In a recent Weekly Standard article, “The Truth about Torture,” Charles Krauthammer has questioned the coherence of the McCain amendment passed by the Senate by a vote of 90-9, ostensibly banning under all circumstances “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of any prisoner, even under the most extreme circumstances of the global war on terrorism.
Those committed to a Christian ethic would, of course, instinctively react strongly against methods of interrogation that use severe force, pain, or coercion, and as such threaten to undermine the inherent dignity of the person created in the image of God; which could lead to “slippery slope” abuses in less extreme cases, and which could stain the national reputation and destroy the moral integrity of those who employ such means. From a deontological or principle-based ethical point of view, it could be rightly said that the ends, however good, do not justify the use of any and every means to achieve those goods; right ends must be achieved through righteous and justifiable means.
However, that having been said, Krauthammer poses a not-so-hypothetical case that brings the analysis from the realm of generalities to the very real world of the global war on terrorism: the “ticking time bomb” scenario. A terrorist plants a nuclear bomb in Manhattan; it is scheduled to explode in six hours; a million fatalities could result. Would it be justified to employ “aggressive methods” of interrogation involving substantial pain and coercion in order to secure information that could save millions of lives? Plausibly, it could—on a principled and not merely utilitarian basis—be argued that such a course of action would be a justifiable one for the legitimate authorities to undertake.
In the extreme circumstances of war, the biblical narrative indicates that some practices not licit in peacetime, e.g., deliberate deception of an enemy with deadly intent, may be permissible in such circumstances to safeguard innocent civilian lives (Joshua 2, the case of Rahab the harlot and the spies). Human life is sacred, made in the image of God, and the government authority has the moral obligation to protect the citizens from murder and violence from both domestic and foreign sources (Romans 13:3, 4). The terrorist in this scenario has already conspired to commit mass murder, a crime intrinsically “worthy of death” (Acts 25:11). By conspiring to commit a horrendous crime “worthy of death”—the ultimate penalty—the terrorist has forfeited the moral right to enjoy the normal immunities shielding the prisoner from pain and coercion. The state is ordained of God to “bring wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom.13:4).
That being said, however, it would be crucial to surround the possible use of such measures—only under extraordinary and exceptional conditions—with strong procedural safeguards, including, but not necessarily limited to the following: 1) compelling evidence of the intent and ability to commit mass murder by a terrorist act; 2) a genuine threat of an irreversible and catastrophic harm involving the massive loss of innocent human lives; 3) the threat of imminent danger, i.e., a catastrophic event within hours or days; 4) exclusion of military and police personnel as agents, to safeguard morale and professional discipline; 5) use of such means only as last resort, not ordinary resort; 6) ordinarily, cabinet-level or other high-level political authorization; 7) strict standards of accountability and transparency through subsequent judicial and congressional review.
It might be said that “extreme cases require difficult choices,” and so it can be in the murky and threatening world of the global war on terrorism. Governments need moral insights from religious communities that are neither utilitarian nor utopian. Krauthammer has injected a healthy note of realism into this crucial moral and foreign policy debate.
Dr. John Jefferson Davis is professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Note: Professor Davis is writing as an individual and does not necessarily represent the views of his employer or the Gordon-Conwell Theological faculty.