Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

An Interrogator on Torture

Mark Shea (under the guidance of the sagacious David Curp) links to a letter posted on The Corner:

I am opposed to torture under all circumstances, and there should be laws against it. Those who break them, should be punished. As a former Army Counterintelligence Agent, I conducted battlefield interrogations of enemy prisoners of war as well as strategic debriefings of higher value targets, and I've served in bad places where bad things will happen if you don't get the information.

On more than one occasion, I had discussions with some of our operators regarding the obtaining of information in the ticking bomb scenario. Our discussion ran along the lines of "It's against the law. It's against the UCMJ. We'd go to jail. But if we knew the bomb was ticking, and this guy had the information that could save dozens or hundreds or more people, or if the team (the operators and the unit) were going to be wiped out if we didn't get it, I'd whip out a hatchet and an entrenching tool and go to work on him." We were comfortable with this fairly horrible ambiguity and the bad consequences that would accompany it only because the military ethos was to sacrifice ourselves for others, and the notion of incurring legal jeopardy to save others struck us as a righteous cause, but it had to be predicated on the necessity of the ticking bomb. We did not want torture legalized. We did not want a guide book. We were fine with the notion we'd be punished had we ever used it - we never got into the neighborhood, much less seriously considering using it on anybody, BTW, we were just prepared to do what we had to do because it occurred to use that we could be in that position. There are some things that are too horrible to give a moral and legal imprimatur to, and torture is one of them, just as the law doesn't permit cannibalism but won't convict shipwrecked sailors and air crashed rugby players for engaging in it. We know these taboo and downright wrong practices sometimes rear their heads for good reason, but they are animalistic behaviors that come from a bestial place in the human soul, and no civilized society can long withstand a handshake deal with such beasts. Better to keep them caged.

Well said, indeed, I think. And as I mentioned before, I think this well displays the inherent "two masters" danger of being a secular authority. In strictly worldly terms, it is indeed your job to do what is necessary to protect those under your charge. In terms of the salvation of your eternal soul, it is necessary that you avoid sin, no matter what the consequences.

5 comments:

Jeff said...

I wonder if he'd include keeping people in solitary for a long time or making them stand up for many hours or lowering the temperature in their cell under the category of "torture."

People have a sort of rough and ready idea of what "torture" is and that's fine for a lot of purposes. But it seems to me you've got to do better than that, especially in an environment where the definition is being pushed to include things that had not usually been considered torture.

There just is no avoiding the noble science of casuistry in these questions, no matter how you slice it.

Darwin said...

I only quoted a portion of the original letter. The author goes on to say he thinks that one of the dangers in the current debate is that under the guise of condemning real torture (a condemnation the author agrees with) people are seeking to expand the definition of torture to cover techniques that, while not fun for the prisoner by any stretch, are not torture and should not be regarded as such.

I would tend to agree with him there too.

Rose said...

I'd certainly agree that people who under duress and to aid others are probably not as bad as those who commit evil for their own selfish ends. That doesn't make the evil okay, though.

I've always thought that the whole "ticking time bomb" train of thought was pretty much of a piece with the whole "abortion only in cases of rape & incest" school--which basically holds that you shouldn't have to do the right thing if it's too painful.

Personally, I see no assurance in scripture, tradition, or the natural law that this is the case.

Darwin said...

I would definately agree with you that torture under any circumstances remains evil. What I think the letter writer has latched onto that holds a certain amount in common with Dante is the idea that by committing yourself fully to upholding a worldly good (an officer's duty to protect his men or a soldier's duty to protect his country) you may run into conflicts. I don't think these conflicts are frequent, indeed, I lean towards the idea that God protects us from situations where we must make these choices.

But the basic point seems to me that a worldly good strictly conceived in worldly terms (say, protecting the citizens of your country from harm) may not always and in the most extreme situations alight with the true moral good. Thus, there might be a case in which the use of torture would have a positive effect, even a large one, for a worldy entity such as a country. Cutting the first few fingers off the suspect might convince him to reveal the location of the "ticking bomb" before he lost his thumb as well. I think this would certainly be wrong, and as a moral person I think it should be against the law. I also think that in the moral sense it would be bad for a country (in some sense, even if not in a readily obvious one) to be saved by such a means. However, looking at things from a strictly worldly point of view, an interrogator who cut off the fingers and saved the citizens would be doing his duty, while one who refused and the city was blown up would not be doing his duty.

That's the sense in which vowing to protect a worldy entity above all other considerations is at least somewhat dangerous to the moral life -- which I think is what Dante was getting at in the Purgatorio.

Bernard Brandt said...

Just to throw an M80 in the punchbowl, I will recount something that my dear uncle Joe himself recounted.

"In the event that torture could save the life of one American soldier, I have only two things to say:

"Red is positive. Black is negative."