Well, it’s what everyone is talking about, so what the Heck.
Did we get bin Laden’s location as a direct or indirect result of torture? Would you support torture if you “knew” it would lead to bin Laden’s capture or demise? Is torture justifiable in certain circumstances, even if your own moral code supposedly goes against it?
It’s a question that’s permeating our entire culture currently, as we engage in a War on Terror that features a nationless enemy – or, at least one without an official home – a global threat and a zealotry that is hard to understand for secularized cultures. People who have been raised in a tradition of “Do Unto Others” find themselves suddenly justifying acts they found ethically distasteful at a minimum, due to extreme circumstances.
In the wake of statements that the death of Osama bin Laden was fruit born of a first seed of information spilled from “enhanced interrogation” techniques, the conversation has heated again. Guantanamo Bay remains open, even though it was sworn to be shuttered by the President while he was campaigning.
Everyone is forced to consider, is torture at least “sometimes” justifiable?
An awful lot of our entertainment has this question in there. LOST had an episode where they tortured Sawyer because they thought he had information, which of course he didn’t. The Shield featured at least one torture scene per season, with Vic Mackey clearly supporting the idea that the ends justified the means. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight very much examined the question of what’s a reasonable limit, and is it ever acceptable to abandon it?
For the Record
I oppose torture. My moral upbringing, my religious faith and my own sense of ethics prohibit me from supporting it. But I think that the question, “Do you support torture?”, is at best a misleading question in the current times.
The better question is, “How do you define torture?”
There have been reports that the US has employed sleep deprivation techniques and playing I Love You (the Barney® theme song) repeatedly as a way to “break” prisoners. The only reaction I can have to that tactic is, “SFW?” Have a kid or two, not only will this happen but you’ll come to enjoy Barney® in some small way, even if the thought threatens you and you have to jump on the popular meme that you can’t like Barney. At least you don’t have to worry about your kids when they’re watching, and he keeps his lessons concise.
But to be honest, I’m also OK with psychological games. It’s like poker. I might not have a winning hand, but if I can I’ll bluff my way through and convince you that I do. I don’t consider it torture to disorient someone and trick them into spilling something, or pushing them to a mental limit that cracks their resistance.
But what limits do you place on it? Obviously mind games won’t work on the fanatical or the brainwashed.
So is it even possible to have a “restrained” torture guidebook, where in Situation X, it’s okay for Gary Busey to break out the car battery and Al Leong?
Everyone’s hypothetical is, “What if someone kidnapped your kids?” That’s an unfair argument, because emotionally you can justify anything. If someone touches my kids, I could wind up justifying a nuclear attack on their grandparents. The challenge is that, as was once said by someone wiser than I, we are a nation of laws, not men. The laws are in place to keep me from going after someone who has personally wronged me in a vengeful manner. I acknowledge that if someone had my kids, I’d bring the Wrath of God upon them and they’d better pray that someone stood between me and them.
And you become a monster/So the monster will not break you.
— Peace on Earth, U2
Seriously, there’s a reason that every father (especially one with daughters) loved the movie Taken. Because we can completely relate to popping those safeties off to save our little princess. (Of course, my daughter isn’t going to be stupid enough to get into that mess. Sharing a cab with a stranger in a foreign country with no resources? Daddy’s going to have a smarter girl than that, or I’ve failed.)
You can also use “results” to justify a whole lot of sins, or to reason out a lot of actions to “redress” sins against you. I don’t think that the torture discussion is even really about torture, but about allowing ourselves to relax our standards. That requires a dedication to moral relativism and as I’ve established in previous blogs, I’m no fan of it. As a believer in the Slippery Slope of ethics and morals, taking even a tentative step is a huge risk.
When things result in the end of an evil man, when the world arguably becomes a better place as a result of questionable actions, it’s hard not to excuse a lapse from an emotional perspective. The challenge is to be able to look at emotional situations in a detached, logical fashion.
Is it possible to do that? When the threat is so terrible and ever-present?
I think we can, but the rules must be very clear and we have to be willing to tolerate extreme measures within a reasonable definition.
But what’s that definition, and who gets to set it?