It hasn’t received that much coverage over here, but a recent Guardian editorial raised the possibility that the intelligence used to break up the terror plot in London was obtained, at least in part, by Pakistani torturers. This has already led some anti-torture voices to call into question the reality of the plot itself¯since, as a former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan (and now a prominent critic of the West’s policy in that region) argues , “the interrogators of the Pakistani dictator have their ways of making people sing like canaries. . . . Trouble is it always tends to give the interrogators all they might want, and more, in a desperate effort to stop or avert torture. What it doesn’t give is the truth.”

Well, maybe. It seems more likely, though, that in this case torture did work, and that the foiling of the airplane plot is an example of why the attempt to do away with torture in our war-on-terror era¯particularly when it’s carried out in far-off countries, and only indirectly under the auspices of Western governments¯is an uphill battle, and perhaps a losing one. In this debate, as in so many, our society’s ultimate instincts tend strongly toward utilitarianism. We are residually Christian and willing to speak the language of Christian morality when it suits us, but when given a choice between respecting a principle and winning what seems to us a greater good, our society chooses the latter every time.

This is a habit that cuts across political lines. Wartime utilitarianism tends to find its instinctive defenders on the political right, and so conservatives have tended to rally around the Bush administration’s policy of formally forbidding torture while permitting it under CIA auspices and tacitly encouraging it in foreign lands (just as right-wingers are more likely than liberals to find retroactive justifications for the difficult-to-justify use of the atomic bomb). Peacetime utilitarianism, meanwhile, is typically the province of the left¯as, for instance, in the debate over stem-cell research, in which the same greater-good arguments used by conservatives to justify torture are deployed by liberals to promote the destruction of embryos.

When Americans are polled, majorities will often admit that embryo killing is a Bad Thing¯but this admission doesn’t prevent majorities from supporting the practice, so long as it holds out the promise of stunning medical advances. Because after all, who wouldn’t trade a tiny, tiny embryo for twenty more years of their grandfather’s life? Similarly, Americans are happy to say that torture is wrong, but I sincerely doubt that if “breaking” a suspect in Pakistan was necessary to prevent a dozen airplanes from exploding, there will be many people willing to say that the “breaking” shouldn’t have been done. Again, it’s an instinctive calculus¯a terrorist’s “human rights” versus the lives of hundreds of innocents? No contest.

This reality, I think, offers the umpteenth example of why the Victorian project (which persists to this day) of doing away with Christian dogma but trying to keep Christian morality intact is doomed to failure. Not because Christian morality can’t be approached rationally by nonbelievers of goodwill, but because without the lived experience of a religious tradition it will never be anything more than an abstraction, an arid intellectualism, something that gets followed when following it is easy to follow and abandoned as soon as the going gets tough.

Here is Andrew Sullivan, for instance, who has been one of the most prominent voices opposing our post-September 11 willingness either to torture or cooperate with torturers, making the case for why the practice should be banned:

Torture is the polar opposite of freedom. It is the banishment of all freedom from a human body and soul, insofar as that is possible. As human beings, we all inhabit bodies and have minds, souls, and reflexes that are designed in part to protect those bodies: to resist or flinch from pain, to protect the psyche from disintegration, and to maintain a sense of selfhood that is the basis for the concept of personal liberty. What torture does is use these involuntary, self-protective, self-defining resources of human beings against the integrity of the human being himself.

These are fine words, but in our society they are doomed by their abstraction¯they truck in terms like “soul” and “psyche” and “the integrity of the human being,” which are noble-sounding in theory, but which, when cut off from the taproot of Christian belief, are not a winning argument and never will be. Not against the lived reality of terrorism, at least, and the desire to feel safe when you fly across the Atlantic. (And Sullivan himself, of course, is happy to dispense with just this kind of argumentation¯to dismiss it as so much detached-from-reality theorizing¯when the greater good in question is a woman’s right to choose, or his own to right to sexual and romantic happiness.) In a much-discussed review of his colleague Ramesh Ponnuru’s Party of Death earlier this year, National Review ‘s John Derbyshire admitted that pro-lifers often had the better of the argument on reason alone, but nonetheless dismissed the pro-life case as a “frigid and pitiless dogma,” in which “logic-chopping” replaces human sentiment and fellow-feeling. This, I fear, is how too much of Christian morality looks to us today, whether the issue in question is torture chambers in Pakistan or abortuaries in America, now that the beliefs that sustained it have been on the wane for so long. Which is why I appreciate the present pope’s tendency to shy away from his predecessor’s sustained assault on the moral confusion of the age in favor of an emphasis on Christian belief and practice. As he puts it , the Church “isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option.” And until that option is restored to its former prestige, the prohibitions that go along with it will stand little chance of winning the day.

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Articles by Ross Douthat

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