Saving Lives or Committing Evil?


Why in 2006 are we engaged in a public discussion of torture? Why do prominent lawyers and columnists promote torture? Why at this time are we reading memos written by top U.S. officials that justify their power to torture? Why do we hear our Vice-President affirm that torturing by means of water is justifiable? Why does our Congress pass laws to legalize heinous acts of torture?

Why do we learn that our military has been torturing captives? Why do we learn that the CIA, continuing a long history of black deeds, has operated secret and not-so-secret torture hideaways in foreign lands?

Our officials simultaneously deny that torture is occurring under their command, while they (A) seek and pass legislation that absolves them of culpability of past crimes of torture, (B) seek and pass legislation that allows them to torture captives, and (C) tell us that torture is necessary for the safety of the American public.

Why are all these events happening now? Didn’t nations agree to outlaw torture? Why is the U.S. now (again) flouting the Geneva Convention? Is torture necessary to save American lives and prevent another 9/11 catastrophe?

Why now?

When individual murderers or serial killers torture their victims before killing them, sensational stories are published. These dreadful cases are so uncommon that we learn the names of the killers. Isolated individuals rarely engage in torture. We do not hear about torture murder being a systematic feature of day-to-day life.

We only begin to hear about systematic torture when conditions are ripe for it. Torture becomes widespread when conditions exist that bring out bestial and cruel behavior in human beings and break down the usual moral inhibitions.

What are these conditions? (1) Torture typically arises when there are powerful figures of authority like high priests, kings, emperors, generals, bureaucrats, dictators, and presidents who possess the power to torture, often without detection; (2) Torture will rise if there is greater public indifference, sympathy, acquiescence, or even approval. Polls suggest that about 58 percent of Americans are against torture and 36 percent would allow some degree of torture. The world averages are 59 and 29 percent, respectively. (3) Torture arises when there exists an enemy — real, imagined, or exaggerated — such as religious heretics, Algerian resistance fighters, terrorists, insurgents, or unlawful enemy combatants.

Even at lower levels of authority, such as with police forces and prison authorities, one-sided brutality, mistreatment, and sometimes torture arise. The enemies in these cases are common criminals, hippies, rioters, draft-dodgers, or simply unruly people who seem to threaten the police, the prison, society and the social order. Again, cruelty and injustice are more likely when the public goes along with it.

Usually it is war or violent struggle against an enemy that give rise to state-run and state-approved torture on a noticeable scale. Often the enemy is viewed as a shadowy conspiracy against society and its authorities.

The torturers may want confessions to scare off other heretics or insurgents or to show they are doing their job. They may want information concerning the conspiracy whose dim outlines they fear. They may be part of the state’s control apparatus over their own population.

The conspiracy or enemy is seen as a danger that must be stamped out by any means, even immoral and evil means like torture. The moral element has to be negated or overcome. It takes training or indoctrination to produce torturers who overcome their compunctions and consciences. It takes a system. The U.S. military has provided such training to the U.S. Army Special Forces in the past with the involvement of the CIA. Between 1946 and 1984, the U.S. military taught torture at the School for the Americas in Panama, later moved to Fort Benning, Georgia. The CIA has been the main locus of U.S. torture capabilities.

The list of authorities, usually state and government authorities, that have tortured is very long, covering many places, times, and forms of government. There were four separate Inquisitions in the Middle Ages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Roman. English kings have tortured. American soldiers employed water torture in the Philippine-American War (1899—1902) against natives. The CIA has used torture for decades. The British government operated a secret torture center in London during World War II. America’s South Vietnamese ally tortured. To this can be added Nazis, Communists, Fascists, South American dictators, Middle Eastern countries including Israel and Iraq, etc.

States use torture to maintain control over their own populations, that is, to suppress dissidents, rebels, or enemies within. And they use it to maintain control over insurgents in distant territories or colonies.

Today we face all the conditions that tend to generate torture. We have powerful officials of state who want torture, long-established intelligence and military bureaucracies that train for torture, a divided public whose feelings do not run high against torture, and shadowy enemies.

The torture bureaucracies

A good many articles tell us that torture is ineffective and explain why it is not effective. Interrogation along humane lines is said to produce better results. These articles counter the impression left by U.S. officials that torture has saved American lives.

There is some truth to the theory that torture is ineffective, or at least that it’s not as effective as one might believe. There’s enough plausibility to this theory that it pays us to think through what such an idea really means.

But at the same time, torture surely accomplishes some of what it sets out to do, even if it does so inefficiently. Didn’t Saddam Hussein hold his rule partly through torture? Didn’t Stalin and Papa Doc Duvalier use such methods? Didn’t Mao Zedong employ extensive torture in his 1968 Cleansing Class Ranks campaign?

Suppose that torture is actually a poor way to achieve the results it’s aimed at. Then why do we observe it cropping up again and again under the same conditions? Is it an error? Quite possibly it is.

I’ve argued in the past that reliance on the state is a longstanding error, in part because the connection between the state’s actions and the effects of its actions are hard for people to discern and disentangle from other causes. Furthermore, the state propagandizes on its own behalf and its accountability is diffuse. These factors make it hard for people at large to develop an appropriate, reliable, and strongly-held folk wisdom that the state actually harms rather than helps them.

Torture presents a similar situation. In the U.S., the episodes of torture occur once a generation or so, and society has no solid institutional memory of how well or badly it works. It has been 35 years since the Vietnam episode.

The authorities can spin the torture theme to their own ends and manipulate public opinion. What works against their success in selling torture is the strong moral inhibition against its use, so the authorities hammer away at this by emphasizing the expediency of the torture. Since the public has no strong experience or knowledge base about torture, a large fraction becomes persuaded that the moral rules can be broken for the sake of saving lives.

If torture is largely ineffective, why is it perpetuated? It’s like many government programs that go on and on and on. First and foremost, torture is not done by runaway individuals within the state. Torture is done via bureaucratic or hierarchical methods within a state’s power structure. One set of people orders it done. Another set of people sets it up. Another set of people actually does it. The torture is veiled in secrecy. The torturers are removed from the powers above them that endorse the torture. All the parties involved feel a need to justify that what they are doing works. But there is usually no systematic checking up that the torture is effective.

Afterwards, members of the bureaus and the public may possibly become aware of anecdotal reports from disenchanted torturers, rival interrogators, and those tortured that suggest that the torture didn’t achieve its aim. But such spasmodic reports have little impact on the broad public or even on the torture bureaucracies that always shy away from taking responsibility for anything anyway.

In government, few really know what is going on. Few know whether it’s doing any good or not. Few care. Many are protecting themselves. Whistleblowers are ignored or dealt with. Public outrage is deflected.

The FBI, which may believe in benign interrogation, will have no strong interest in promoting its views against the CIA, which may believe in brutality. The higher-ups are disinterested, or interested only in knowing that there have been some good results that they can trumpet in order to make themselves look good. Even if there are no good results, there are always those officials who want to show that they are doing something to protect the public.

The whole situation is typical of the state and the state’s bureaucracies.

A second set of factors has to do with the top officials. Like the public, most of the higher-ups are also ignorant of whether torture is effective or not. This means that most officials do not have strong feelings one way or another. Furthermore, being men and women of power, these officials are less likely to be as morally inhibited as the typical citizen is. In such a situation, if there are a few officials who have strong pro-torture beliefs, they can persuade the fence-sitters to activate or expand the torture capabilities that already exist within some of the state’s bureaus.

The bottom line is that while many citizens condemn torture and get sick to their stomachs over it, and while many innocents and captives are being destroyed by the torture apparatus of the state, the state’s cruelties grind on.

The utilitarian fallacy

The main argument in favor of the current round of torture is the utilitarian one that it has saved or is saving American lives. We do not have enough information to verify whether this statement is true or false, but neither do those who make it and they can’t get such information. If the knowledge that Americans torture captives hardens resistance against the U.S. and creates more insurgents, then torture has cost American lives. Torture may cost the lives or sanity of some torturers. It may teach Americans to ignore other moral rules and generate further evils. Because the utilitarian cannot measure or know the multiple negative effects of torture like these, he is incapable of ever proving the statement that torture saves American lives.

There are deeper objections to the utilitarian defense of torture. In the utilitarian ethic, a bad act is allowable if its good consequences more than outweigh the bad. This is supposed to provide a guiding rule by which people live. But we must ask "Who is going to do the bad act, such as the torturing?" Will it be each of us in our daily lives? Will we each make judgments that we can do evil acts because we think the good coming from them outweighs their evil? Without moral guidelines, how can we possibly make such judgments, and won’t they lead to chaos? How can we judge amounts of good and bad and the ramifications of our evil acts?

Suppose anyone can commit an evil act if he believes that the good it generates outweighs it. Won’t the moral distinction between good and evil simply break down as everyone does what he pleases according to his own judgment? Won’t the distinction between evil-doers and good-doers break down? How can we distinguish a victim from an aggressor if the aggressor argues or believes that he is doing good by some malicious act?

It is clear that utilitarian rules can’t be used at an individual level as a general way of life without creating chaos. Can they possibly be used at a group or social level? This raises more questions. Who can oversee this process? Who judges the amounts of good and evil? Who says it is all right to euthanize old people so that the living will live better? Who draws the lines? The state? Its employees? Will some authorities be allowed to commit these crimes on behalf of everyone else? But then who monitors them and decides whether what they are doing has a net benefit to everyone else? Who controls them? Even if a group process is followed, the distinction between good and evil, between evil-doer and good-doer breaks down.

Suppose, however, that somehow standards of good and evil are maintained. The utilitarian ethic leads to a few people, or some of the people, or even a majority of the people making life and death decisions for the rest. But in this process, whether it be done by individuals or by social groups, parties, or the state, there are no fixed standards of good and evil. The utilitarian standards, if they exist at all, are man-made. This means that they are subjective, changeable, and biased. This means they are open to abuse. Changing rules of good and evil must ultimately lead to confusion, clashes, and social disorder.

Instead, suppose that we have a fixed rule. Murder is forbidden, period, because it is inherently evil. It’s evil because it violates God’s commandment. We have a once-and-for-all judgment from above, from beyond mankind. We have a clear line that avoids confusion. We have a moral law that everyone can understand and implement. We have a stable and constant rule, an absolute rule that prevents abuse. Such a law makes the human being inviolate. We either have such a law or we do not. Without such a moral law, we have an unsettled utilitarian ethic. We have chaos, bias, and injustice. With such a law, we have order, freedom, and justice.

The torture quiz

Take the following quiz.

  1. Does the threat of death lie behind torture?

  2. Is torture cruel?

  3. Does torture break the will?

  4. Does torture cause betrayal of honor?

  5. Is it permissible to wreck the body of a captive?

  6. Is it permissible to extract or steal information from a person’s head under duress?

  7. Is it permissible to steal or injure a person’s mind? Health? Dignity? Peace of mind?

  8. Is torture a physical aggression against a defenseless person?

  9. Is torture of a captured enemy soldier the appropriate response to their participation in their defense or aggression?

  10. It is good to relieve the pain and suffering of others. If one inflicts pain and suffering on others, is this not then evil?

You may grade the quiz yourself. If you think this quiz is biased or if you favor torture, you may add an additional unanswerable question: Does torture save lives?

Or take the one-question quiz: Would you want to be tortured, to be treated inhumanely and cruelly?

A few religious words

In Genesis 49, Jacob said of two of his sons: 5 "Simeon and Levi [are] brothers; Instruments of cruelty [are in] their dwelling place. 6 Let not my soul enter their council; Let not my honor be united to their assembly; For in their anger they slew a man, And in their self-will they hamstrung an ox. 7 Cursed [be] their anger, for [it is] fierce; And their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob And scatter them in Israel."

Simeon and Levi are condemned for harboring instruments of cruelty and using them in their wrath against men and oxen.

Psalm 74 says: 20 "Have respect to the covenant; For the dark places of the earth are full of the haunts of cruelty."

The CIA’s covert prison facilities are termed "black sites" in official documents. God’s covenant and laws are opposed to these places of cruelty.

Ezekiel 34 speaks against the cruelties of the misbehaving shepherds of Israel: 4 "The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them."

Leviticus 19 speaks of mistreating the deaf and blind: 14 "You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but shall fear your God: I [am] the LORD."

Is it coincidence that the U.S. military blindfolds and hoods its captives, or that it deafens them and others with obnoxious sounds?

Pope Paul VI promulgated Gaudium et Spes (December 7, 1965), in which was written: "Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator."

Later, in Veritatis splendor, August 6, 1993, Pope Paul classified all of these acts as "intrinsically evil."


Speaking of torture is difficult when American soldiers are taught to behave barbarously in wars such as Vietnam and Iraq. It is hard to speak of torture when hundreds of thousands of innocent people are slain in and because of American-style warfare, or when America sets off bloody civil wars such as in Iraq.

Torture is the next step beyond the harsh, hostile, brutal, trigger-happy, callous, and demeaning behavior of American soldiers that is so often reported in the press. If torture is counter-productive, so is this behavior. Both are products of state bureaucracies.

The American public is altogether too lenient with its purse and its sympathy for any American military enterprise. It is altogether too tolerant of war-making and war-supporting Congressmen.

Americans, how great our wickedness on the earth has become!

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