Christians in America are being asked to support the war on terror. For Christians this means saying “yes” both to the proposed war and the methods waged to fight the war. Trying to decide the justice of your country’s proposed war and the methods used to wage it is not always an easy task. That task is made even harder when the enemy does not behave like any enemy we have faced in the past. Because we face a new kind of enemy, some notable political pundits have been arguing for a new way to deal with the enemy (new to us) that we have previously refused to use for moral reasonsnamely, torture.
As Christians consider these arguments they must keep in mind that they can fall prey as easily as other citizens to impressive arguments that support tactics that promise our safety, even when the tactics argued for are morally questionable. All peopleChristians includeddesire safety. When our safety is threatened, we tend to look for any means available to end the threat. The more cowardly we are (and when it comes to physical pain, most of us can be very cowardly) the more likely we are to stoop to any means whatsoever to maintain our safety.
The war on terror is not a war that seems to be a real threat to our civilization; we simply do not fear Usam bin Laden and al-Qaeda as we once feared Hitler and the Nazis. Most people do not truly believe that terrorists can destroy our civilization. But most people, especially in the wake of 9/11, and especially those who live in large metropolitan areas, do fear terrorist attacks.
In short, when most people think about the war on terror, they are not thinking of some great crusade against the forces of Islamic fundamentalism in order to save our civilization. Instead, they think about the threat to their own lives and property and that of their loved ones. They are thinking about the possibility of a terrible and traumatic event that may displace them from their homes, jobs, and friends. When the reality of threats becomes personal we are more likely to support dubious government measures that will ensure our safety. This is precisely when we hope the virtue of courage will steal us against acting in ways for which, under normal circumstances, we would be ashamed. For this is precisely when we are easy prey to seemingly sound arguments in support of doing evil for a greater good.
Terrorism is a new sort of threat to the average American citizen. Terrorists do not fight with standing armies; they use soldiers without portfolio who attack innocent civilians in order to terrorize a perceived enemy nation into capitulating to their demands. Because the element of surprise in terrorism makes terrorism possible, the need for information that would render all “surprises” unsurprising is the goal to winning any war against terrorism. Wars are not usually won without good intelligence about the enemy’s whereabouts, intentions, and strengths, but any war against terrorists can be won only with good intelligence.
The problem is simply stated. A terrorist force is dependent entirely upon the element of surprise, thus secrecy of its plans is its very life. There can be no “winning” a war against terrorists without good intelligence gathering, and there is no more easy and effective way to gain good intelligence than by torturing people who possess the information you need to find terrorists or to thwart their plans. Thus, the very nature of the ongoing war on terror, what Norman Podhoretz aptly termed as “World War IV,” has moved many people to start considering the good of torture.
The attempt to justify the previously considered unjustifiable has a distinguished history in the modern West. Nazi fascism during the Second World War posed so great a threat to our civilization that reputable scholars and statesmen justified previously unthinkable military tactics such as obliteration bombing, which directly targeted the innocent. In like manner did Soviet communism pose so great a threat that reputable scholars and statesmen justified nuclear deterrence, which directly targeted millions innocent civilians with nuclear missiles. The moral philosophy that many appealed to during the wars against fascism and communism came to be known as “moral realism” and “dirty hands” moral philosophy. The goal of this kind of moral philosophy is to justify a comparatively small evil when faced with a comparatively large evil.
At first glance, the new threat that is the war on terror seems to offer the moral realists good reasons to begin the systematic use of torture on terrorists, though, again, the reasons are not as persuasive as they were during the Second World War or the cold war. In the former two wars we were fighting for the survival of Western Civilization. In the current war we simply want to spare ourselves the loss of a lot of livesa noble cause, but not as noble as saving a civilization. The problem with this tactic for Christians, whether it be for the cause of Western Civilization or our own lives, is that Christians have always followed the apostle Paul and resisted attempts to justify doing evil for a good cause. For Christians, there are no “emergencies” that would justify moral acts displeasing to God. The refusal to do evil that good may come is a moral staple of classical Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic morality.
To paraphrase C. S. Lewis: the refusal to do evil that good may come is “mere Christian morality.” True, under the influence of Reinhold Neibuhr’s “Christian Realism,” many Protestant ethicists in the mid-twentieth century began to accept the “dirty hands” moral philosophy that made doing evil morally permissible in some cases. In fact, one has to look hard in the archives to find a Protestant voice of protest of the obliteration bombing of Germany during World War II. According to Niebuhr, the responsible citizen is the one willing to do evil that good might come. Protestant Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey did much to bring Protestants (and others) back into the traditional Christian view of refusing to do evil for good causes. Ramsey’s many essays on American nuclear policy show a determination not to justify evil under any circumstances.
Ramsey’s arguments were unpersuasive to cold-war realists such as statesman Henry Kissinger and policy strategist Herman Kahn. Kahn in particular thought that our nuclear policy was too timid and that we ought to devise strategies that would achieve not merely deterrence by assuring destruction but actual victory by assuring that we could destroy more quickly than the Soviet Union. Kahn once wrote a book explaining his reasoning and he called it Thinking About the Unthinkable. Kahn employs what can only be called a horribly relentless logic to persuade the reader that killing millions of people is better than ending all life in the U.S. if not the planet Earth. It is no surprise that the character Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s black-comedy cold-war classic was based, in part, on Kahn. Thus it should come as no surprise that when Andrew McCarthy defended torture in the pages of Commentary (July-August 2004) he used the title: “Torture: Thinking About the Unthinkable.”
We should not be surprised, therefore, that Charles Krauthammer’s recent essay in The Weekly Standard (Vol. 11, Issue 12) has the title “The Truth About Torture: It’s Time To Be Honest About Doing Terrible Things.” Like Kahn and McCarthy, Krauthammer wants to persuade the reader that the time has come to adjust the moral compass to meet the new realities of a new enemy; the time has come to cross another moral threshold for the greater good. Krauthammer is a fine thinker and writer and his opinions are worth considering. His argument may be summarized as follows: Ordinary soldiers (those who fight in legitimate wars and abide by the rules of war) may be distinguished from terrorists (those who do not fight legitimate wars and do not abide by the rules of war).
The distinction is important because terrorists supposedly forfeit the right not to be tortured precisely because they are irregular soldiers. So, the first part of the argument is that terrorists cannot be protected from torture in the way soldiers traditionally have been protected in the past. The second part of the argument comes in the form of the hypothetical “ticking bomb” scenario: if we could lay our hands on a terrorist who had planted a nuclear bomb in New York City, most people would agree that torturing the terrorist is morally permissible. Thus the second part of the argument takes this form: if most people agree that something is morally permissible, then it is morally permissible.
Krauthammer does not wish to persuade the reader that torture is not evil; he admits that “torture is a monstrous form of evil,” which corrupts the individual and society that practices it. Nevertheless, when we are faced with an even greater evilthe deaths of many civilianswe must choose the lesser evil in order to save lives. Krauthammer thinks that doing evil should leave moral traces even when it is the right thing to do; that is to say, our elected leaders should be troubled in conscience when they allow torture for the greater good.
Nevertheless, like Niebuhr, Krauthammer expects our leaders to take responsibility (i.e., do evil) for our safety and, thus, they have an obligation to trouble their consciences for our sake. If our leaders fail to torture when lives can be saved, they are guilty of moral abdication and are akin to principled pacifists who refuse to soil their hands in the dirty waters of the real world.
Krauthammer is also quick to point out that the legalization of torture does not lead to torture of any kind for any reason. Rules are required. We may torture only in the “ticking bomb” (imminent danger) or “slow fuse” (danger is real but not imminent) situations. In the ticking-bomb case we may carry out any interrogation method that is likely to be effective in gaining the necessary information. In the slow-fuse case our interrogation methods must be proportionate: in other words, the greater the threat, the rougher the interrogation. Only highly specialized agents should be allowed to torture. Authority for torture must come from someone at the cabinet level or from some judicial body created to handle what amounts to torture warrants. If interrogators are faced with a ticking-bomb scenario and have no time to seek approval for torture from a higher authority, such practices will be reviewed by the appropriate authorities to determine its lawfulness.
Krauthammer makes a convincing case for torture but we have reasons to be wary. First, the distinction between a legitimate prisoner of war and a captured terrorist, and the moral consequences derived from this distinction, is not as clear as Krauthammer suggests. The POW is protected from torture because he is a regular soldier, but regular soldiers can be just as evil as terrorists and possess information that would save thousands of lives.
In fact, when we start comparing the captured terrorist with, say, a captured SS officer, the term “legitimacy” begins to lose its moral force. The evil represented by the SS officer is not one wit smaller than the evil represented by the Islamic fundamentalist. In fact, unlike the Islamic fundamentalist, the evil represented by the SS officer had a real chance to conquer what Churchill could still refer to as “The Christian West.” Why do we privilege the Nazi simply because he has the good fortune to be an enlisted officer in a recognized nation state?
One reason why we may not torture the Nazi is because the rules of war are so ordered that atrocity escalation is avoided. If military bodies begin to employ torture on a systematic level, the tit-for-tat escalation could turn into something too horrible to contemplate. Even Hitler refrained from recommending torture for captured Western troops (the Soviets were not so lucky) because he did not wish his own soldiers on the Western front to face torture and he felt that he could trust non-Soviet Allied forces not to torture in return.
The most important reason why we may not torture the Nazi is because torture is a recognized moral evil. Yes, we may kill the Nazi if we must, but we may not torture. Let’s be clear about this. Classical Christianitythe Christianity of Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvinin not a pacifist religion. Classical Christianity agrees with Niebuhr and Krauthammer that the pacifist is not a responsible citizen because the pacifist refuses to do what God has ordained for human good: take up arms to protect the innocent.
But Classical Christianity disagrees with Niebuhr and Krauthammer that the responsible citizen is the citizen who does evil for a good cause. The Christian just war tradition holds that killing in a just war is permissibleeven morally praiseworthywhen those killed are enemies who pose a direct threat. Thus acceptable targets are enemy leaders, soldiers, and those who supply them with the means to do us harm, such as arms producers.
The just-war tradition also holds that an enemy who surrenders or an enemy who is captured is no longer a proper target. This principle holds whether the enemy possesses useful knowledge or not. Thus, killing Nazis is permissible when they pose a direct threat to harm others. Put differently, killing Nazis is permissible, even morally praiseworthy, when they are killed in battlethat is, while they are engaging in acts harmful to us. Once the Nazis are captured, they pose no further harm. In the same way, it is morally permissible, even morally praiseworthy, to kill any terrorist in the act of terrorism. But when the terrorist is captured, he poses no further harm. To torture the Nazi or the terrorist is to do violence to a person we have rendered harmless and defenseless. To do intentional harm to a defenseless human being is a moral evil.
Christians have good reasons to distance themselves from the moral realism evidenced in Krauthammer’s essay. Nevertheless, the temptation to use a little evil on an evildoer can be overwhelming when a great deal is at stake. We may be tempted to count the cost on our conscience and try to figure out how much evil we can live withhow much evil we are willing to avert our eyes fromin order to save a society that we hold so dear. When we are tempted to count the moral costs, we often like to convince ourselves that we are only going to allow this particular evil to be done only once in this case of emergency. When our own lives are at stake, we do not fear the slippery slope. We tell ourselves that we will not become people who regularly do evil simply because we allow it in special cases, nor will we become barbarians simply because we practice a little barbarism for a good cause.
Moral realists wish to placate the troubled conscience; thus Krauthammer claims that if we allow torture, we will be able to place limits on who we torture. But once the threshold is crossed, how do we keep from pushing forward? History tells us that it is very difficult to cross a moral threshold and simply stop, even when the reason used to justify the crossing of the threshold in the first place no longer exists. The Allied war leaders during World War II, for example, were conscience of crossing a moral threshold when they began bombing innocent civilians during the early years of the war, and by the end of the war, such bombing tactics became more and more savage despite the fact that Allied victory was no longer in doubt. Once you began to accept an evil action as morally permissible because it is effective for some good purpose it becomes very difficult to quit relying upon it.
Moreover, if effectiveness is what allows us to cross the first threshold, why would it not allow us to push onward if we must in order to save lives? Any law that allows procedures out of necessity is a law made with necessity in mind. If necessity dictates what is legally permissible, then necessity will dictate the limits on who and how we torture.
Krauthammer would surely claim, for example, that we would not torture moral innocents such as children, but the “we” he would be talking about are people who have never lived in a society where torture is legally and morally acceptable. Who is to say what we will next allow once we get used to the idea of torturing people? If the evil of torture is allowed on principle in order to save lives, then why stop with torturing the terrorists themselves, if that is not working, and start torturing their children or other loved ones instead?
Torture can work; that is the monstrous thing about it, as Krauthammer agrees. We are tempted to torture precisely because we can get accurate information from the tortured. How much more good information could we get if we tortured before the very eyes of the terrorists their sons, daughters, wives, mothers, fathers? I for one feel sure that most people could better face the actual physical torments of the blowtorch and pair of pliers on their own person than watch their loved ones even approached with these instruments.
Krauthammer admits that torture corrupts the society that practices it. However, such problems do not worry the moral realist, since the logic of moral realism can accept demeaning our society a little bit with evil acts when those evil acts are necessary to prevent us losing our society altogether. Put differently, it makes no sense, from the moral realist’s point of view, to say that an action demeans society when that demeaning action may be the only way to save society. So the choice the moral realist presents us is a stained society (one that is preserved with evil acts) or no society at all. When the good to be protected at all costs is our society or even our own persons, then its survival dictates what is morally permissible.
For Christians, the kind of reasoning demonstrated here evidences a love for something greater than our ultimate good, which is God. Moral realism and dirty hands moral philosophy are moral tools for those who have turned our society or our own personal safety into an idol. When we love anything more than God, and demonstrate this greater love for a lesser good with immoral acts, we think and act like idolaters. Those who are willing to do evil in order to save themselves have placed themselves above God. Let us repeat: this is a form of idolatry—neither pure nor simple, but idolatry all the same.
Civilized people may have some scruples about the use of torture, although a cursory glance through any number of history booksor even a cursory glance at any evening’s viewing of the History Channelwill show that many civilized peoples have used torture frequently and effectively. People torture because they fear the consequences of not torturingin short, they fear death. Augustine taught that there are far worse things to fear than deathsuch as doing moral evil. Luther taught that if you feared anything more than God, then God is not God to you. If you are willing to do evil in order to save your life, then you love yourself more than you love God. Moral realists want Americans to accept the necessary evil of torture in order to win the war on terror. Thousands of innocent lives are at stake. But even if thousands of lives are at stake, even if, to go even further, to lose the war on terror is to lose all that we in the West hold dear, Christians cannot do evil to preserve what they hold dear.
More to the point, if we are tempted to do evil in order to preserve what we hold dear, then we are holding the wrong things dear. No real good demands evil to preserve it. Instead, those who want to see a good preserved demand that we do evil to preserve it. But if the ultimate human good is a good that is incompatible with doing evil, then we may not do evil to preserve it. When moral realists tell Christians that they must do evil in order to save themselves, and Christians are tempted to heed this advice, they should realize that they have become their own false gods.
Moral realists like to formulate dilemmas that require we choose evil if we wish to preserve a cherished good. This hinders our ability to formulate other solutions. Those who know that they can use evil do not need to think about how to win without doing evil. If Christians are to support the war on terror, and they ought to support a just war, they need to be reasonably sure that their government does not as a matter of policy torture people in order to get information. Christiansand all those opposed to tortureshould be urging their governments to think about other ways to win the war on terror.
Of course, many people are not troubled by the thought of torturing people who would like to see the West go up in flames and who possess information about plans that will light as many of those fires as possible. But we cannot harm people simply because they would like to harm us and possess knowledge about plans to harm us. Certainly we may detain them, question them, and keep them very uncomfortable and miserable, but not torture them.
To torture someone, or to countenance your government torturing someone, is to admit that you fear death more than you fear displeasing God and it is to admit that you love something more than you love God. To torture someone is to betray a disordered love for something that can never be a proper ultimate good. Not even our society or our own lives, as much as we love them, are that good.
Dr. Darrell Cole is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Drew University (Madison, NJ). He is the author of When God Says War Is Right: The Christian’s Perspective on When and How to Fight and the co-author of The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East & West.