The Immorality of Torture

The release of the highly redacted Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture is a catalogue of horrors. While the report suggested that the CIA misled both Congress and the White House about the severity of its deeds, it is hard to believe that the CIA acted in a rogue manner and far more likely that key officials in the Bush White House – Dick Cheney comes to mind – were winking as fast and as often as they could. Still, as in any corrupt enterprise, and the torture of prisoners was certainly a corruption of the nation’s moral ideals, assessing precise responsibility is difficult. What is not difficult is to recognize that no one stood up and said, “No, we can’t do that.” Nor is it difficult to conclude that the American people would have been willing to wink at the systematic use of torture in the wake of 9/11.

With the notable exception of Sen. John McCain, the only member of the Congress who speaks with the authority of personal experience on the topic, the reception of the report broke down along predictable partisan lines. That division cannot obscure the moral assessment that every American should be making this morning, for these deeds were done by our government and, in a sense, in our name.

The key questions are two: Did the torture work, did it provide reliable information that we could not otherwise obtain? And, was it justified? The two questions are related but distinct. If torture does not work, or even if its efficacy is in doubt, the hurdle of moral justification, you would think, would be even higher. On the other hand, the fact that something works makes it easier to do it, even if it is wrong. In this instance, the relationship between the two questions is vitiated by the blunt moral fact that torture is an intrinsic evil, a moral act that always redounds upon the person committing it, and can never be justified. And, it is a grave evil of the kind governments and voters must take account. 

Conservative arguments against the report also implied as a kind of given that somehow the terrorists had it coming, that they deserved whatever was meted out to them because they started this fight and their crimes were so grievous that they have no claim to decent treatment of themselves after killing thousands of innocents. To be sure, some of the people tortured were murderers of the worst kind: If anyone can be considered evil, a terrorist can. But, the nature and degree of their evil is irrelevant to the issue of whether or not torture is morally justified. The first step in moral assessment is the question: Who is the moral agent? As in the case of arguments defending capital punishment, the crimes of the person to be executed or tortured has no bearing on the moral assessment of the deed in question. The one committing torture, not the one tortured, is the moral actor here and it is his or her actions that are at issue.

The worst argument from conservatives that I heard last night was that releasing this report was wrong because the information it contained would cause further harm and endanger Americans. If that concern was paramount, they should not have committed the torture in the first place. Everything done in darkness will eventually come to light and a primary characteristic of a morally mature person, or nation, is the awareness that nothing should be done that you would not want known.  

In the first volume of his war memoirs, entitled “The Gathering Storm,” Winston Churchill wrote:

The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics. Everyone respects the Quakers. Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding states. Their duty is first to so deal with other nations as to avoid strife and war and to eschew aggression in all its forms, whether for nationalistic or ideological objects. But the safety of the State, the lives and freedom of their fellow countrymen, to whom they owe their position, make it right and imperative in the last resort, or when a final and definitive conviction has been reached, that the use of force should not be excluded. If the circumstances are such as to warrant it, force may be used. (p. 320)

This is wise, but it is not how a Christian approaches the issue. You cannot set aside the Sermon on the Mount – or the Quakers – so easily. It is work, hard work, to reconcile Christian moral principles with “the circumstances.” And, in the event, those who seek to defend the U.S. committing torture against terrorists in custody cannot turn to Churchill for any support because, in the next paragraph he states, “There is, however, one helpful guide, namely, for a nation to keep its word and to act in accordance with its treaty obligations to allies.” The U.S. is a signatory to the Geneva and Warsaw conventions. Those treaties are the law of our land. That law was broken.

I confess I was not much more impressed by the moral arguments put forth by the various liberal talking heads I heard last night. It was nice to see them admit that there was at least one intrinsic evil that bothered them, but I can’t conceal my disgust that the left is unable to muster any moral outrage at what happens in abortion clinics in this country every day. And, strangely, the worst liberal argument mirrored the worst conservative argument: Conservatives worried that the release of this information would harm Americans while liberals worried that the torture itself would harm Americans. Islamicist terrorists will not kill one more or one less person based on anything we Americans do. A similar argument is often deployed against the actions of the Israeli government, as if Hamas would suddenly make nice if Israel stopped building settlements. This is worse than naïve, it reflects a self-hating moral analysis that is as uninformed as anything I heard on Fox News last night.

Torture is evil and that evil has been committed in our name. I am not sure what repercussions there should be. President Obama said we need to look forward not backward. Certainly, having the truth out in public view is a positive step forward, and a warning to future administrations that whatever they condone will eventually come to light. But, if the rule of law is to mean something, as conservatives always insist it must, it is hard to fathom why there should be no legal consequences. I know that will open a can of worms, but that can was opened by the decision to undertake the horrific actions catalogued in the report.    


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