Always Wrong?

on June 5, 2015

In a current posting on Sojourners modestly named God’s Politics blog, Ryan Stewart features the recent excursion of Pastor Seth Kaper-Dale to Washington, DC in order to read the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program – pejoratively known as the Senate Torture Report – outside the US Department of Justice. The veracity, reliability, and interpretation of the report itself has already been the focus of a great deal of debate and I’m not going to enter here into that particular fray. But I am interested in responding briefly, in a wider view, to elements of Stewart’s blog piece, which necessitate some pushback. Specifically, Stewart records Kaper-Dale as being “struck by the obvious injustices perpetrated by his own government.” A few sentences later, Kaper-Dale describes his own “sadness” and “despair” regarding the report and his deep commitment to national repentance. Accompanying the blog is a picture of Kaper-Dale and a pair of colleagues outside the Justice Department holding a banner that reads, “Torture is always wrong.”

Being convinced as I am of the theological integrity of the just war tradition and the belief that war is sometimes not only morally permissible but even obligatory, it is not immediately clear to me why aggressive interrogation is always immoral. If in order to restrain their wrongdoing we can sometimes kill our enemy why can we not hurt them? Under just war’s tutelage, we come to understand that circumstances matter: both the external circumstances cultivated by the aggressor – that is, the presence of a gross threat against civilians against which the application of sufficient counter-force seems to be the only available means of resistance; as well as the internal circumstances of our own disposition – most particularly our intention and motives.

Of course, using the term “aggressive interrogation” will be maligned by some as a disingenuous euphemism. But it gestures instead to the necessity of conceptual nuance. For instance, all too often opponents of interrogative torture refer to the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib. No reputable defender of the CIA’s aggressive interrogation program has likewise defended the Abu Ghraib crimes, intrinsically evil acts of sadism which were never a part of the US interrogation program and the perpetrators of which were prosecuted and imprisoned. Thus, to continue to point to those abuses as an argument against aggressive interrogation is at least either lazy or ignorant if not demonstrative of a willful disregard for the importance of truth telling, to which Christians must be committed even when it weakens their argument. A sad example of this seems to be the book cover to David Gushee’s 2010 edited volume critiquing the American counter-terrorism which depicts the Statue of Liberty with a cloth sack over her head, intentionally evocative, if I’m not mistaken, of one of the more infamous images to emerge from Abu Ghraib. Thus my occasional insistence on “aggressive interrogation” is meant to redress the ongoing dysphemistic employment of the term “torture.” Nevertheless, if we can agree that, here, what we mean by “torture” is the inflicting of harm for the purpose of gaining information to prevent terrorist attacks against citizens then I have no quarrel with the term. So why do some think that torture is always wrong?

Some insist that torture can be used to demonstrate absolute power, to intimidate, to sate the pleasure of doing harm, and to wreak vengeance. All of this is certainly true: torture can be used to accomplish these things and when that is the point – again as it seemed to be in Abu Ghraib – than it is morally wrong by definition. But that it can be used to do these things doesn’t mean that it must do these things nor that it is employed only to do these things. Just as one can kill in war without an active desire to see our enemy suffer, or can kill without hate or vengeful animosity but rather with reluctance, sorrow, and the regret that a non-lethal means of stopping the enemy’s wrongdoing and achieving peace is, in the moment in question, unable to be found, so too does it seem that one can cause harm during interrogation without hate, with manifest regret, and with reluctance – even as one remains convinced that a just cause exists, that the conditions of last resort and proportionality have been met, and that the road to peace leads, because of the terrorist’s own actions and intransigence, through the interrogation room.

Some insist that what makes torture wrong is the application of pain in order to bring about a changed will. But the just war tradition reminds us that this is the very basis of punishment itself – the infliction of harm in order to change another’s mind and to bring about more desirable behavior is equally appropriate in reprimanding a willful child as it is in the common example of bending the arm of a subdued mugger in order to induce him to give up your wallet. The primary difference in all of these examples is located in proportionality and in the ratcheting up of force in direct proportion to the offense and the importance of the intended aim. The infliction of harm is, in any event, not intrinsically wrong. Moreover, one can intend to bend another’s will without hoping to shatter it. This notion of proportionate response relates directly to the assertion that torture is “obviously unjust.” If the application of harm is a proportionate response to an act of ongoing injustice – in these cases the continuing terroristic threat against civilians – I don’t see how aggressive interrogation in these limited and quite rare occurrences, guided by just cause, last resort, and proportion, is anything other than the very pursuit of justice.

There is much more to be said that will remain, for now, unaddressed. I only want to make room for the notion that “obviously unjust” and “always wrong” are assertions against which basic arguments can be sustained. Obviously, then, I think that the assertion that in light of the Senate’s report our nation needs to repent has not yet been proved. One repents for having done wrong. Aggressive interrogation or torture – like war – always results in an evil; that is, it is in the loss of certain essential goods. But to bring about an evil is not always to be guilty of a wrongdoing – there is a crucial distinction between non-moral evil and moral-evil. Aggressive interrogation can, under the limits described, be carried out, however tragically, nevertheless without sin; and therefore without the need for repentance.

  1. Comment by MarcoPolo on June 5, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    As the Senate Intelligence Report concluded, there was NO “Actionable Intelligence” recovered from any of the hundreds who were TORTURED by our soldiers.

    Thus, there is no conclusive evidence to either justify, approve, or reward the use of torture. EVER!
    “Just War” my arse!

  2. Comment by Nonovecchio on June 5, 2015 at 6:39 pm

    I admit to being unable to comment regarding MarcoPolo’s
    arse but I can assert that he’s mistaken on several other points. First, the Senate reports 119 prisoners as going through the secret detention program and doesn’t suggest that anywhere near that number endured the more aggressive techniques – thus to say “hundreds who were TORTURED” is a gross exaggeration
    whether written out in Caps or not. Now, even a single mistreated prisoner is too many so the point isn’t to dismiss any number as trivial but only to assert that the program was always quite limited. Secondly, it was a CIA program with very little US Army involvement – thus it was not, in fact, carried out by soldiers. The distinction is important. Lastly, MarcoPolo’s insistence to the contrary, the question whether the program was effective is, at best, unsettled. The fact that the Senate report stakes a position does not end the debate as, I suggest in the first paragraph of my piece, the report is, itself, a contested product. Certain people well placed to know, and who have had much more skin in the game, including the Iranian writer Darius Rejali, Canada’s Michael Ignatieff, England’s John Lloyd, former CIA directors Michael Hayden, George Tenet, and current director John Brennan have all asserted that the interrogation program and aggressive interrogation, torture, does in fact work. But a related point, perhaps unintended by MarcoPolo, deserves response as well. He seems to suggest that the program wasn’t just because it was ineffective. Of course, whether something is right
    or wrong does not depend on whether it is effective. At most, we might conclude that something is right to do but, after prudential consideration, we realize it is not likely to succeed and therefore do not attempt to undertake it. But this is not the same thing. If MarcoPolo’s assertion that the torture is ineffective is correct and, therefore, he means to say that therefore it is immoral then, of course, I would agree with him.
    Marc LiVecche

  3. Comment by MarcoPolo on June 6, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    If necessary, I will gladly accept correction. So I apologize if I misquoted anyone, or any statistic.
    But, as a Pacifist I already stand at odds with the author, Mr. Livecche.

    My most recent information was provided very concisely by PBS, on their FRONTLINE program which aired again in May 2015.

    It was in that broadcast that the CIA Torture Report was made (more) public. Here’s the link:

    If we allow the proverbial ‘camel’s nose under the tent’ when it comes to torture, we will surely lose our soul as a nation.

    Just ask Senator John McCain.

  4. Comment by virginiagentleman on June 12, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    I know Senator McCain. I also know other “guests” of the Hanoi Hilton who have a much different viewpoint than his.

  5. Comment by MarcoPolo on June 12, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    I would suspect that ech detainee has their own very personal story…so I agree!

    I do remember Sen. McCain disapproving the use of torture, as it stains our reputation throughout the world.

  6. Comment by Matt on June 6, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    Actually, current CIA Director John Brennan said that the agency has not concluded that EITs “allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees.” He followed by saying that he believes “effective, non-coercive methods are available to elicit such information, methods that do not have a counter-productive impact on our national security and on our international standing.” He also said that in his view “the use of coercive methods has a strong prospect for resulting in false information.”

    Also worth noting that, while it’s difficult to prove or disprove a general comment based on classified information that “enhanced interrogation techniques worked,” the Senate’s Torture Report did specifically address many instances defenders of torture point to as prove that torture works – and shows that in those cases intelligence was miss-attributed or overstated (obtained from a different source – obtained prior to the use of EITs, etc.).

  7. Comment by virginiagentleman on June 12, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    I’m not sure i believe John Brennan as far as I can throw him. He’s one of the guys who continued to believe that ISIS was alternatively “on the run” and supported the view of them as the “JV team” which our current POTUS still believes.

  8. Comment by ed-words on June 5, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    In this fallen world, we can’t apply the Christian precepts to lethal enemies. What works on the individual level would be a total disaster when applied to national security.

  9. Comment by Nonovecchio on June 5, 2015 at 6:45 pm

    Thanks for the comment and I understand the sentiment but disagree. You of course have legions on your side, including Reinhold Niebuhr, with whom I have much in common. But I think he’s wrong on insisting that, even in this cursed world (humanity is fallen), we are forced to make messy moral compromises and that the relationship between, say, love and justice is a paradox or even a contradiction. I think there are conceptual resources – such as casuistry – that allow us to make far more precise distinctions that Niebuhr is capable of. I deny the paradox. The moral gap between person and nation is far more compressed than Niebuhrianism allows. Have you read Nigel Biggar’s In Defence of War? He says all this far better than I. I commend it to you.

  10. Comment by virginiagentleman on June 12, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    In my role as an educator in homeland security, I’ve reviewed a number of volumes related to this question from both a moral/philosophical as well as from a theological viewpoint. While the “ticking time bomb” argument really doesn’t hold water to justify explicit torture, the realities of a fallen world as well as an adversary who is likely to engage in egregious acts toward captives does justify “aggressive interrogation.”

    BTW, when I was on active duty with a TS clearance, I made the moral choice that I wasn’t going to allow myself to be captured to become someone’s “boy toy” in the Lubyanka Prison or Hanoi Hilton -

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