The Bible and Torture: A follow up
I want to respond to some questions and comments on my previous post, “The Bible and Torture.”
One commenter asked,
“Would you condone the torture the Catholic church inflicted on thousands? Simply because the Pope said so.”
“Would you condone the torture, by the army of England against those who fought for liberty here in the Revolutionary war? Would you condone torture by Abraham Lincoln against those men who fought in the south during the Civil War.”
The answer to all three questions is contained in my original post, especially the part where I said,
“I want to stress that we are talking about the use of inflicting pain to extract information only in exceptional cases."
Exceptional means, “forming an exception or rare instance; unusual; extraordinary.” (Italics added for emphasis.) In my post I go on to give the only example I can think of.
What qualifies as an exceptional case? One in which there is an imminent threat of attack which is likely to result in the loss of life, especially on a large scale. This is sometimes referred to as the ticking time bomb scenario.”
This rules out all or very nearly all the instances of forceful interrogation that are detailed in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report. I have not read the six thousand page report, but none of what I have seen reported in the news meets the “exceptional case” standard. Certainly what happened at Abu Ghraib was reprehensible and in no way justifiable. Any interrogation technique, even within the exceptional case standard, must not inflict permanent harm, much less be lethal, nor should it be inherently humiliating (Deut. 25:3b).
My post should not be construed as an apologetic for the government’s actions. It is an attempt to consider the question of forceful interrogation techniques per se in the light of Scripture. When, if ever, are they permissible? Under what circumstances? With what limitations, and with what kind of accountability?
It has been suggested that my argument is utilitarian. Actually, it is rooted in God’s law with the recognition of the distinction which Jesus makes between weightier and lesser matters of the law (Matt. 23:23). Let me give an example: the fourth commandment requires rest on the Sabbath, but when Jesus encountered opposition for healing on the Sabbath, he asked, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill” (Mk. 3:4). He judged the obligation to “save life” a weightier matter of the law than resting on the Sabbath. It seems to me that the use of forceful interrogation techniques—in exceptional cases and with the specified limitations and accountability—in order to save life follows the same principle. Under all normal circumstances we are to avoid inflicting pain on our fellow human beings. God requires this of us. But there is also the obligation to save life (which is also the first and most foundational responsibility of government). The question is, how do we reconcile these two obligations? The answer is, we look to the weightier matter of the law.
I am quite sympathetic to many of the concerns raised on the other side. “How do you know the person even has the knowledge you seek?” This is a good question, and it is why I said there must be reasonable guarantees. These guarantees must have a high standard, like catching them in the act of putting the plot into motion, or catching them with other incriminating evidence. I am sympathetic, too, with the concern for the psyche of the interrogator. But the same could be said for the person who is lawfully authorized to administer the stripes of Deut. 25:1-3 and for the executioner in capital cases (e.g., Ex. 21:12). I am also sympathetic to the dangers of the slippery slope. If such interrogation techniques are approved in the very limited circumstances mentioned, will it not lead to a broader use? There is certainly the possibility of this. But it is not inevitable.
While I am sympathetic to these concerns, I have not found the position that forceful interrogation techniques are always wrong in all circumstances to be compatible with Scripture. I am open to be convinced otherwise. But to do that, you will actually have to engage with the argument presented in the article and expanded upon here. Show me where and how I have misinterpreted or misapplied the texts.