Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Truth About Torture?

Charles Krauthammer has become one of my favorite opinion journalists. Even when I don't agree with him, his articles are marked by clarity and concision. It is refreshing to read consistently careful reasoning.

To date I haven't commented on this blog about the ethics of torture. I suppose that some would regard the issue as extremely simple for a Christian: torture is always wrong--everywhere, for all people, in all situations. But I'm not so certain the issue is this black-and-white.

I have read a number of articles now on the issue, and--in my opinion--none is as clear and as helpful as Krauthammer's new essay for The Weekly Standard.

Krauthammer begins with some analytic distinctions. "For the purpose of torture and prisoner maltreatment, there are three kinds of war prisoners: First, there is the ordinary soldier caught on the field of battle.... Second, there is the captured terrorist.... Third, there is the terrorist with information."

With respect to the third category, Krauthammer writes:

Here the issue of torture gets complicated and the easy pieties don't so easily apply. Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

Then in the key paragraph of his essay, Krauthammer argues that the hypothetical establishes a principle, namely, that:

Torture is not always impermissible. However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you've established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that's left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when--i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb.

What then should be done? The McCain Amendment is well-intentioned but McCain's position is itself incoherent. (The amendment prohibits all forms of torture, no matter the circumstance. Yet McCain thinks it should be broken during a ticking time bomb scenario!) Krauthammer suggests a way to move forward:

Begin, as McCain does, by banning all forms of coercion or inhuman treatment by anyone serving in the military--an absolute ban on torture by all military personnel everywhere.

Outside the military, however, I would propose, contra McCain, a ban against all forms of torture, coercive interrogation, and inhuman treatment, except in two contingencies: (1) the ticking time bomb and (2) the slower-fuse high-level terrorist (such as KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed]). Each contingency would have its own set of rules. In the case of the ticking time bomb, the rules would be relatively simple: Nothing rationally related to getting accurate information would be ruled out. The case of the high-value suspect with slow-fuse information is more complicated. The principle would be that the level of inhumanity of the measures used (moral honesty is essential here--we would be using measures that are by definition inhumane) would be proportional to the need and value of the information. Interrogators would be constrained to use the least inhumane treatment necessary relative to the magnitude and imminence of the evil being prevented and the importance of the knowledge being obtained.

In this blog post I've only been able to summarize some of the main points. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. How should Christians think about torture? If you care to comment, I only ask that you read Krauthammer's full piece first.

Update: Here's one question to address as you ponder this issue: it seems to me that one cannot simply appeal to the idea that the ends do not justify the means. An example: you are walking by a gated pool, and unbeknownest to everyone else, there's a toddler drowning in the pool. A sign on the gate says that absolutely no non-members are allowed into the pool area. You're not a member, but you decide to hop the fence anyway to rescue you child. The end (saving the child) has justified the means (breaking the pool rules). I know it's a simple example, but it shows that saying "the ends don't justify the means" doesn't end the discussion.