Monday, May 9, 2011

Torturous Truth

Does the end ever justify the means? This past Wednesday I had the strange sense of waking up in an altered universe. While waiting for the washroom to be free (two teenagers in the house), I checked out the online edition of the New York Times, and immediately wondered if I was still in some kind of bizarre waking dream. The Times had posted a serious article entitled ‘Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture’.

First of all there were the words Torture and Value within two spaces of each other. Then there was (finally, at long last) the admission that the US uses torture, but with no sense of moral outrage. (The Times actually, unbelievably, has had a policy of not referring to waterboarding as ‘torture’). Then there were the pompous Bush era politicians self-justifying. And finally the word ‘revives’, as in ‘revives the debate’.

What debate? I don’t recall the last ‘debate’ on torture. I pretty much thought every reasonable American opposed torture. They certainly didn’t like it when American prisoners-of-war were tortured in Japan in the 1940s. They didn’t approve of the Nazi torture of Jews. So how is it alright now? I doubt that it is for the majority of Americans.

What truly scared me was the accepted premise at the start of the piece that if torture works it would be alright to use it. According to the article, the only question on which the use of torture should be weighed is on its effectiveness, not its morality.

Well. I’ve been working in education for a quarter of a century now, and the strap was banned long before I started. I thought it was immoral. Maybe someone just decided it was ineffective.

And it is. All torture is. I’m pretty sure the Catholic Church proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt with the Inquisition. The threat of torture and death provoked even Galileo to go back to teaching that the earth was the center of the universe, even in full knowledge that it was not. People under duress will say anything to make the immediate pain go away: Torture me and I’ll tell you whatever you want to hear. The years it took to find Bin Laden despite the torture of countless unprosecuted (and often innocent) detainees in Guantanamo Bay simply cements the fact.

But torture’s lack of effectiveness remains a smokescreen for a deeper truth. Torture is immoral. Torture is wrong. And that is all that matters.

I realize that it’s difficult for the educated mind to accept absolutes. I too relish shades of grey. But educated people in particular should be able to accept a few moral imperatives. Does no one study Kant anymore? The ends do not justify the immoral means. The ends never justify the immoral means. It’s simple, clear, absolute.

In Christian terms this might read as “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you,” or perhaps, “Love your enemies as yourself.” Now, who said that? Oh, yes, just some ancient itinerant preacher from Galilee who lived as a member of a conquered population, and who ultimately suffered torture from whipping, a crown of thorns, and death on a cross. Fortunately, maybe, the Romans hadn’t thought of waterboarding.

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