Troubled by Torture

It’s such a common view that it almost seems silly to share it, but here goes: I’m deeply troubled by the choice of our government to use “aggressive interrogation” techniques in extracting information from suspected terrorists. I’m OK with the threat of execution as a punishment, when it is truly warranted, but the cruelty of torturing someone to deliberately inflict pain is simply evil, and those who conduct such exercises are likely to be threats to the rest of society, in my opinion. The implementation of secret tribunals and grotesque cruelty to prisoners is one of the historic warning signs of a nation in decay. Once basic principles can be ignored because the “end justifies the means,” the end is truly near – the end of liberty and domestic tranquility, among others.

Captain Moroni in the Book of Mormon was tough on traitors: “shape up or be executed.” But he did not torture them, and once they made an oath to repent, they and other former enemies were treated with generosity. He despised bloodshed and, implicitly, abuse of human rights.

When we apply the tactics of the Evil One in the name of fighting evil, we simply stir up more enemies to carry out their version of fighting evil against us. Everyone is fighting evil in their own way, which is the problem. Evil must be opposed in the Lord’s way for their to be lasting hope. And torture doesn’t fit.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

32 thoughts on “Troubled by Torture

  1. I’ve never known quite what to think of Captain Moroni, but that’s what thing I can say for him, that he didn’t torture. He deserves a lot for that.

    Merry Christmas.

  2. Amen, Preach it Jeff. Excellent post. I agree with you 100%. There is no room for torture in the gospel of the Prince of Peace, who enjoined each of us to: do ye even so to them.

    Thanks for keeping this issue alive, and for providing a prominent LDS voice in opposition to such an abhorent policy!

  3. We have leaders who think they are above the law – a new aristocracy totally out of touch with democracy and with the people they represent. More like CEOs than elected representatives. They think they are kings. And kings use torture to get their way. Simple and ugly.

  4. Amen, amen and amen.

    Many things can be justified in the name of peace and justice, but torture is NOT one of those things.

  5. There are several times in the Book of Mormon that describe the use of “stratagem”, (very similar to the word strategy). Beyond that the term stategem is not well defined. Perhaps it could have included torture to gain the much needed information to gain the upper hand in battle?

  6. Perhaps…

    However, given the rest of what (I assume) you know of the gospel of Jesus Christ, do you honestly believe that to be the case?

  7. Aggressive interrogation is not torture. John Yoo in War by Other Means (2006) provides a good overview of what the government can and cannot do in fighting Al Qaeda.

  8. Thanks, anonymous — a definition of torture is needed before a launch into diatribes about how awful the Bush administration is for employing it. Most of the posts here have the appearance of being knee-jerk reactions in sync with major media. (You know, the ones who keep feeding us Al Quaida propaganda.) Please provide some substance that can be talked about.

  9. “Most of the posts here have the appearance of being knee-jerk reactions in sync with major media.”

    Pops, I’m not sure where you are coming from. “Most” of my posts a knee-jerk reaction in sync with the media? That’s not true of my posts, nor is it true of the comments from people, if perhaps you meant that. I am often out of sync with the major media, so I’m curious to know how you came up with your statistics about most of my posts.

    The story of injustice concerning the prosecution of two border guards trying to defend themselves and stop a drug dealer – the topic of the previous post – is exactly the kind of thing that the major media is avoiding. The major media are not calling for the protecting our borders, the only logical thing to do in a time of war with foreign powers – but many Americans are.

    OK, after that, searching down for topics related to major media stories, there is one on alternate lifestyles that is definitely out of sync with the media, and about atheism and mass murder that you don’t see in the media, and so on.

    I’m sorry that questioning of our nation’s path makes you assume I’m buying into Al Qaeda propaganda. Frankly, I’m concerned that far too many Mormons are assuming that Republicans must be God’s party. Just because one party takes some key positions that are counter to LDS values does not remove our obligation to scrutinize their opponents.

  10. Mea culpa. Most of the “comments” here. Sorry. Your posts are great. They get us all thinking.

    Some of what is being called “torture” happens to me on a daily basis. Sleep deprivation, for example? I guess if you’ve never had a Church calling maybe you’ve escaped that one.

  11. …and I don’t mean “you” Jeff Lindsay, our gracious host, because I know you have Church callings…I’ll rephrase that to “a person who has never had a Church calling might be able to escape the torture of sleep deprivation”.

  12. You may look at military interrogation very differently if you consider that the information gathered may save lives of our soldiers.

    If your sons were fighting and in daily danger……….

  13. I wonder if any of your children were kidnapped and you knew the kidnappers mean to kill your child, and one of the kidnappers were caught. What would you approve of to do to the kidnapper to aquire the knowledge of where your child is to get your child back and save your child’s life?

    The facts are the terrorists are out to kill every man, woman and child in this country and many others. Where is the balance? The kindness to the terrorists could mean the death of your family and literally the death of this country.

    And like several others, I await the definition of torture…

  14. It appears to me that the use of the word “torture” in this post is actually a rhetorical trick. One uses a word by a less common definition, but with the understanding that most casual readers will apply the more common (and stronger) definition. It makes it difficult or argue against since you have to deal with both the common and less common definitions of the word.

    This is exactly what many Evangelicals do when they make statements like “Mormonism is a cult” or “Mormons aren’t Christians”. By certain (uncommon) definitions of the words “cult” or “Christian” these statements can be shown to be true, but due to the way these words are commonly understood, these statements are at best misleading and at worst outright false.

    Now lets look at the word “torture”. When most people hear this word (especially when associated with interrogations) they think of “the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain.” (Note: this pain is most commonly interpreted as physical pain.) Most people will absolutely agree that this kind of torture is inhumane under all circumstances. If this was what our government was doing to prisoners or captured enemy combatants I’m sure all of us would be justifiably outraged over it.

    However, there is also a broader definition of “great physical or mental suffering or anxiety, or a cause of such suffering or anxiety.” This is what is meant when someone says, “driving in rush hour traffic every day is torture” or when Simon Cowell says, “your singing was pure torture.” (Of course this may actually be an example of hyperbole, but I digress). Since this definition is much broader than the first one, things are no longer so cut and dry. Just because something is called “torture” is it necessarily wrong, unjustified, and inhumane?

    Let’s look at one example (what most consider the most egregious example of torture by the US government): water-boarding. By my understanding, water-boarding gives the sensation of imminent death by drowning. While this is terrifying, no actual physical harm is done to the recipient. So while it does fall under the category of torture by the second definition, it looks to me to fail to fall under the first (more common) definition of “inflecting severe [physical] pain”. Now whether or not this form of “torture” is justified is up for debate. Jeff claimed that the threat of death may be justified (e.g., “Surrender unconditionally or we will continue to hack at you with our swords until all of you are dead”) so does water-boarding fall under this category? What about other forms of “torture” whose primary purpose is not even to elicit “great suffering or anxiety” but to merely wear down the recipient’s ability to resist questioning (e.g., drugs, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, etc.)?

    A second thing that must also be considered is the context for the “torture”. Are there situations where a form of torture that is normally considered wrong, actually be appropriate? One example is the “ticking time-bomb scenario” (sometimes known as a “Jack Bauer scenario”): There’s a nuclear bomb set to be detonated in a major city in a matter of hours and you’ve captured an uncooperative person who knows where it is and how to disarm it. To what extent is it appropriate to use torture (even in the common understanding of that word) to get the needed information from him? By gradually reducing the hypothetical threat (e.g., potential harm, time duration, questions over whether or not the captive actually has the needed information, etc.), at what point would techniques that one would originally consider appropriate no longer be considered appropriate?

    I believe that these are serious issues that deserve a serious debate. Based on my understanding (by personal experience) of the moral character of many of those in government service (both inside and outside the military) I believe these questions are carefully considered and debated before any policy is enacted. However, the job is made much more difficult when people try to get their way by shutting down debate by merely shouting platitudes like “Torture is bad, compassion is good!” This only creates an environment where politicians are more likely to base their decisions on what is politically popular instead of what is actually in the best interests of the country (both in the short term and long).

  15. That’s what politicians do anyway–generally do what is politically popular (see Japanese internment–it was seen even by that civil rights advocate Earl Warren as a military necessity. NOt defending it, just pointing out that “bad” things are sometimes accepted by the populace as good.

    The bottom line is that we need standards against torture that allow all mankind respect as human beings. Call them inhuman if you want–most likely you haven’t met them if you have.

    This appears to be a case where the hardline conservatives–so concerned about “moral relativism” have decided to indulge in a bit of relativism themselves.

    I do know that I could not do what was done at Abu Gharib in good conscience as a believing Christian.

  16. Okay, I think we all agree that what happened at Abu Ghraib was wrong. That’s why the offenders (about a dozen) were court-martialed. But that’s really not the topic, is it? What are the officially-sanctioned interrogation practices that are wrong, and why?

  17. The question is: are there ANY official sanctions and are they enforced? Forget this word business of what defines “torture.” Any definition can be eluded and contorted. If we’re going to make claims to moral superiority, we’d better not be too reliant on “definitions” to determine the rightness of decisions.

    At My Lai, there were plenty of sanctions against the atrocities committed there? Yet happen they did (a Mormon was complicit as well).

  18. Walker, I believe the answers to your questions are “yes” and “yes”.

    By the way, who’s calling anyone inhuman? Who’s relying on “definitions” to determine the rightness of decisions?

    As for moral relativism, I do not think it means what you think it means.

    I believe the central issue here is when you are in the process of “defend[ing] your families even unto bloodshed” (see Alma 43:47) which actions, that would be forbidden under normal circumstances, can now be considered justified?

    These are issues that those in the military or law enforcement must deal with on a regular basis. While mistakes are made, I think overall we as a society are extremely humane, and even compassionate, in where we end up drawing the lines.

  19. Yes, there are official sanctions. Are they enforced? Apparently so, hence the courts martial.

    Why define torture? Because otherwise the product of the discussion tends toward heat instead of light. The mainstream media is adept at using carefully modified definitions in order to create the appearance of impropriety. One of my favorites is “domestic phone call”, but that’s another topic.

    Walker claims Moroni didn’t torture. What about forced labor? If the prisoners at Gitmo were out on the chain gang, I’m pretty sure the mainstream media would be screaming, “Torture! Inhumane!”

  20. A key to understanding the torture issue is the Administration’s current policy of relying on private companies (and in some cases, foreign governments) to carry out questionable objectives. Blackwater, CACI, and others need much more scrutiny for their role in Iraq, but scrutiny has been opposed while funding has been greatly increased. You might be interested in watching the fascinating new DVD, “Iraq for Sale” (see I got this as a Christmas present from a very conservative relative, who has long been active in Republican politics. It’s mind boggling and well documented. The torture issue is peripheral to the DVD, but the background it provides is important.

  21. I would really like to see Mormanity respond to Danwheel’s rather excellent comment specifically. But for now let’s just work off the emotionally charged, vague term as it is used in this post and most comments here.

    If torture means severe physical abuse, I am opposed to it. I can count myself among the enlightened elite.

    If torture means waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and extreme discomfort, then I’m for “torture” and I suppose I should rip up my temple recommend and punch my ticket to hell.

    Depending on the definition of the word, I’m either a pious disciple or a son of perdition.

    I understand the political morals behind the vow not to “torture.” How can we expect our enemies to treat our people humanely if we torture theirs? Nice theory. Nice hypothetical Golden Rule karma. But I don’t believe for a second that our benevolence will suddenly inspire terrorists to conform to the Geneva Conventions. Their boys have been living quite well down at Guantanamo for 5 years now, yet they still lop off our heads and mutilate our bodies.

    I’m not saying that we retaliate in kind. But I believe that the fear of possible “torture” can be very effective- probably more effective than “torture” itself. If I’m captured on the battlefield and questioned, I’m a lot more apt to spill the beans if I know I might be sent to Kazakhstan to have my fingers chopped off.

  22. The web site to which Jeff refers points out the abuses perpetrated by private contractors. To some degree the abuse and financial impropriety is the result of throwing money at the problem — that is, the DoD lacks the proper personnel and equipment to do what needs to be done, so they throw money to private contractors. The private contractors, also lacking the necessary personnel with appropriate training, are in the mode of hiring anyone with a pulse. This is compounded by the phenomenon that throwing money at problems attracts parasites. Look at the abuses of the Katrina aid, or the tsunami relief.

    I wish all Americans were sufficiently moral and honest that they wouldn’t abuse the trust placed in them, whether hired as a security guard in Iraq or CEO of a huge corporation. I don’t think what happened was the desire of the Bush administration. If anything, they were guilty of being too ambitious, compounded by trusting too much in the (failing) character of the American people.

  23. I don’t know–

    Breaking a hardened terrorist by blasting the Red Hot Chile Peppers at him for three days straight…

    Now *that* is torture.


  24. Although there are definitely some public policy issues I think are worth discussing around the definition and use of torture, I’m surprised the issue hasn’t been explored here from a social structure perspective. Those familiar with such things as the Milgram Experiments and the Stanford prison experiments ( understand that under the proper conditions, many of us who willingly and sincerely say, “If I was working at Abu Girab” I could never do something like that, could possibly end up facing a court marshal as well. I’m not making a case for an absence of agency. I’m just saying that you put 18-25 year old young men and women in an environment of constant stress and tell them to “role play” the function of prison guards while giving them only three months of training, and you’re going to get some sad results. Instead of laying all the blame at the feet of our chief executive, whose motives I’m not qualified to judge, perhaps we can propose some alternatives to these practices or think up some ways to reform the way our military personnel are trained and how intelligence is gathered.

  25. “How can we expect our enemies to treat our people humanely if we torture theirs? Nice theory. Nice hypothetical Golden Rule karma. But I don’t believe for a second that our benevolence will suddenly inspire terrorists to conform to the Geneva Conventions. Their boys have been living quite well down at Guantanamo for 5 years now, yet they still lop off our heads and mutilate our bodies.”

    You seem to be missing the point that the reason we should not use torture is not so that we can get the same treatment in kind, but because it is wrong.

    One doesn’t live the golden rule because one expects reciprocity, one does it because it is the path of a disciple of Christ.

    I believe it is instructive that in the Book of Mormon, it was when the Nephites were so morally depraved that their civilization was near its end that they resorted to using the same tactics of cruelty as the Lamanites.

  26. If you’ve bought into the theory that the United States now tortures captives, I suggest that you are the victim of political propaganda. You might be interested in listening to an interview with Cully Stimpson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs. Then if you still think the US tortures detainees, maybe you should follow Stimpson’s suggestion and invest in a trip to Guantanamo to find out for yourself.

  27. I think we should torture people. Can you imagine where we’d be if Jack Bauer stuck to the rules? How many nukes would’ve gone off in L.A. alone?

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