Commentary: Moral outrage over torture
Assume there are two types of countries in the world: those that torture and those that don’t. Americans who believe that our nation is among non-torturers may have been disappointed recently when President Barack Obama announced, somewhat inelegantly, that “we tortured some folks.”
But if citizens were upset over this revelation, few made much noise about it. Beyond some Republican complaints that the announcement was too “glib” — some critics focused on the word “folks” rather than on “tortured” — hardly anyone took notice. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture may be more impressive than the president’s announcement, but I’m not expecting many to be shocked or particularly outraged.
Should we be more concerned than we are by this bald admission that our country has engaged in a practice that should be consigned to the repugnant moral category that includes slavery, genital mutilation and cannibalism?
But maybe the premise at the top of this column is wrong. Maybe the world isn’t so much divided into torturers and non-torturers as it is into torturers and those who are embarrassed to admit that they’re torturers.
Some plains Indians, for example, were unapologetic torturers. In war, they tortured their captives, and they expected to be tortured themselves. Sometimes they tortured for revenge, and sometimes, evidently, for sheer cruelty. Not even the youngest captive children were spared.
In the past the most civilized nations on earth have unashamedly made torture a systematic element of their jurisprudence. During the Inquisition the Catholic Church was an inveterate torturer. In fact, if one believes in Hell, the existence of such a place would make God the greatest torturer of all.
In short, the history of humankind includes a great deal of intentionally inflicted pain for the purposes of punishment, revenge and coercion. Maybe it’s a dubious sign of progress that at some point modern nations began to be embarrassed by their torturing and to look for ways to cover it up.
Often they developed methods of torture that left little physical evidence (electric shock, sleep privation, mock executions and, of course, waterboarding). Sometimes they used euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation” and found other ways to rationalize the practice. Other times, they just denied it. President George W. Bush: “This government does not torture people.”
Our ambivalence about torture is striking. We’d like to think of ourselves as non-torturers. But any discussion of torture quickly leads to the “ticking time bomb” scenario. If you could save a thousand children by torturing a terrorist in order to discover a time bomb’s location, wouldn’t you?
The renowned atheist and thinker Sam Harris complicates matters a bit by pointing out the philosophical paradox that we face when we reject torture — or pretend to — while accepting (or ignoring) the staggering collateral damage to civilians that we commit during the ordinary course of war.
If we are willing to incinerate innocent men, women, and children with firebombings and nuclear weapons in the pursuit of some national interest or goal, why should we hesitate to inflict the same level of suffering on a terrorist in order to save innocent lives? In other words, if we can accept the collateral damage of war, then why not torture? Harris doesn’t have a good answer. Neither do I.
At the least, more honesty and candor are called for. The admission that we — like most other nations — have tortured might be a first step toward clarity about the circumstances under which torture is acceptable, if ever. But before we reconcile ourselves to the idea that, in fact, we are torturers, shouldn’t we muster our moral outrage a bit more, even at the price of philosophical inconsistency?
If torture is a slippery slope, we’re in danger of sliding down only if we already occupy the moral high ground. Indulge one more trip to this metaphorical well: Can a nation that tortures ever really be a “shining city on a hill”?