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The Morality of Coercive Interrogations

George Strickland

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From the Christian perspective, torture is morally reprehensible. It has to be acknowledged, however, that in the history of the Church, legitimate governments, often without protest from clerics, have employed cruel practices of torture to maintain law and order.

Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School observes that "torture" lacks a clear definition in international agreements and American law. "Almost all official interrogation is coercive, yet not all coercive interrogation would be called 'torture' by any competent user of the English language, so that what is involved in using the word is picking out the point along a continuum at which the observer's queasiness turns to revulsion."

There is also, one notes, a continuum of circumstances in which most people, rightly or wrongly, would make an exception to the general prohibition of torture. The most commonly cited exception is that of "the ticking bomb" in which there is reason to believe that a suspect knows the location of a nuclear weapon planted in a large city which, if it explodes, will kill thousands of people. Posner says "if the stakes are high enough, torture is permissible." He adds, "No one who doubts that should be in a position of responsibility."

In all this, I am struck by the paucity of serious discussions by Christian moral theologians and ethicists How do we address questions of what in fact is happening in circumstances in which conscientious Christians seek moral guidance, and how can we do this without falling into the pits of relativism, proportionalism, consequentialism, and related errors? In the ticking bomb instance, does the duty to protect thousands of innocents override the duty not to torture?

There is a related development that has also not received the attention it would seem to deserve. It is a generally accepted moral maxim that it is always wrong to deliberately take innocent human life. Yet after September 11 it is the policy of our government to shoot down hijacked airplanes, thus killing the innocent passengers, if there is reason to believe that, as in the case of the World Trade Center, the hijackers intend to use the plane as a weapon. One can, of course, stretch the rule of "double effect" -- the distinction between what is directly willed and what is only indirectly willed -- but it is a stretch that teeters on the edge of simplistic intentionalism.

The instance of hijacked planes is relatively rare; the instance of torture is common, and, it would seem, becoming more common. Christian ethicists have in recent years moved away from "quandary ethics" to "virtue ethics," and that is in many ways a good thing. But quandaries persist. Casuistry has a bad reputation, but the careful study of cases and the moral rules that apply to them is inevitably part of serious moral reflection. The reality and the discussion of the reality will not go away. One cannot help but think that the discussion would benefit from the contributions of Christian informed by the wisdom of biblical sources and tradition.

There will sometimes be exceptions to the principle is not hypocrisy. Those who, under the most extreme circumstances, violate the rule must be held strictly accountable to higher authority. Here the venerable maxim applies -- the abuse does not abolish the use.

We are not talking here about the reckless indulgence of cruelty and sadism exhibited in, for instance, the much-publicized Abu Ghraib scandal. We are speaking, rather, of extraordinary circumstances in which senior officials, acting under perceived necessity, decide there is no moral alternative to making an exception to the rules, and accept responsibility for their decision. Please note that, in saying this, one does not condone the decision. It is simply a recognition that in the real world such decisions will be made.

The distinguished columnist Charles Krauthammer has argued that it is sometimes necessary to do evil in order that good may result. Here he is in the company of Max Weber, who argued that effective leaders must be prepared to have "dirty hands." Political leaders, often with anguished anxiety, are compelled morally to act in ways that get their "hands dirty' to extract information from those who wish to do great harm to society.

We have to admit, tragically so, that coercion, even brutal coercion, may be morally justified in extraordinary circumstances in order to save thousands of innocent lives. In that event, it is further argued, the use of such coercion is not evil but is the moral course of action.

The Greek Archdiocese in America has released an announcement that a statement in today's New York Times, "religious leaders from across the faith spectrum called for the elimination of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. " The statement, "Torture is a Moral Issue," proclaims that torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions hold dear. Among the signatories of this statement are Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and writer and lecturer, Frederica Mathewes- Green.

However laudable the intent of this document, it is politically inapplicable in circumstances where great evil manifests itself. Such an across the board ethical position would, in particular circumstances, likely be disastrous. The politics of the use of coercive interrogations of known terrorists cannot be based solely on the application of an ethic of absolute moral purity. The statement avoids the consequences of an absolute norm which prohibits the use coercive treatment, even if it would save countless lives. In the real world, such an utopian ethic offers no practical guidance to political leaders.

What is required is a serious discussion of an ethic of 'responsibility" in which concrete case studies provide the most hope in providing moral guidance to political leaders and policy makers in seeking the most humane ways of securing the welfare and safety of the populace. From such concrete instances we may be able to move ahead in the painstaking task of finding means that will not only be morally acceptable, but which will work.

Related item: Religious Leaders Unite to Abolish Torture.

Dr. George Strickland Ph.D. is editor of the Directions to Orthodoxy website.

Read the entire article on the Directions to Orthodoxy website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 14-Jun-06

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