Torture and the Ticking Bomb

Torture and the Ticking Bomb
Rev. Douglas Taylor
6-1-08

The scenario goes like this: A bomb has been planted in a major city and is about to go off. To heighten the anxiety, let us imagine it to be a nuclear device! We have one of the terrorists in custody, someone who was involved in the plot, who perhaps even set the bomb. This person is a known terrorist, has an established history of involvement in terrorist activities, and knows where the device is hidden. All other sources of information have dried up. No time exists to evacuate the city. Finding the bomb is our only hope. It is imperative this man tell us where the bomb is. Police are certain that he will crack if the right pressure is applied. Torture is the last option available. Is it justified to torture this man to save the lives of thousands of people? The city will be decimated, people you know and love will die, thousands of innocent lives will be lost when the bomb explodes. Can you refuse to save them?

You all know that the answer is supposed to be ‘yes, you can refuse to use torture.’ Torture is always wrong; there are no exceptions. There is not a religious organization that has gone on record as saying that torture, under some extreme situations, may be justifiable. No religious group has said that. Catholics, Evangelicals, orthodox Christians, Unitarian Universalists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and so many others have statements of conscience or press releases or issue write-ups that brook no loop-holes or extreme exceptions on the issue of torture. Many have also signed on as participating or endorsing members of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Theirs is a great website with plenty of information and action suggestions: the National Religious Campaign Against Torture – NRCAT.org. And as you would see on that website, the answer to the scenario is that Torture is always wrong.

But think about that scenario again. Thousands of lives hang in the balance. Here you sit in judgment of what happens next. The terrorist is tortured into providing the location, the bomb is discovered and disarmed, the people are saved. Is the torturer a hero or a villain? The precise legal definition of torture is severe mental or physical pain or suffering to elicit information. According to the nonprofit organization Human Rights First, fewer that four scenes of torture appeared on prime-time television each prior to 2001. In 2007 there were over 100. People are thinking about this stuff a lot these days. TV shows like 24 have used versions of this Ticking Bomb scenario in which the main character breaks the law and occasionally tortures people for the greater good (from Christian Century “Prime Time Torture” June 3, 2008.) Is the torturer a hero as these shows will sometimes suggest – or is he a villain? According to scriptures, this is no hero.

And yet, some one third of the American people say torture is sometimes justified according to 2005 Pew surveys. I place myself among the roughly one third of Americans who contend that torture is never justified. Where would you be? Is torture often justified, sometimes justified, rarely or never? According to the statistic, two thirds of us think torture is justified in at least certain cases that arise rarely. Our military service men and women have very similar perspectives and indeed for them this is not academic. And it certainly cannot be left vague.

The new Army Field Manual that was issued last year bans torture and degrading treatment of prisoners. Interestingly it specifically disallows forced nakedness, hooding and other procedures that have become infamous during the five-year-old war on terrorism. It also specifically mentions water-boarding as an unacceptable interrogation technique. Last year, soon after this version of the Army Field Manual was issued, in July 2007 the administration issued an Executive Order restarting a discontinued CIA program of interrogation using techniques such as water-boarding, extreme temperatures, stress positions and sleep deprivation – techniques that have reportedly been authorized and used. This is in keeping with the bill President Bush signed into law at the end of 2005. The McCain torture ban was binding for the United States military but not for the CIA, and it was further limited by the accompanying signing statement the President added which effectively negated its provisions. In other words, the treatment John McCain went through as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War is not something we condone among our military. But that sort of torture is OK when our CIA agents do it.

There was another attempt at a bill this March which would bind the CIA to the Army Field Manual’s list of interrogation techniques which does not include water-boarding. Our president vetoed the bill when it got to his desk. The sort of techniques that remain available to the CIA, therefore, other than simulated drowning, hooding and forced nakedness mentioned earlier include beating prisoners, sexually humiliating them, threatening them with dogs, depriving them of food or water, performing mock executions, shocking them with electricity, burning them, and causing other pain. All these are ‘on the table’ so to speak.

This country was founded on certain principles of justice and liberty, recognizing each person as a citizen of the free country, affirming that every person has certain unalienable rights be virtue – not of their citizenship – but by virtue simply of their humanity. People might argue that we must fighting fire with fire. They are beheading our non-military citizens. The terrorists are the ones who took it to this level. But what we are fighting for is the ideology of our free country. We lose that battle when we resort to torture. In a war, not against another country, but against an ideology that accepts the use of terrorism as a tool, how can we win by countering with torture?

I remember reading a chat response to an article about torture last year. This was around the time when a bill was watered down and passed by congress, signed by President Bush and then rendered essentially meaningless by the signing clause. During the chat I was amazed at the kind of posturing and simplistic argument passed for conversation online. At one point a chatter offered a lengthy post that became something of a manifesto for some of the others. The post went something like this: There are two types of people in the world: people who will use violence and people who will not. The people who use violence are wolves and those who will not use violence are sheep. The vast majority of people are decent, law-abiding sheep. They are preyed upon by the handful of wolves who are set on destruction and cruelty. Luckily there is a third animal on the scene. There are those who are willing to use violence yet are principled and committed to protecting the sheep: we are the sheepdogs.

This post went on to praise the sheepdogs who have rules of conduct to protect the sheep and fight the wolves, who have consequences when the other sheepdogs stray from the rules of conduct, who live to serve and protect. Rest secure, go about your business, stop meddling and complaining about the sheepdog’s business – instead just go shopping. It was quite a post. My first reaction was: we have these wolves over here and these sheep over there and then these sheep dogs in between, but where are there any human beings? There aren’t any humans in this picture.

My second thought was to complain against the theology implied in the post. To be human is not to be either a wolf or a sheep but to be both. We are not all good or all bad inside, every one of us is capable of committing violence and of withholding violence. Everyone of us has the capacity for both good and evil – the line between good and evil does not run between national borders but down the center of every person’s heart. If there really were a bunch of wolves and sheep and sheep dogs then I think the sheep dogs ought to be fired for failing to get rid of the wolves. Surely if we are talking about a group of evil wolves out there then we could have rounded them all up by now and done away with them. Why haven’t we done that yet? Because that idea is not real! In the war on terrorism, this mentality is a non-starter: it reduces the argument justification by name-calling. “You’re terrorists.” “Well, you’re torturers.” “Oh yeah? You’re the Great Satan,” “Oh, well, you’re just a bunch of wolves.” In this we lose the standing to say, you are violating basic human rights and must stop. We can’t say that because now we are violating them too. The CIA recently reported that three individuals are set to be prosecuted and that water-boarding was used on all three during interrogations. They actually admitted this out loud!

Former President, Jimmy Carter said, back in the fall of 2007 after President Bush vetoed the bill that would halt the official sanction of torture, “Our country for the first time in my life time has abandoned the basic principle of human rights. We’ve said that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to those people in Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo, and we’ve said we can torture prisoners and deprive them of an accusation of a crime.” (“Jimmy Carter: US Tortures Prisoners,” Associated Press, October 11, 2007.)

This is a sticking point that has bothered me for a while. Why is there any debate about this? How can it be unclear, is it up to popular opinion as to whether Water-boarding is really torture or not? Is water-boarding a violation of the Geneva Convention? Is the answer a matter of fact, or do intelligent people disagree on this point? Well, strangely enough, there are people who say water-boarding is not torture. The majority of military interrogators, police interrogators, politicians, Christian and secular ethicists, and clergy are clear that water-boarding and other atrocities witnessed at Abu Ghraib prison constitute torture. Of those few who argue that it is not torture, many will concede that these interrogation techniques are “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” a phrase that is often linked with torture. The precise legal definition of torture is severe mental or physical pain or suffering to elicit information. This leaves it somewhat open to opinion as to whether or not a particular activity is torture or not.

What about those who say water-boarding is a violation of the Geneva Conventions? Is it any clearer in there? This has been very enlightening for me. I read significant portions of the Geneva Conventions this week. The Geneva Conventions started as a document in 1864 about the treatment of sick and wounded in the field. This is how the Red Cross began! The second article extends the first to include treatment of wounded at sea. The third convention covers treatment of prisoners of war. The fourth convention covers the treatment of civilians during war. America has developed the category of people between civilians and military, the ‘unlawful combatant.’ And thus are not covered by the conventions. One definition of an unlawful combatant is a spy, or a combatant without a uniform. Well, I’m pretty sure uniforms have not been passed out in the war on terror. People are not becoming terrorists in the name of this country or that country – but in the name of an ideology. It seems to me, we’ve created a scenario whereby the Geneva Conventions cannot ever apply! Anyone who is a terrorist is easily defined as an unlawful combatant! That’s quite a loophole. But not according to the Geneva Conventions, only according to the United States administration!

When we leave such decisions to politicians the expedient answer wins. Torture is seen as expedient. Never mind that the information gained is unreliable, never mind that the process of obtaining the information is highly corruptible, never mind that the toll for such methods is often hidden but always exacted. How apt is the maxim that religion must serve as the conscience of the state in this case. Our country is performing torture in our name and we must rise up and demand an end to such activity. I am frankly baffled that we are even talking about this as a country, that I have to stand in the pulpit and say – torture is morally wrong, as if that were not perfectly clear already.

And yet, people are looking at this pragmatically and saying the ends justify the means. That it is done in the service of good. The ticking bomb scenario is likened to the case made for Just War theory. A few of the standard criteria used to justify a war as a Just War include the requirements that the war is declared to defend against aggression, is carried out by legitimate authority, and is deemed likely effective – to have a reasonable chance of success. So, if we are to consider the possibility of what we might call a Just Torture scenario: the “ticking time-bomb,” that best possible argument, is shown to be ridiculously unsuited. There can be no Just Torture!

These arguments fail and always fail for a number of reasons. For one, they are wildly hypothetical to the point of ridiculous. OK, we can play the ‘would you justify torture for a ticking time-bomb’ game as a thought experiment, but it is not ever going to actually happen that way. It will never be that clean: the terrorist in custody, with known information to give us, with known connections. That is just too perfect a scenario. Another reason this argument fails is that it casts the use of torture as a last resort, as a highly abnormal method. Experience demands we acknowledge that the use of torture in one case breeds cruelty and more torture in other places. The Ticking bomb scenario casts it as an abnormal emergency situation, but such exceptions are used to justify a systematic resort to criminal behavior, it’s easy: just call a permanent state of emergency.

All of these arguments, both for and against, focus on reliability and uncertainty; as if we can ask: is torture practical? Perhaps those who do not recognize this as a moral issue or will not acknowledge the moral culpability of a pro-torture stance could possibly be persuaded by a pragmatic argument against it. Maybe we should not use torture because it doesn’t really work that well. Still, it seems to be to be like saying, referring to that horrid psalm, “let us not dash their babies’ heads against the rocks because it doesn’t actually do anything to alleviate my anger and sense of injustice.” Why not just stand up and say we shall do this because it is immoral, it is wrong!

The ends never justify the means. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, there is no path to peace, peace is the path. You cannot murder and torture your way to peace and justice. You cannot uphold the rule of law by breaking it. You cannot defend the people’s unalienable rights to life and liberty by denying the same. You cannot affirm the inherent worth and dignity of a person if you are dehumanizing them and yourself through the act of torture.

That is, I think, the most significant part of the issue: that torture is dehumanizing. It is not only inflicting pain, it is a process of striping the humanity from a person. But imagine, for a moment, the character of a torturer: imagine the ways in which that person must also suppress aspects of their humanity, strip away compassion and empathy, ignore the fact that this is another human being at the other end of this electrical wire. Torture dehumanizes the victim and the perpetrator. In a way, it dehumanizes each of us for it is done in our name.

Torture is dehumanizing and immoral. Our country, any country should not be involved in such activities. There is no path to peace, peace is the path. Ends don’t justify the means – they corrupt the ends! If you use torture to accomplish peace then when you get there it will not be peace. Torture is always wrong; there are no exceptions. So, send a letter to your elected officials, write a letter to the editor, sign a petition, write a poem, discuss the topic with friends, cry, sing, pray, march, speak out, and rise up to be the conscience of our country.

In a world without end, may it be so.