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Charles Krauthammer has written a timely and provocative piece critical of Senator John McCain’s effort to ban all forms of torture. In particular this debate regards whether “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” should ever be used with detainees who operate outside the boundaries of civil responsibility, and whose effectiveness depends on breaking principles by which nation-states hold themselves accountable in war.

But, while Krauthammer offers much insight and nails the fundamental incoherence in McCain’s position, he muddies his otherwise careful analysis by taking a position that is equally incoherent. What I mean is Krauthammer rightly criticizes McCain for arguing “no torture under any circumstance” while holding up Israel, which uses physical coercion as a standard practice, as the model for how nations should deal with terrorists. And then Krauthammer is equally incoherent when he says “there is no denying the monstrous evil that is any form of torture,” while claiming that torture can nevertheless be “a moral duty.”

The problem with this position is it amounts to saying that, while evil is wrong all the time, it may at times be right. It holds that “monstrous evil” can at times be moral, even while it remains monstrously evil. But that is totally incoherent. What is moral cannot at the same time be immoral, and what is immoral cannot at the same time be moral. If exceptions are allowed, it means the general rule does not always apply, and if some-thing is “always the case,” it means there can never be an exception.

Coherence requires that we either say that torture is always a “monstrous evil” with no exceptions, or that torture, while evil in most circumstances, is not evil all the time—that there are situations when torture is not truly evil. This later position is what I think Krauthammer actually means. But he goes too far by way of saying how much he abhors torture in most circumstances, and how much he wants to avoid torture in any circumstance. If that is what Krauthammer means, then he otherwise makes a reasoned case for saying “torture” is at times justified or even required.

But just stating his view this way—even saying that “torture” is at times justified or even required—raises a nest of definitional difficulties, so many that in fact I do not think Krauthammer and McCain are even addressing the same thing. McCain would have us ban torture without any exception, and by “torture” he means any sort of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment, and by that he means any treatment that is inherently immoral. How could any good person oppose that? And so McCain’s amendment sailed through the Senate by a vote of 90-9.

But, while McCain views “torture” as something immoral by definition, Krauthammer addresses something else. What I mean is that when Krauthammer addresses “torture” he addresses something larger than McCain has in mind. He is not only addressing inherently immoral interrogation but something more, and it would be better if we used another word for it. What Krauthammer addresses (and McCain does not) is using coercion to get someone to divulge information he would not otherwise divulge.

Of course, no one in his right mind is saying no coercion of any sort should ever be used to exact information from detainees in the war on terror. But does this not spotlight what separates Krauthammer from McCain? They do not actually disagree on ever using coercion to get someone to divulge information he would not otherwise divulge. Rather, they disagree on exactly when to call such coercion “torture.”

At the risk of oversimplifying, McCain would not call coercive interrogation “torture” until it crosses into something immoral, while Krauthammer calls it “torture” at some earlier point. This is not to deny differences over when one crosses the threshold of immorality. But that is a different question than realizing we are dealing with a continuum that extends from merely applying psychological pressure to threatening a person’s life. And the fact is McCain and Krauthammer are addressing this continuum in different ways. Neither is saying interrogators should never use coercion, and both oppose abuse. But they are referring to “torture” in different ways—one that is immoral by definition and one that is not.

If one uses the McCain view of “torture” as inherently immoral treatment, then we must also address questions of moral responsibility coming from that part of the coercion continuum not covered by McCain’s view. If “torture” is always immoral because we only refer to using coercion immorally, then we still must address how far interrogators can go before what they do becomes “torture.”

But, in that case, Krauthammer’s appeal to the principles of proportionality (no more force than necessary), right intent (only to obtain necessary information and nothing more), last resort (only when no other means will work), competent authority (only with authorization from cabinet-level political authority), and no evil means (no sick sadomasochism) are certainly apropos. In fact, we should go beyond Krauthammer to also consider other just-war principles such as just cause (only to correct injustice), comparative justice (only if stakes on our side are more worthy than stakes on theirs), probability of success (only if good reason to believe the one interrogated actually knows important information), proportionality of projected results (only if information needed is worth more than what it costs to obtain), right spirit (only with regret), and good faith (never breaking promises).

And, if we use Krauthammer’s view of “torture” as applying coercion per se, then, after setting proper boundaries for moral use, we should without apology defend obligation to exercise justified coercion within proper restraints, and should not confuse moral categories by declaring good evil or declaring evil good.

Dr. Daniel R. Heimbach is Professor of Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest, NC). He is the author of True Sexual Morality: Recovering Biblical Standards for a Culture in Crisis.

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