Thursday, December 15, 2005

Is torture morally unjustified all the time, or most of the time?

And now it will be clearly banned by U.S. law. But, should there be exceptions?

Folks, AP/Yahoo News reports:
At a news conference about the peace message, Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican's pontifical council on peace and justice, was asked if torture could be a legitimate tool to gain information that might prevent terror attacks.

The prelate replied that there was no justification for using torture, which is the "humiliation of the human person, whoever he is."

"The church does not allow torture as a means to extract the truth," Martino said. Terror suspects "sometimes say what the torturers want to hear. ... There are other ways to obtain the truth."

Benedict noted that the Holy See had called for the prompt implementation of international humanitarian conventions dealing with the effects of wars.
Closer to home:
WASHINGTON (Knight Ridder Newspapers) - President Bush reversed course Thursday and accepted a Senate-approved measure to ban cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of terrorist suspects by U.S. interrogators.

The deal appeared to be a clear victory for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who sponsored the proposed ban, and a setback for Vice President Dick Cheney and others who had argued that the ban would hurt U.S. efforts to glean information from detained terrorist suspects.

The White House agreed to McCain's ban after the House of Representatives overwhelmingly endorsed it Wednesday, and McCain said he would reword it to make it clear that interrogators from the Central Intelligence Agency would have the same rights as military interrogators to defend themselves against abuse charges.

"There were legitimate concerns raised by the administration concerning the rights of interrogators," McCain said during an Oval Office session with Bush and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where the deal was made public.

McCain said the new wording would take language from the Uniform Code of Military Justice that allows accused soldiers to argue that they thought they were obeying legal orders and apply it to CIA interrogators as well. McCain said the wording wouldn't contradict precedents from World War II military trials that "obeying orders is not a sufficient defense."
Even former Secretary of State Colin Powell weighed in, calling current policy "confusing" and that "there should be strict rules for the military and for the CIA. That's the Nation we are, that's the kind of military we have, and that's what we want the rest of the world to do."

Commentary. The question remains: what if it's known with moral certainty that a given captured terrorist has direct knowledge of an imminent, high casualty attack? What to do then? Is the terrorist's physical integrity worth more than that of thousands of people?

America's enemies have been more than happy to torture our military personnel and civilians, not to extract information, but to humiliate them as human beings and through them, humiliate our country. For them, torture is a routine tool designed to take revenge upon helpless people for all the ills, real and perceived, for which they blame us.

Certainly, we should commit ourselves as a Nation to see that kind of behavior is not tolerated by those who represent us in the field. Sadism has no place in the pursuit of policy, at least by principled nations like us.

Exceptions to the rule?

Yet, there's always an exception to the rule and I am afraid that the time may come when no one will be willing to test the exceptions and as a result, thousands will die.

This is a tough call. Can one measure the life of one depraved human being on one side against the lives of thousands of innocents on the other? Tempted as I am to say "no," I also recognize that mine would not be a moral argument reasoned from Natural Law or from the Gospel, but from an emotional sense of revulsion against evil perpetrators of destruction and their demonstrated wish and capabilities to bring death to many. There has to be a better way to break through this conundrum than an appeal to the emotions.

In the Gospel, we do have a case of torture which was justified in the mind of judges and torturers for reasons of political expediency and social tranquility: that torture was exacted upon the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Should we see Jesus in the person of a terrorist with direct knowledge of the time and place where mass murder is to occur? Or should we better see the suspect as one of the thieves who was cruficied along with Christ, clearly receiving the punishment for his sins--as Scripture itself tells us. Afterall, what was appalling about Christ's punishment was that it was completely undeserved, yet He underwent it and that, willingly, for Israel as well as for the salvation of the entire world.

My provisional opinion

My provisional opinion is that if multiple sources of reliable information confirm that a certain suspect posesses a clear and distinct knowledge of an imminent mass-murder event, to include the time and place, knowledge that will lead military or law-enforcement authorities to disrupt or stop it, that placing that suspect under some sort of physical duress is permissible to avoid the emergency and save innocent lives.

Once the information is extracted and the emergency averted, interrogators should be thoroughly investigated to ascertain if the use of physical duress--what some may call "torture"--was entirely justified and its use one of last resort. Means of physical duress should not lead to death or to permanent disfigurement or handicap. The suspect should receive immediate medical attention and follow-up treatment; judicial authorities should be directed to note the suspect's cooperation under duress before sentencing them and treat them as voluntary cooperators.

Outside of this very specific instance, means of physical duress should not be used.

I say this opinion is "provisional" because I'll be willing to change it or modify it if presented with a more cogent argument from the Gospel and Natural Law.

Neither the Holy See nor John McCain have commented about these extreme cases and yet, that's exactly what needs to be defined if the policy is to have a clear, stated limit.

What do you think?