for instance, in the wake of 9/11 when the entire country had every reason to expect that that attack was just the first in a series of mass murders that terrorists were planning to inflict on the nation? If not, then what circumstances would justify it?

If the answer to the basic question is yes, torture is wrong always and everywhere under any circumstances, then the next question is, upon what grounds is that judgment based? If the person making the judgment is a secularist or naturalist then their claim is groundless, since on naturalism there can be no absolute wrongs, nor any objective wrongs of any sort. On secularism the only grounds for making a meaningful moral claim, i.e. religious grounds, are disallowed. In other words, when secularists/naturalists say that torture is absolutely wrong they're either telling us nothing more than that they personally don't like it, or they're telling us that many of those who, unlike themselves, do have a solid ground for making a moral claim, i.e. those who base their judgments on what they take to be the will of God, believe it's absolutely wrong. In neither case, however, does the secularist/naturalist claim have any rational purchase on the rest of us, and there's no compelling moral reason to pay them any heed.

So, what about those who base their conviction upon what they believe God has commanded of us? They certainly have a solid basis for condemning torture, but it doesn't follow that they're right when they say it's wrong always and categorically.

The theist (Christian, Jewish, or Muslim) is commanded by God to do justice and be compassionate. It follows from this that we are to respect others as persons. Thus, it would seem that torture could never be right (or at least never be not wrong) because by its very nature it certainly seems uncompassionate. Nevertheless, sometimes it's not clear who the recipients of our justice and compassion should be. If a terrorist gang is plotting to kill hundreds of school children by blowing up a school and one of them we have reason to believe has intimate knowledge of the plan has been apprehended, but will not talk, it seems prima facie uncompassionate to inflict pain to compel him to reveal those plans. But it also seems uncompassionate and unjust in excelsis to the children and their families to refrain from doing whatever we can to save their lives. In such a situation it seems to me that our moral duty is to the children and that the pain inflicted on the terrorist to induce him to divulge the needed information is, though distasteful and even ghastly, morally warranted, provided the terrorist knows that it will stop the moment he discloses the information that will save those children's lives.

One objection to this line of thought that we quite often hear is that torture never works, but how can anyone know that? The most we can say is that it doesn't always produce accurate intelligence, but if everything else has been tried and failed it's nonsense to assert that we shouldn't try something else that might work just because it also might not. In fact, using what the CIA euphemistically calls "enhanced interrogation techniques" apparently did work on the two or three terrorists in Guantanamo who were subjected to them.