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I am inclined to blame pacifism for our embrace of torture. Now, I do not consider myself qualified to say what does and does not count as torture. The Catholic Church’s teaching, which I hope to follow, is underspecified on this point (and its history is, well, complicated). Even when we agree that torture is evil, we are left with the problem of what counts. Acts that do in one context (forcible interrogation) may not in another (say, voluntary training of military personnel).

This debate has made an unwelcome return in the wake of the partial and partisan but still sobering report from the Senate Intelligence Committee. International documents provide guidance in practical legal terms, but can’t settle the moral matter. Thinkers like Patrick Lee and Christopher Tollefsen have provided rigorous but not yet broadly accepted definitions. More work like theirs must be done, but for now many remain unpersuaded.

One way to dispel the fog is to turn to the statements of those who in fact support “enhanced interrogation” but insist nonetheless that it is torture. Charles Krauthammer has argued for waterboarding even while insisting that it is “a terrifying and deeply shocking torture technique.” Max Boot, who also supports waterboarding in some circumstances, wrote in response to the report that:

Torture (and that’s what the “enhanced interrogation techniques” amount to, even if it is not torture as heinous as that routinely practiced by dictatorships) is definitely not an “American value.”

Take it not from the critics of “enhanced interrogation” but from its defenders—it is indeed torture. The real debate, then, is not over whether or not torture happened, but over whether something evil can ever be done as a means to a good end. Krauthammer and Boot, along with countless others, say yes. For this I blame the broad and unwitting acceptance of pacifist thinking, if not of pacifist conclusions.

Pacifism is popularly seen as the most Christian stance toward matters of war. This view, at once a compliment to and dismissal of the Christian ethic, should be resisted. Since Augustine, the mainstream of Christian thinking has endorsed the concept of “just war.” Leaders and their nations can prosecute war but they are required to do so without resorting to immoral tactics. Some things are in bounds, some out.

In reply, pacifism insists that all war is evil—that it is hell, so we must stay the hell out of it. This position is much derided, but more for the conclusions it reaches than the argument it makes. Many people believe along with the pacifists that war does indeed necessarily involve evil actions and so any attempt to impose a moral standard on our conduct is doomed from the start.

Elizabeth Anscombe noted this in reviewing the justifications offered for the use of the atom bomb. Those who argued for it did not argue that it was in fact justified, they argued that war always and everywhere demanded the unjustifiable:

It is characteristic nowadays to talk with horror of killing rather than of murder, and hence, since in war you have committed yourself to killing—i.e. ‘accepted an evil’—not to mind whom you kill. This seems largely to be the work of the devil; but I also suspect that it is in part an effect of the existence of pacifism, as a doctrine which many people respect though they would not adopt it. 

The demonic mistake Anscombe identifies remains common today. Unrealistic hypotheticals like the “ticking time bomb” are used to dismiss any attempt to insist that some means can never be used no matter the ends. Krauthammer does this with objections to torture:

There is much to admire in those who refuse on principle ever to take up arms under any conditions. But that does not make pure pacifism, like no-torture absolutism, any less a form of moral foolishness, tinged with moral vanity. . . . One should be grateful for the saintly among us. And one should be vigilant that they not get to make the decisions upon which the lives of others depend.

Krauthammer challenges his readers by asking if they would hesitate to hang a man by his thumbs if doing so were necessary to defuse a ticking bomb that would blow up New York City. He insists that doing so is in fact “a moral duty.” His argument cannot be readily dismissed, but it should be questioned.

If Krauthammer really believes there is a “moral duty” to hang this man by his thumbs so as to avert a terrible end, he must be ready to perform even more horrible acts. He must think there would be a moral duty to beat the man to within an inch of his life, to sodomize him, to do much else besides. He must believe these things even if the man is a child, or if he is a she. Evil does not confine itself to unsympathetic actors.

Perhaps he would still be willing to do his duty, and to tell us that it is ours. But I think most will recognize that there are certain things always and everywhere wrong (settling moral questions on the basis of the most extreme hypothetical may be one of them). Where we draw that line between good and evil—between what can be done and what must never be done—is a matter for debate. Of the fact that it must be drawn there can be no doubt.

Matthew Schmitz is deputy editor of First Things.

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