Torture and the Sum of All Fears

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This will be one of those posts where I am afraid that I will make no one happy. But . . . oh, well. Torture is much in the news, and so — to the law and to the testimony.

Let us begin by offending those who are recycling Joseph Fletcher’s situation ethics from back in the seventies — let us call them the Fox News conservatives. When Sean Hannity says that he is in favor of whatever it takes, everything in us should recoil. In his case, the principle of justification is that American flag behind him that he so ostentatiously displays. Whatever defends that is justified; whatever threatens it is not. While it is good to defend your nation and your people, it must always be remembered that defending your nation and people is not the ground of your right to do so.

Whenever the ticking bomb scenario is invoked, this simply reveals that we all ought to have done our Bible study earlier than that. The problem is that the new advocates of situation ethics are deriving their sense of what is appropriate from the mere fact of the ticking bomb (and the suppressed premise that survival is the highest good, which it isn’t). “Would you waterboard someone if we were down to the red wire/green wire moment in some Jack Bauer fantasy movie? Hmmm?” And if you wouldn’t, then this twisted thinking argues that you are somehow not morally serious. Well, okay, two can play this game — would you sell your children into prostitution in order to stop Osama? Would you kill and eat the weakest guy in the lifeboat to save the lives of the others? Would you ask your wife to sleep with the warden in order to escape the unjust conviction that placed you on death row? Does anybody think it is odd that those who are advancing these refried situation ethics argument are the traditional values conservatives? What are they conserving exactly?

This is why the effectiveness of the waterboarding that we used is entirely beside the point. If it is morally wrong then we shouldn’t do it whether or not it is effective. Those who broke under the waterboarding treatment would almost certainly have also broken if we had pulled out their fingernails, or put them on the rack. Perhaps they would have broken quicker! Those who appeal to the effectiveness of the program are appealing to an idolatrous standard, and if that idol were a car it would have no brakes.

Speaking of irrelevant, it is also irrelevant that four former CIA directors have objected to the release of the memos that Obama has released. Their argument is that we don’t want the enemy to know the point past which we will not go. But I want them to know that we are Christians, which means that I want them to know that — unlike them — there are things we won’t do, and what those things are should be public knowledge. Such things should not be a national security secret. On such issues we should be eager to be at a disadvantage. That kind of secularist pragmatic national security hype just gives me the creeps. And for a third irrelevance, going down the street the other way, we should also dismiss the hyper-hypocritical posturing of the Democrats on the Hill. Prosecution of anybody that just “happens” to break right long partisan lines, and which “happens” to leave out all the Democrats that were briefed on the waterboarding would be a goodish bit more than I am capable of handling. So here is a good working definition of torture — making me watch hearings on this subject run by the Democrats. Hyper-torture would be if Henry Waxman were the chair. I’d probably break right away and tell them where all the gold is buried.

C.S. Lewis once defended the idea of retribution in punishment (as opposed to “humanitarian” treatment) because retribution is necessarily connected to justice, which means that there are always limits, fixed limits. When someone is handed over to the officials in order to be “cured,” how long does the treatment go? Well, until the cure is accomplished, which could be indefinitely, which means that what now happens to the guy is entirely disconnected from justice. Justice is not the point anymore. An identical difficulty applies to “treatments” that accompany interrogations. If the foundational justification for what is happening is the need for information, then how long can it go? What are the limits? Well, until we get that information. Justice isn’t the point anymore.

Now to make the other side mad. As I have argued, effectiveness does not justify anything. The only standard we have any business appealing to in situations like this is the standard of Scripture. That said, the efffectiveness of our waterboarding program becomes relevant because effectiveness can be good. Effectiveness is good, provided that the definition of good comes from somewhere other than the effectiveness. Once that is granted, there are serious difficulties with classifying waterboarding as torture. We need to remember that waterboarding is used in the training of our own personnel. I have seen footage of one television journalist getting waterboarded in order to report on the experience. Christopher Hitchens got himself waterboarded in order to write about it.

Torture was not unknown in the biblical world. It is not unknown in the modern world of exegesis either.

“As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16).

The word for wrest is streblao, meaning that in the exegesis of these foolish men, they put the text on the rack and torture it, twisting it out of shape. One of the common places where we twist the text is by pretending that the God of the Bible is limpwristed and effeminate. But, as the late Otto Scott once put it, the God of the Bible is no buttercup. And I can guarantee that virtually everyone in the current debate who has a problem with waterboarding would also have a similar problem with . . .

“But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me” (Luke 19:27).

“Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors [basanistais, torturers], till he should pay all that was due unto him” (Matt. 18:32-34).

“And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain” (Rev. 16:10).

“Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13).

Put all this together, and what do we have? In the Bible, righteous men can dispense some pretty rough treatment. But it is never disconnected from the fixed limits of justice, and those fixed limits are defined by Scripture, and never by the sum of all fears.

“Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee” (Dt. 25:3).

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