The road to torture is a one-way street

Before Abu Ghraib, Americans were more likely to associate torture with the Inquisition than with Iraq. Nevertheless, while President Bush has denied that we participate in torture, at all, others in the administration and elsewhere have advocated new, more realistic tactics against a new kind of enemy. Is it time to reconsider the natural aversion to torture that most Americans have?

Nearly every discussion of torture eventually develops some version of this classic scenario: a terrorist hides a nuclear device in a major population center, threatening thousands with death and injury. He’s captured in sufficient time to disarm the device, if only he would provide the location. Would we be justified in using torture to pry the location from an uncooperative terrorist?

If not, Alan Dershowitz and others have argued that this scenario’s terms can be ratcheted up to the point that almost none of us could resist applying thumbscrews. Suppose your child was being tortured nearby and you had in hand the criminal who could reveal the location. What would you do if he doesn’t speak freely? Increasingly extravagant scenarios can be developed that eventually will justify almost any unspeakable act. Would I assassinate my elderly parent to rescue my infant daughter? Given that choice, probably.

But these improbable scenarios, entirely necessary for philosophical exploration, don’t provide much guidance when we make up rules about how we should conduct ourselves in more ordinary life. Actions that we might be forced to commit by these unlikely circumstances don’t say much about who we are and how we should behave. On this point, poet Albert Goldbarth notes that a devoted vegetarian, faced with starvation, might eat meat to survive, but doing so doesn’t turn him into a carnivore, or a cannibal.

I’m more impressed by the arguments that Sam Harris makes in his recent book “The End of Faith.” Harris, a student of philosophy and religion, indicates that he approached the subject of torture with the same repugnance that we would expect from any civilized humanist. But his deliberations on torture brought him abruptly up against this disquieting question: Since we understand that modern warfare will necessarily result in collateral damage to innocent women and children, including injuries that in practical terms are indistinguishable from torture, why do we hesitate to inflict pain on a terrorist who we can be reasonably sure is guilty, especially if using torture might yield information that could shorten the war and eliminate future suffering?

In other words, according to Harris, our unwillingness to use torture on terrorists cannot be reconciled with our willingness to wage modern war to begin with, in light of our certain understanding that it will cause indescribable suffering for thousands of innocents. No bombs are smart enough to prevent it.

Harris makes a good point. To achieve a coherent philosophical position, we must either accept torture or dispense entirely with the practice of modern war, an unlikely option. However, in spite of the irresistibility of his logic, Harris finds the use of torture unacceptable and suspects that most of his readers will, as well.

After all, suppressing an indisputable wrong like torture is probably more important than achieving an entirely coherent philosophical position, something that we do without quite comfortably in other areas of our lives. It’s easy to forget that civilization has made halting but genuine progress since the Inquisition, when torture was sometimes practiced by governments for political purposes and by the Church to keep the faithful in line; a few minutes spent Googling “torture” will confirm how far we’ve come.

Yet I suspect that in philosophical terms the brutal punishments of the past are indistinguishable from the more benign methods, like waterboarding, that we appear to be dabbling with in Iraq and Guanatanamo. Unfortunately, if we manage to find ways to rationalize practices like these, we’re legitimizing them not only for ourselves but anyone who wants to practice coercion, producing a recipe for a “torture war” that I hope we don’t have the stomach to win.

Before we allow the Bush administration to lead us toward a greater acceptance of any type of torture, let’s remember that this is the administration that led us to Iraq with insufficient deliberation and caution; now there’s no easy way back. The acceptance of torture is the start of a similarly dangerous and brutal journey from which, once we’ve begun, we’re unlikely to return.

Torture? Of course not. That’s just not who we are.

(John M. Crisp is a professor in the English Department of Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail is jcrisp(at)