I am thankful for Jeremy Pierce’s thoughtful reply to my posts on torture. You can find it here.

If I do nothing else, perhaps my opposition to torture in this space will provoke more posts such as this one. In that case, my posts will have served a good purpose and perhaps merit the praise that Holmes gave Watson:

“Really, Watson, you excel yourself,” said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. “I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.”

Let me attempt to stimulate even more good writing by confessing that I am still not persuaded that torture can be licit. Perhaps it is merely the nearly universal opposition of the church that has blinded my eyes, the fear of a slippery slope, or mere Victorian squeamishness.

Too much reading of Trollope can make a man unfit for the way we live now.

Of course, it is greatly comforting to me that Pierce has not argued in favor of any actual torture, even waterboarding. He is merely unpersuaded by my arguments opposing torture in all cases.

However, I am still not convinced by his reasoning. Perhaps I can persuade him or he can show me where I have gone wrong. Since his view is that of the majority of the American public, it would certainly be beneficial to me if I could learn to accept it.

Pierce on the Image of God

I agree with Pierce that from a Biblical point of view the death penalty is allowable in some circumstances. Pierce rightly notes that this does not mean that modern societies should use the death penalty. As many Christian have noted, wealthy modern cultures have options for dealing with those judged guilty that ancient cultures did not have.

Pierce concludes from this:
So I don’t think the fact that we’re made in the image of God is going to rule out all torture, since it doesn’t rule out all killing and it’s the explicit biblical reason not to kill people.

This, however, equates killing and torture. Obviously, however, they are not the same act. I do not rule out killing a man, but I do rule out torturing him.

Let me explain what seems an odd position: torture is worse than killing.

Killing a man is not always murder. From a Biblical point of view death is after all God’s severe mercy on mankind. We will all die. In the world after the Fall, death is nature. Torture obviously is different from this.

We shall all die, but we shall not all be tortured.

Pierce should note that though the death penalty is licit, the Bible does not suggest “drawing and quartering” the guilty. We do not torture the accused. Hanging a man may be unpleasant, but it is devised to kill him quickly. The story of Christian practice of the death penalty shows a long and commendable movement toward humane ways of causing death with the least amount of gratuitous pain. Even Madam Guillotine was introduced in an attempt to ease the sufferings of the condemned.

Killing a man is a single action where the future consequences of that action to the man killed are left to a good and merciful God. We pray, as Christians, that the great judge, the Lord God, has mercy on the condemned souls.

Torture is, by its very nature, a drawn out act that leaves the man tortured with psychological wounds that he will have to work out in this world not in the world to come.

If we kill an innocent man in a miscarriage of justice, he goes to face a compassionate and just God and a better world. If we torture an innocent man by our own grievous fault, we leave him in our imperfect world to try to cope with issues that no man should or perhaps can face.

The Christian magistrate sends the condemned man to God with the wish (if not the words) that the Lord God might have mercy on his soul. The torturer sends him back broken to the world of men . . . and that is much worse.

This worry partly motivates the banning of weapons in Christian warfare designed to wound and not to kill. We think it wrong headed (torture!) to intend to cause a man a lifetime of pain in this fallen world.

Better to kill him cleanly and send him to God.

After death, thank God, comes God, after torture, God help us, comes human society. Falling into the hands of God is a fate different in kind than being released back into fallen American culture or (worse still) a life in prison.

Killing is sometimes (very rarely) a power God has given the state or (even more rarely) individuals. No man, however, can murder. It is not always wrong to kill, but it is always wrong to murder.

A man who kills from hate is wrong, even if he is called an “executioner.” Ideally, the condemned and guilty man is killed by agents of the state who execute justice compassionately and with mercy. This is why the state should not (and does not) allow the family of the victim to “throw the lever.”

No man who wants to be an executioner is fit to be one.

Pierce says:
Aristotelian virtue arguments point out how bad it is to become the sort of person who could bring yourself to torture someone. Of course this is right, but it’s also bad to become the sort of person who could bring yourself to kill someone.

This seems wrong to me for two reasons.

First, killing a man as his executioner is a single act. In battle, it is done in the heat of the moment and under the threat of immediate peril to those the soldier is sworn to defend.

Torturing a man takes place over time. The “peril” that justifies the act comes from the prisoner indirectly. He has no bomb. He is powerless . . . in himself. The torturer is hurting him permanently (in almost every case) to get information that will be helpful.

A soldier may have to kill many times, though many soldiers serve without killing anyone. Each killing is a single action done in the heat of battle.

Christians worry about a “professional army” for exactly the reason that we do not want to see a man so hardened to death that he rejoices in it. We want a Christian officer and gentleman to think “war is terrible” so that he does not find pleasure in it. We also worry about any conflict that goes on too long and requires our lads to carry too great a psychological burden.

A just war may cease to be just if it comes at the cost of destroying the souls of our brave troops.

Of course, this is the ideal, but the ideal is possible. I have former students that have lived it out as officers and gentlemen.

Can a man be a torturer and a gentleman?

I think not and behavior in battle shows us the difference.

We give a man a medal for killing his foes in the heat of battle. He did what, sadly, sometimes must be done, but we put him on trial if he killed them in a way that dishonors his opponent. We allow a man to put a bullet in the brain of an enemy soldier, but we do not allow him to shoot a man in the leg and then slowly cut him to ribbons with his bayonet.

In that way, a Christian warrior is different from a barbarian.We can fight, but not use any means to do so. The closer our means of war comes to torture, the less we applaud it.

If you doubt that this is the Christian consensus, then consider that Christian nations have long outlawed weapons that torture a man and do not just kill him. Not for us the poison gas that slowly chokes a man or the bullet that maims more often than it kills.

We try to fight war as men and not as brutes and so want our foe dead with the least possible suffering. Why? We love our enemies and wish that they did not have to die and so certainly do not wish them a lingering and painful death.

Christians would kill no man if they could, but will do so quickly and cleanly if they must.

Christian nations take the unfortunate wounded and heal them using all the skill we use on our own wounded. We send them to prisoner of war camps that are humane. We give prisoners rights under international conventions.

Christians do not think anything is fair in love or war.

We could have shot them in the heat of battle, but if we only wounded our foe now have a duty to heal him. A Christian nation treats its prisoners as it would wish others treated its prisoners.

A just war is, therefore, different in kind from torture and we consider anything like torture that happens in battle wrong and avoid it whenever we can even to the cost of banning certain weapons from use.

Do Pierce and I disagree?

At the end of his post Pierce says:
But then I think it’s also worth noting JMR’s definition of torture, given in a comment on one of the posts: “For the purpose of this discussion, I am describing torture as the desire to “break the will” of a man and to inflict permanent psychological and physical harm.”

If that’s what torture is, then I’m not sure anyone currently defending torture is defending that. Not many defenders of extreme interrogation methods see the mere goal of breaking someone’s will or the infliction of psychological or physical harm as an end worth pursuing in its own right. Some might see breaking someone’s will as a means to an end, but the torture anyone is defending isn’t itself the desire to break people’s wills or to inflict permanent or psychological harm.

Pierce is responding to my argument that torture attacks the soul of a man. A man’s body, and his bodily integrity are very important. Few have the right to transgress this right, but his soul is even more valuable.

It is not gnostic to say that the soul matters more than the body to a Christian. Our Lord himself said we should fear those more that have the power to harm our soul than those who have the power to harm our body.

A moral state can only kill you, it cannot damn you.

I have said, therefore, that the state should never attempt to transgress the free will of a man. His soul liberty should be left intact. We can, in need,  coerce him physically, but we canot break him psychologically.

There is a difference between tricking a man and making him give information and breaking his will so he spills. Ask John McCain . . . which is a personal reason he opposes any use of torture. A tricked man feels the fool, but is left with his integrity intact. He is and has always been our foe.

The tortured man is left broken.

Under the Soviet Union, I have been told Christians would be drugged and forced to deny the faith. They were then released to deal with the horrific psychological consequences of what they had been “forced to do.” It is no good telling such a man “he could not help it.” Heroes like McCain still struggle with such denials over a lifetime of pain . . . because something more important than their body has been broken.

Are we so confident in our own “righteousness” that will break the jihadi and remove his will? Are we so sure that this will not make us like the Soviets in the eyes of history?

Every torturer in every period of history has been sure that his view was so correct and his foes so heretical and wrongheaded that any psychological breaking (in ancient times usually indirectly through extreme physical torment) was merited.

The judgment of Christian history does not rewards the inquisitor, however.

Physical torture is a mere attempt to break the will. It, therefore, moves from a power God has given men, to coerce him physically, to a power that God has not given man. We can put a man in prison, we can make him consider his path with persuasion, but we must leave him fit to decide. If he will not join us or help, then we must honor his choice by leaving him alone.

We can threaten to imprison a man who will not testify in a trial, but we do not invade his mind with drugs and make him talk. If he has the courage of his convictions, then we will leave him in his cell to ponder his choices. We can make him work, so long as the work is not soul breaking as it was in the gulag.

The American military draft and how it has been treated in American history shows that I am in the mainstream of American thought with this argument. First, many of us oppose the draft in all circumstances and wish to rely only on volunteers for the reason I have given. Second, most Americans who favor the draft do so only if conscientious objectors are allowed not to fight.

We can draft men to fight only if they have no principled objection to fighting. If you have a concerted moral view against warfare, we allow other service to pacifists. Conscientious objection is the honorable solution to this problem.

The consistent Christian state will not even make a man take an oath if he has moral objections to it. We found a way to let those opposed to oath taking serve  . . . without impeding their moral integrity.

A state that will allow a Quaker to be President on an affirmation, rather than making him swear, is a state that has protected the right of a man to his own conscience.

Coercing the body is a power the state has, but God help us all if we allow the state power to control our minds and wills.

War and Torture: the Differences

Pierce is right to say that the difference between war and torture is not the premeditation of the general act. There is, however, a difference in the premeditation of the particular act.

A soldier does not kill his particular foe after long planning to kill that man. GI Joe does not kill Fritz, because he planned to kill Fritz, but because Fritz is in a Nazi uniform and fighting America. He does not go after Fritz as Fritz.

Torturer Joe (and I dread the action figures) has decided to break Fritz in particular with planning and forethought. He plans his torture around what will break Fritz and would choose different means to attack Hans.

To be effective Torturer Joe must break Fritz as Fritz, not just attack him as a Nazi.


That is an important moral difference.

Pierce rightly points to the differences between war and torture, but thinks these are not relevant. I think some of them are.

He says we still fight people without “much of chance” and that this means torture is not so different than war.

This makes little sense to me. If he keeps fighting, he is still fighting. We will honor his choice by continuing the battle.

A man on the rack has no choice and no chance. We are not trying to kill him and end a war, but break him. That is a difference in kind.

I argue, therefore, that the difference in torture and war is that a just war has as its goal the physical restraint of the foe. We must kill Nazis to keep them from killing us and the innocent.

Torture, however, attempts to break a man psychologically. If a man persists in being a Nazi after the war, we can throw him in jail or even execute him for his crimes, but we cannot torture him in Orwellian fashion until he learns to love democracy.

We do not give the power of transformation or being “born again” to the state. It cannot force a man to have “right thoughts” and to mentally do the right thing. He must be allowed his disagreements with us.

We can lead a man to water, but we are not allowed to make him want to drink.

Appendix- Pierce and Aristotle: A Small Point


Pierce makes a common mistake (so far as I can tell) and forgets that the Aristotelian Golden Mean does not apply to actions Aristotle believes are inherently base. For example, there is no “moderate” amount of adultery.

How do we know such actions?

Aristotle believes a properly educated man (what I have been calling a “gentleman”) will know, but that there is no use telling a grownup with a bad education.

Put in Victorian terms, if a man cannot simply see that torture is disgusting, then there is no use arguing with him. He is the product of a bad education. A proper gentleman would not even consider such actions.

This is an interesting point of view, but my argument here does not depend on it.

Ever.

Articles by John Mark Reynolds

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