The Morality of Torture

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Everyone follows some sort of a moral code, even atheists. Jews have the Old Testament or the Talmud. Christians have the New Testament or the Bible. Other religions have their particular holy books. Non-religious people subscribe to natural law, the Golden Rule, altruism, or some other ism.

Every moral code shares some basic similarities: it is wrong to lie, cheat, steal, rape, murder — and torture.

The current debate over the morality of the U.S. government engaging in torture has revealed many Americans who profess to adhere to a moral code to be hypocrites. Now we are being told that, because the end (saving American lives) justifies the means (torture), the use of torture is justified under certain circumstances.

Christians especially are being hypocritical since they have historically condemned situation ethics and the decline of moral absolutes. They are also cautioned in the New Testament not to do evil that good may come (Romans 3:8).

What some Americans are now advocating is the torture of suspected terrorists held in Guantánamo and other prisons. Real terrorists, like foreigners Ramzi Yousef and Zacarias Moussaoui and American José Padilla, have been charged for their crimes, convicted in federal court, and are currently incarcerated in U.S. prisons.

Let us assume for the sake of argument that terrorists are those that fight against a U.S. invasion of their country and not vice versa, that men held in places like Guantánamo are really suspected terrorists and are not there merely because they were wrongly picked up by bounty hunters paid by the U.S. government, and that torture does in fact result in valuable information being revealed that could prevent a terrorist attack and save American lives.

If it is morally permissible to torture a suspected terrorist in an attempt to gain information that may save American lives, then:

  • Is it morally permissible to torture a suspected terrorist who is a child in an attempt to gain information that may save American lives? If not, then why not?
  • Is it morally permissible to torture a suspected terrorist who is a woman in an attempt to gain information that may save American lives? If not, then why not?
  • Is it morally permissible to torture by any means a suspected terrorist in an attempt to gain information that may save American lives? If not, then why not?
  • Is it morally permissible to torture a suspected terrorist even if it results in his permanent disability in an attempt to gain information that may save American lives? If not, then why not?
  • Is it morally permissible to torture a suspected terrorist even if it results in his death in an attempt to gain information that may save American lives? If not, then why not?

Is it morally permissible to do any of the above if it may save just one American life? If not, then why not?

I am afraid that many American torture advocates would not have a problem with any of the above, even if it might only save just one American life.

But if the goal is possibly saving American lives, then what about torturing American citizens who might know about American lives being in jeopardy? Is it morally permissible to torture a suspected terrorist who is an American in an attempt to gain information that may save American lives? If not, then why not? What about American woman and children? Are all means of torture acceptable or are there certain forms of torture that are only reserved for foreigners? What if the suspected American terrorist becomes disabled or dies as a result of the torture?

Again, if the goal is possibly saving American lives, then what about torturing American citizens who are not suspected terrorists but might know about American lives being in jeopardy? Is it morally permissible to torture a suspect in police custody in an attempt to gain information that may save American lives? If not, then why not? But what if the suspect is a woman or a child? And may any form of torture be used or are there certain forms of torture that are off limits for suspects in police custody? What if the suspect in police custody becomes disabled or dies as a result of the torture?

But why stop with suspects in police custody. I mean, if the goal is possibly saving American lives, then what about torturing Americans in their homes who might know about American lives being in jeopardy? And what about travelling overseas to torture foreigners in their homes? Is it morally permissible to torture anyone anywhere in an attempt to gain information that may save American lives? If not, then why not?

Just think about the potential benefits of torture for local law enforcement. Drug users could be tortured until they reveal the names of their dealers. Serial killers could be tortured until they reveal where they buried their dead bodies. Pedophiles could be tortured until they reveal the names of the children they have victimized. Burglars could be tortured until they reveal the addresses they have burglarized. Rapists could be tortured until they reveal the names of all the women they have violated. College students could be tortured until they reveal the names of those who illegally supplied them with booze. Reporters could be tortured until they reveal the names of their sources. Hey, if we torture enough people, we can get a confession for every unsolved crime in the world.

The trump card of conservative torture advocates like Thomas Sowell is always an emotionally-charged reference to one’s family:

What if it was your mother or your child who was tied up somewhere beside a ticking time bomb and you had captured a terrorist who knew where that was? Face it: What you would do to that terrorist to make him talk would make water-boarding look like a picnic.

In such a highly emotional and personal situation, it’s difficult to know with certainty how someone would react. Face it: If someone thought that their loved ones were in imminent danger of death, and they thought that the only way to save them was by torturing someone, he might be willing to torture a terrorist, a terrorist’s mother, a terrorist’s child, or even you, your mother, or your child. But is this the right thing to do? And is this how U.S. foreign policy should be conducted?

I don’t think that many Americans who say that torture is justified under certain circumstances if it may save American lives really believe what they are saying. If you really want to get a terrorist to talk, there are ways to do it without laying a finger on him. Here is one: Take his wife and son and, in front of him, rape her, crush the boy’s testicles, and sodomize them both. That will get him talking more than anything you could ever do to him. If the end is gaining information that may save American lives, then why not? Now, except for some red-state conservative fascists and a few bloodthirsty Christian warmongers, I think that most Americans wouldn’t go this far. But if you believe in torture in an attempt to gain information that may save American lives, where do you draw the line? Once you establish a “ticking time bomb” exception, every situation ends up becoming a ticking time bomb scenario.

And how credible is information obtained via torture? Face it: Just as someone might be willing to torture anyone and everyone if they thought the lives of their loved ones were in imminent danger, so anyone and everyone undergoing torture might be willing to admit to anything to get the torture to stop. If we took a chainsaw to Dick Cheney, he would confess to all sorts of crimes that the Bush administration didn’t even commit. Even the U.S. Army’s 2006 field manual on interrogation says about torture:

Use of torture is not only illegal but also it is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the HUMINT [Human Intelligence] collector wants to hear. Use of torture can also have many possible negative consequences at national and international levels.

But even if credible information could be obtained through torture, it is still immoral, barbaric, and un-American.

Seldom heard in the torture debate is why people became terrorists in the first place. A recent article by James Payne, “What Do the Terrorists Want,” shows that, contrary to neoconservative warmongers like David Frum and Richard Perle, terrorists espouse neither an ideology of conquest like the Nazi Germany and Soviets Russia nor a desire to impose on the whole world its religion and law. The majority of Osama bin Laden’s venom is directed at the West for aggression, oppression, and exploitation of Muslim lands and peoples, not because he, like President Bush driveled, “hates our freedoms.”

Rather than saving American lives, the torture of Muslim prisoners serves as a recruiting tool for al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist organizations. Yes, the crimes of terrorists are many. But why give them reasons to commit more of them? “If we forfeit our values by signaling that they are negotiable in situations of grave or imminent danger, we drive those undecideds into the arms of the enemy,” says former commandant of the Marine Corps Charles C. Krulak.

It is proponents of torture that aren’t concerned about American lives. If they were then they wouldn’t support the senseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have resulted in almost 5,000 American soldiers dying for a lie.

Who are the true patriots? Who are the real Americans? Those who defend foreign wars that send thousands of Americans to their deaths, create terrorists where there were none, and increase the hatred of foreigners toward the United States or those who want to end the U.S. foreign policy of intervening in the affairs of other countries, dismantle the Holy American Empire, and bring all U.S. troops home to stay?

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