Torture, Again


I usually don’t write about current events, mainly because my immediate reactions often turn out to be misguided and I generally need some space and time to consider things that don’t fit nicely into the few categories that I already have at hand. Other blogs, needless to say, do a much better job of posting on the news cycle that I ever could. Regarding torture, I’ve already posted about the deep problems with the practice and about what Aquinas might have thought. This important issue has not gone away. Please read Bishop Thomas Wenski’s September 19 letter on military commissions and the proposed amendments to the War Crimes Act. As the Bishop writes, “A respect for the dignity of every person, ally or enemy, must serve as the foundation of security, justice and peace. There can be no compromise on the moral imperative to protect the basic human rights of any individual incarcerated for any reason.” This “respect,” I would think, really must rule out forms of forced hypothermia, sleep deprivation, and stress positions, however we choose to label them.

The Bishop goes on to warn us that, despite the “perilous climate” of the present, “our nation must not embrace a morality based on an attitude that ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’ or ‘the end justifies the mean.'” Amy Uelmen, law professor and contributor to the Mirror of Justice blog, has written a short article for the Focolare magazine Living City that argues against the position that a possible “ticking time bomb scenario” requires that we have torture readily avaible as an option (the cited law professor and philosopher David Luban has a longer article about the “ticking time bomb” here).

Before I provide an excerpt, let me wish you a peaceful weekend.

Professor Uelman:

As law professor and philosopher David Luban explained in a recent article, the “ticking time bomb” example makes it seem torture is more akin to self defense, and has nothing to do with cruelty, at least in the circumstance described.

What are some of the problems with this example? First, it would be extremely rare to have both knowledge of an immediate threat, and at the same time certainty that the person in custody has the information needed to save lives. Instead, torture is used in cases where one is not sure whether the person in custody has the information, or where the “bomb” at issue does not pose an immediate catastrophe. The image of the ticking time bomb is easily expanded to justify what becomes “a more general fishing expedition for any intelligence that might be used to ‘unwind’ a terrorist organization,” Professor Luban explains.

Another problem with the “ticking time bomb” scenario is that there would seem to be no limit on who could be tortured. If the catastrophe is so great and lives are in the balance, why stop with torturing the suspect? Why not also torture his wife or her child?

“The real debate,” Professor Luban submits, “is not between one guilty man’s pain and hundreds of innocent lives. It is the debate between certainty of anguish and the mere possibility of learning something vital and saving lives.”

The “ticking time bomb” example also masks the actual practice of torture. “It assumes a single, ad hoc decision about whether to torture by officials who ordinarily would not do such a thing except in a desperate emergency,” Luban observes. Instead, the reality is that acceptance of torture at any level means that people will be trained in the techniques. “Should we create a professional cadre of trained torturers?”—Luban asks. “Do we really want to create a torture culture and the kind of people who inhabit it?” And can we trust trained torturers to decide when it should be used?

The “ticking time bomb” scenario does not reflect the real questions about torture: “questions about uncertainty, questions about the morality of consequences, questions about what it does to a culture and the torturers themselves,” Professor Luban concludes.

We may like to imagine that torture would only be used in the most extreme cases when necessary to defend ourselves from immediate and large-scale catastrophe. But in our world of uncertainty, the reality is that the acceptance of torture at any level, in any circumstance, leads to and fosters a culture of brutality, violence and fear.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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