The Washington Post, on its On Faith website, recently asked panelists representing different religious points of view to address the question, “Is torture ever justified?” The responses are by no means representative of all religious viewpoints on torture (the humanist viewpoint of which I have addressed previously), but nevertheless it was enlightening for me to read some of the different viewpoints and how these commentators feel torture and religion relate to each other.
Christian theologian and philosopher John Mark Reynolds is initially direct on the question, writing, “Torture of any human being is incompatible with the Christian faith.” I hope he’s telling that far and wide, because it appears that not everyone has received the message. However, he goes on to spend most of his short essay wondering whether or not what the United States did actually was, in fact, torture:
A general condemnation of torture does not mean that we already know that what the Bush administration did was torture. Reasonable people can disagree about exactly what torture is and some believe that what the Bush administration ordered in prosecuting the War on Terror was not torture. They should be heard and not ignored, but so far the arguments advanced have not been persuasive.
He does believe, though, that John McCain’s condemnation of the techniques that were employed by the United States during the Bush years indicates that they were probably unacceptable. I have to admit that I have a hard time understanding how anyone can equivocate at all on whether or not pouring water into someone’s lungs, slamming a person into a wall, or any of the other methods that were approved constitute torture or not.
Another Christian theologian, Gabriel Salguero of the Princeton Theological Seminary, also condemns torture and says it is incompatible with Christianity. He points out that great people in history have chosen not to meet the violence of their adversaries with equal violence:
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr never used violence although violence was constantly used against him, his home, and the many people in the Civil Rights movement. Did the millions of people who partook in the non-violent marches not understand terror? Nonsense. They chose a different way…Did Jesus not understand the way of terror when he was being crucified on an imperial cross? Nonsense. He chose a different way.
I find it very compelling that, in history, great figures and brave groups of people have stood up to injustice and tyranny without resorting to the techniques of their oppressors. They have held the moral high ground without conceding the battle. I wish that the USA had taken this approach in the face of terrorism rather than quickly employing torture and secret prisons, disregarding the rule of law as if it were an impediment to safeguarding our nation in the face of danger, rather than central to the task.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield wants everyone, on all sides of the issue, to examine it a little more closely:
It’s easy to say that torture is wrong and that whatever tradition we hold dear forbids it. I wish it were that simple. Imagine for a moment that you knew the life of someone you loved; your child for example, would be saved by information extracted by torture. Are you really certain that you might not suddenly find some justification which allowed it “just this once”? Anyone answering “no” too quickly is either kidding themselves or doesn’t know the meaning of loving someone close to themselves.
Although this sounds like he is defending torture, he quickly states that he isn’t; rather, he says:
I am more concerned about the endless moralizing around tough issues which makes them seem too easy too fast. In fact, that’s the style of argument which typifies those who defend the use of torture.
Their arguments pose the question about saving a life as if we could know with certainty beforehand that the torture for which they advocate would save a life in immediate danger. I wish it were that simple, but it rarely, if ever, is.
It’s true that the circumstances under which the Bush administration committed torture were ambiguous, something which the pro-torture side seems loathe to admit. No matter how many times the torture advocates talk about it, we have yet to encounter a so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario where the deactivation code to the bomb needs to be tortured out of some single suspect in custody before an entire city explodes (or something along those lines). Television shows like 24 aside, under the Bush administration torture was committed with much more dubious and certainly less noble goals than extracting the location of a bomb located under the city.
Rabbi Hirschfield’s point about these over-simplistic arguments being used to justify torture is well taken. Nevertheless, I feel that he is trying a little too hard to be balanced here with his consideration for why someone might support torture. Surely, if the life of my child was at stake, I would probably justify any number of horrible things to be done if it might save my child’s life; this hypothetical situation, however, doesn’t add very much to a discussion on human rights. It may provide some perspective on how we react to the idea of torture, but the actual laws that codify the preservation of human rights must be written under more level-headed circumstances than how you would feel if your child’s life was immediately at risk.
The preponderance of opinion from the different religious commentators on On Faith is that torture is wrong. But beyond that point is less agreement over what actually constitutes torture and how the United States should move forward from this point. This level of disagreement is indicative of why we need to rely on secular documents to guide how we move forward on torture. For all the room for discussion in the arena of religion, US and international law is not at all ambiguous on this subject.