That Murderous Cousin of Yours: Torture Revisited

Suppose you have a relative, neighbor, or student you knew and cared for that somehow fell into forbidden paths and joined a violent gang. He has committed murder, maybe many murders. He has refused to discuss his crimes and reveal information about his gang. He has information that could prevent other crimes from being committed. You have the privilege of being the interrogator. How “vigorous” could you be, in good conscience? Would you feel justified in applying the arts of pain creation to coerce information? Would beatings or injections of damaging substances be justified? How much could you do, knowing that you would later stand before others in your community or extended family to explain and justify what you did?

Now suppose the murderer is your son and someone else in your community is the interrogator. How much physical coercion would you feel was justified? At what point would you not be able to say, “Sure, Mr. Interrogator, you were just doing what was reasonable. There’s no need to apologize. We all support what you did.”

Suppose we have a civil war that divides your community in half, with some of the once-promising LDS young men in your ward now serving on the other side – perhaps a vile and wicked side that has brainwashed many into violent behavior. You’ve captured one of them in a bloody battle that killed some of your own ward members. Now it’s interrogation time. You know these young men. They once had promise, but have fallen. So how far can you go in interrogating them? The information might save lives. A little waterboarding, perhaps, that puts the fear of death in them over and over? Maybe just a few shallow cuts, some brief choking, and only a few dozen volts applied to sensitive parts of their body? Or maybe you’re a bleeding heart sissy kind that doesn’t go much beyond a little old-fashioned humiliation of disrobed prisoners?

As evil as murderers and terrorists are, as worthy of death as some of them may be, how can we forget that they are human beings like ourselves, like our own sons and daughters who also may fall? How can we justify the “interrogation” techniques that have been used? Consider, for example, the case of Benyam Mohammed as reported in The Guardian (or, for those who think that’s just a liberal rag, as also reported in the much more right-wing magazine, The New American).

These men are people. Murderers, perhaps, or at least soldiers we are fighting. But they are sons of our Heavenly Father just as much as we are. They are human. Wrong in their views and actions, yes. But how can we as a nation justify physical abuse of captives because we claim that the end justifies the means? If they deserve death, then execute them – humanely, and after proper procedures have been followed. If they deserve captivity, then incarcerate them – humanely. There are reasonable limits to what can morally be done in interrogation of a prisoner, even of a serial killer. These limits must not be abandoned if law, justice, and human dignity are to mean anything.

Surely you cannot have missed the fact that our Government has taken vigorous actions to sidestep the Geneva Convention regarding accused terrorists. Doesn’t that concern you? Shouldn’t it terrify you? Have you noticed what happens when nations become police states?

So how do we define torture? I’m not sure. There may be some gray areas. But creating intense and repeated panic or approaching suffocation with waterboarding doesn’t sound like what I think we could do in good faith to the captured sons of our neighbors or fellow Church members even in the terror and frenzy of a civil war or in dealing with someone we care for who became a violent gangster.

But sadly, we have gone far beyond these supposedly non-injurious but still abusive tactics. Read the articles linked to above about Benyam Mohammed – one of many witnesses. Or consider this excerpt from Newsweek‘s article, “The Roots of Torture,” dealing with Abu Ghraib:

“The photos clearly demonstrate to me the level of prisoner abuse and mistreatment went far beyond what I expected, and certainly involved more than six or seven MPs,” said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former military prosecutor. He added: “It seems to have been planned.”

Indeed, the single most iconic image to come out of the abuse scandal–that of a hooded man standing naked on a box, arms outspread, with wires dangling from his fingers, toes and penis–may do a lot to undercut the administration’s case that this was the work of a few criminal MPs. That’s because the practice shown in that photo is an arcane torture method known only to veterans of the interrogation trade. “Was that something that [an MP] dreamed up by herself? Think again,” says Darius Rejali, an expert on the use of torture by democracies. “That’s a standard torture. It’s called ‘the Vietnam.’ But it’s not common knowledge. Ordinary American soldiers did this, but someone taught them.”

Who might have taught them? Almost certainly it was their superiors up the line. Some of the images from Abu Ghraib, like those of naked prisoners terrified by attack dogs or humiliated before grinning female guards, actually portray “stress and duress” techniques officially approved at the highest levels of the government for use against terrorist suspects. It is unlikely that President George W. Bush or senior officials ever knew of these specific techniques, and late last week Defense spokesman Larry DiRita said that “no responsible official of the Department of Defense approved any program that could conceivably have been intended to result in such abuses.” But a NEWSWEEK investigation shows that, as a means of pre-empting a repeat of 9/11, Bush, along with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft, signed off on a secret system of detention and interrogation that opened the door to such methods. It was an approach that they adopted to sidestep the historical safeguards of the Geneva Conventions, which protect the rights of detainees and prisoners of war. In doing so, they overrode the objections of Secretary of State Colin Powell and America’s top military lawyers–and they left underlings to sweat the details of what actually happened to prisoners in these lawless places. While no one deliberately authorized outright torture, these techniques entailed a systematic softening up of prisoners through isolation, privations, insults, threats and humiliation–methods that the Red Cross concluded were “tantamount to torture.”

No, I’m not an anti-American or Al Qaeda sympathizer. I do not support the political agenda of the ACLU. I am conservative on most issues. If we must fight in a war, I want us to win and win quickly (and then get out). But I am shocked and horrified at the softening of America’s moral fiber, at the loss of standards at so many levels, that would allow even a tiny minority of people in our military to feel justified in abusing captives beyond what we would tolerate for criminals taken from among our own.

Finally, at a purely selfish level, I oppose torture of captives because one day I may be the captive, having offended some official for offensive remarks made on this blog or in a private conversation in my home monitored by some thug with a listening device. If I am accused, I want to at least be treated humanely. And that excludes even waterboarding, one of the more benign tactics that have been used in our efforts to police the world.

Our enemies are human. They are more like us than we may realize. And if they, though human, have acted like vile demons, there is certainly no need for us to become more like them.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

20 thoughts on “That Murderous Cousin of Yours: Torture Revisited

  1. Do we have God’s approval to do anything more than apply justice?

    What is justice? [Let me expand your concerns about torture to the entire US ‘justice’ system]. Justice is NOT torture, justice is NOT imprisonment, justice is NOT punishment, justice is, plain and simple, making the victim whole. Our whole system is set up so that we punish (jail rape is torture) the criminal (often times for breaking a victim-less bureaucracy rules) instead of forcing the criminal to make the victim whole. This evil mentality (i.e., punishment instead of justice) has been extended to POWs, hence the shameful torture we witness today.

    We have no moral authority to inflict pain on others (except proportionally in self-defense and if required for justice), so I denounce the act of torture as a homage to Satan.

  2. I’m sorry, Jeff, but I started reading your blog in a large part because of your excellently researched and well reasoned defense of the LDS faith from its attackers. But on this particular subject you sound to me more like one of those attackers. I’ve found your posts on torture to be very one-sided and emotionally tinged.

    Much has already been said in the comments of your previous post, but I thought I’d like to remind you there is another side of the story.

    While it may be that you are right and the American government has been brutally, and unjustifiably, torturing prisoners, I’d rather reserve judgement until all the facts are in. Or at least until we have a better way of sorting out the truth from the propaganda, on both sides.

  3. I think of Captain Moroni … oh that we could make it that simple, and no yes … no torture of (real or suspected) murderers (or insurgents/militants as much of the media like to call them) involved.

    Simple. Take an oath to put down your weapons and cease to committ/never participate in these terrorist activities or forfeit your own life. Their choice … done.

  4. Jason, try not to confuse what happens in novels with what happens in real life. If a man places no value on his life, by what standard does he place a value on an oath, particularly given to another human who he values less than dirt? Do you really think they would behave honestly when given such an option? Why don’t we just ask them nicely to stop in the first place?

    Anonymous, think a little more about justice, particularly as God teaches it. Was it “restorative” to stone people left and right for minor infractions, as God told the Israelites to do under Moses? You say that justice isn’t punishment, but then you say that pain might be required for justice. A little non sequiter, I’m afraid. And if torture pays homage to Satan, why would God subject people to the torture of pain-causing birth defects, pain-causing illnesses, or hell itself? Hmmm.

    On the “nuclear bomb” scenario, you don’t really “100% know” that a detainee has correct, pertinent information. Let’s say you’ve got 5 detainees, one of whom (you don’t know which one) you “know” has information. Do you torture all 5, knowing that 4 can’t do anything but suffer or divulge false information to avoid pain? (Of course, that is what torture often leads to–false information.)

    I do think we’re a little soft in the end. Psychological stress should be a no-brainer–force prisoners to stand around naked, befoul Korans or images of Mohammed, only offer disgusting (or religiously prohibited) food, etc. None of these cause physical harm, but they can cause a “change of heart” in the prisoners. (i.e. God says kill Americans, but God also says to do xxx–if I can’t have it both ways, which one wins?)

  5. Jeff:

    How about a scenario where torturing your own son would save your spouse’s life? Would you do it then or are you willing to sacrifice your own spouse for the sake of some nebulous, ill-defined concept of what constitutes torture? What if you were basically the object of your son’s own form of torture where he and various associates were determined to murder all of your loved ones and leave you alive? Would you then be willing to torture him for ten, fifteen, etc. minutes in order to secure information that would thwart his and his companions’ actions? Under those conditions it would take a wicked level of callousness to shun torture. So what is the fundamental difference when both the potential victims and the intentioned perpetrator are strangers?

  6. Our enemies are human

    Sure, Jeff, but our enemies do not consider us human. I refuse to believe that they will hold their end of our golden rule bargain. If you ever become their prisoner, you’ll be abused and killed regardless of how nicely we treat them. The political argument against torture- bullcrap.

    Morally, you have an argument. But then again it depends on your definition of “torture.” I’m not sure torture in the sense of physical abuse is efficient. I have a buddy who is a National Guard interrogator who has seen time in the Middle East. He says that type of torture doesn’t work. Thus, I’m morally and pragmatically against torture by that definition.

    It is the fear of possible physical torture that is effective. With the U.S. walking on thin ice in this matter, what motivation does a captured terrorist have to talk? He knows it’s easy street.

    Now I’m all for psychological “torture.” That I believe is effective. It may morally skirt the fine line, but if it works, with no physical damage, I’m ok with it.

  7. D.,
    So are enemies are human but don’t consider us human so we need to not consider them human so the inhumanity of our actions justifies the inhumanity of their?
    It’s a tangled web we weave man.

    inducing psychosis through torture- Hey its only a brain, not a vital organ so I guess that’s okay.

  8. Major (USAF) William D. Casebeer, Ph.D. wrote a far more reasoned and insightful article on the topic than most called “Torture Interrogation of Terrorists: A Theory of Exceptions (With Notes, Cautions, and Warnings)”

    An excerpt:
    “Here, I use insights from previous attempts to meld utilitarian and deontic moral approaches into a coherent system to formulate a “theory of exceptions” that tells us just when it is morally permissible to engage in torture interrogation; such a theory will provide us with principled exceptions to absolute rights…

    First, there are vanishingly few circumstances wherein torture interrogation of terrorists would actually be justified; while they exist in principle, meeting the requirements of the exceptions theory proves very hard to do in practice.

    Second, owing to the extraordinary prima facie pressure exerted by the basic human right not to be used as a mere means, most exceptions (while morally permissible) nonetheless leave those involved in the decision to torture with moral “dirty hands.”

    Third, owing to the epistemic difficulty of removing one’s self from the exigencies of the circumstance, exceptions require dramatic oversight, and such oversight might have to be international in nature to be effective.

    Finally, most consequential justifications for the permissibility of torture neglect to consider the institutional and character-based harm that we do to ourselves when we actually attempt to build a system for torture interrogation that the utilitarian would find praiseworthy. Perversely, consequential justifications for torture interrogation require well-trained torturers who know where and when to apply pain, but establishing the institutions required in order to sustain such well-honed practice is fraught with perils that the utilitarian would condemn, all things considered.

  9. Torture is ugly. It has been in use since the dawn of civilization as a horible means to an end.

    Having said that I fear I must agree that I need to hear and understand more of what is happening before I cast judgement. Who is telling the truth and who is lying is not clear to me right now. Too many men with too many agendas are yelling too loudly to see to the heart of the matter.

    Who is defining the term torture? Why do so many leftist political groups scream that we are torturing, but say little about the Kurds who suffered horrifically under the Saddam regime? Why do so many right wing advocates insist so loudly that we are not “really” torturing people and anyway its okay because we are saving lives?

    Do any of the people involved in this give you a good, positive spiritual feeling in your hearts? Too much darkness surrounds this and I think in the end that neither side will win. The leftists will be left with the knowledge that not nearly enough was done to stop the role of tyranny and terror in the world. The right-wingers will be left with the knowledge that a terribly high price was paid to get the work done.

    God is not happy, because in the end the leaders of nations are not placing their questions or solutions at his feet for approval. They are acting on their own accord. Gone are the days of the King Benjamins’ leading the people and gone are the days of the Moronis’ leading the armies. Until ALL men return to that then there will never be an end to the wars and rumors of wars. The good fight will never cease and peace a fleeting dream until the Savior comes again.

  10. ujlapana ..

    #1 … Book of Mormon does not equal ‘Novel’. It’s a true book and Moroni’s example is very pertinent IMO …

    #2 Yes … I would not exchange little of value for these people’s oaths (read, I don’t trust them either) … the ‘oh that we could make it that simple’ is more of a lamentation that we can’t do that … rather than a suggestion that we do it. Sorry if I was not clear enough on that.

    All the same, most of the hard-core zealotous islamic terrorists (note, not ‘insurgents’) will openly spit in your face and would deny such an oath/contract. Those would make our job easier. Those that have abandoned all that their professed religion (the which, they seek to impose on others) would speak of in terms of honesty and integrity (assuming there is something in Islam to that regard) would make it a little harder to weed them out.

  11. Make that:

    I would exchange very little of value for these people’s oaths (read, I would find it hard to trust them as well) …

    Not very clear on that, but you probably got the jist of what I meant.

    Anyhoo ….

  12. I don’t want to get all “high-brow” and philisophical here. I’d rather just deal with the reality of the situation.

    I personally work for the government, and am involved in the physical protection of our nation’s nuclear assests.

    I and my co-workers have often theorized on what we would do in the event we had a captured hostile who had knowledge of a nuclear attack on Americans, and we had a limited time to deal with it.

    Everyone I have talked with about it, and including myself have decided that if the stakes are high enough, and you are talking about the possible death of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and you don’t have much time….you start by breaking fingers my friend.

    No offense intended. I like your blog and usually agree with you, but I think you are taking the easy road here. Lucky for you and all Americans, I can personally vouch that there are some REAL live Jack Bauers out there. True patriots who love this country, and are willing to get their hands dirty for our safety and security. They aren’t evil men.

    I would be willing to bet that if Cpt. Moroni ever faced a threat such as a nuke, he’d be putting a few Lamanites through whatever it took to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

  13. Shadow Spawn,

    You’re so right. If this country hadn’t been founded by wusses like George Washington and Ben Franklin and whoever, we wouldn’t be burdened with these stupid ideas like due process! We could just have cops go kill all those inner-city druggies, and maybe even some abortion doctors, too! I mean, hey, if you break his fingers and it turns out you were confused about how much information your victim had, well, there were lots of lives at stake, right? Man, why didn’t we have real patriots found this country?

  14. Ujlapana,

    Your side is easy to defend. It’s easy to take the high road, and to be against such things.

    George Washington never had to deal with the threat of nuclear terrorism. I wonder how he would really decide if put in a situation like I described.

    By the way, I’m not 100% in favor of torture, but I believe it’s justified in extreme circumstances.

    I am afraid you have a naive view of the way things really are in the BAD BAD world. You can continue to live in your fairy tale world where every one should play by the rules, and the bad guys always lose, and the good guys always wear white. And, you can sleep safely tonight in your house made of gum drops and ginger bread on Candy Cane Lane, because there are some true patriots out there keeping you safe who realize the stakes, and what we are really up against, and are willing to do the dirty work to protect this country.

    Wake up.

  15. Is it easy to take the high road? Is it easy to offer your cloak when sued for your coat? No, it’s not, nor is it “easy to defend.” If it were, everyone would see how obvious the defense is, and would eschew torture. Your endorsement of it shows that we’re not there yet.

    When did I say we don’t live in a world with BAD, BAD people? What’s your point–if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em? No thanks. If avoiding nuclear terrorism means indiscriminant, unhelpful torture of possibly innocent people, that’s not a price I think we should pay.

    Think for a moment about your little rant about good guys and bad guys. What exactly makes a “good guy” a good guy? Is it just whatever side you’re on is the “good” side? No, people who do universally bad things (like beheading captives, blowing up non-combatants, and, yes, torturing prisoners) are the bad side. People who don’t, who stand firm in their moral convictions no matter the price, are on the good side. The US is a “good guy” in the world, which is why we don’t go indiscriminately carpet-bombing enemy cities, even though that might save US lives down the road.

    If there are “true patriots” out there torturing folks left and right (as you seem to imply), they are idiots. Torture has been demonstrated (for centuries) to provide false information. Or do you believe that Salem was actually full of witches? Yes, Virginia, police work used to be much easier–just apprehend your suspect and torture him until he confesses (which he always does).

    Stop watching so many action movies.

  16. One other thought, from Human Rights Watch:

    Israel provides a good example of how this logic works in practice. For years Israel justified its use of torture – what it called “moderate physical force” – by citing the “ticking bomb” scenario. But despite a genuine security threat, Israeli security forces rarely if ever were able to identify a particular suspect with knowledge about a particular bomb set to explode imminently. Rather, they ended up applying the scenario metaphorically to justify torturing virtually every Palestinian security detainee – thousands of people – on the theory that they might know something about some unspecified, future terrorist act. In 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected the use of torture, although the practice seems to have increased in the past year.

    In addition, the ticking bomb scenario offers no logical limitations on how much or what kind of torture would be permitted. If the detainee does not talk when shaken or hit, why shouldn’t the government move unto more severe measures, such as the application of electric shocks? Why not threaten to rape the suspect’s wife or to torture his children?

    In fact, why not just start with maiming his children right in front of him? (Threats just waste precious time!) Better than a nuclear explosion, right? Plus I hear that method worked well under Saddam. (Was he a good guy or a bad guy…it’s so complicated!)

  17. Don’t insinuate that I’m “all for torturing people left and right”, when I stated plainly in my last comment that I’m only for it in the most extreme of circumstances.

    I do not endorse generally torturing all suspects just to see what kind of imformation we might get. A captured terrorist shouldn’t be an automatic candidate for torture.

    I do however believe in rough interrorgation methods when the situation warrants. If I were in any kind of position of authority, I’d have strict guidelines in place for such interrorgations.

    So, let me ask you. If someone had kidnapped your family, and you knew they were going to behead them at a certain time, and that time was getting close. And let’s suppose the police had arrested one of the kidnappers (100% positive…he’s telling them stuff like, ” you’ll never get me to tell you the location “) You wouldn’t be pro-torture for this one instance to save your family? Would you really refrain from torture just to hold to your principles that you aren’t going to be like the bad guys? Answer honestly now….I’d really like to know how you’d really feel in that situation.

    I wonder how many lives have been saved because of EVIL dark, black-hearted men, being rough with some terrorist to get vital information to save lives.

  18. Just read your post again and I left a couple things unsaid.

    “If avoiding nuclear terrorism means indiscriminant, unhelpful torture of possibly innocent people, that’s not a price I think we should pay.”

    I whole-heartedly agree with you here. But, just take out the words; indiscriminant, unhelpful, and possibly innocent people. And substitute it for 100% known operative in an ongoing terrorist activity, and holder of information that will save lives, and I think some torture is warranted.

    “People who don’t, who stand firm in their moral convictions no matter the price, are on the good side. The US is a “good guy” in the world, which is why we don’t go indiscriminately carpet-bombing enemy cities, even though that might save US lives down the road.”

    Ask some older Japanese people about Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and what “good guys” we were. We dropped those bombs to save ALLIED lives from the horror of a beach landing that would have made Normandy and Iwo-Jima seem like nursery school. That was back when we knew how to fight to win a war.

    The good guys according to you stand firm in their moral convictions no matter what the price.

    You are right about that.
    I’m sorry but the slaughter of my family and country is not an acceptable price to pay.

    I used to play football as a teenager, and sometimes you’d play another team that was a little more physical and aggressive. To the point of intentionally trying to injure our better players to take them out of the game. Even cheating, like throwing fists at the bottom of the pile, or a knee to the side of the leg when the ref wasn’t watching.

    There were two ways to respond to these tactics. Take the moral high ground, and feel really good about ourselves as we slowly got annhilated by unfair and rough tactics, …..or we could fight back. Fight by their rules a little bit, and give ourselves a chance to survive the game.

    I don’t thinkg the majority of Americans realize what and who we are up against here. What they are capable of doing, and just how precarious our situation is. If a nuke ever does go off in this country, God help us, but I can see every one pointing their fingers at the current admin. and screaming, “what did you do to protect us from this?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.