In an episode of the Fox television drama 24, the hero Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland) desperately needs information to protect national security. To get it, Jack knocks a man unconscious and ties him to a chair. Ripping the electrical cord out of a lamp, he applies the current to the man’s bare chest when he refuses to cooperate with Jack’s questioning.
Though President Bush has repeatedly maintained that the U.S. does not engage in torture, his administration continues to equivocate. It has insisted that terrorists need not be treated like ordinary combatants. It has admitted to practicing waterboarding (simulated drowning) and refuses to rule out that inhumane practice despite the objection of most legal experts, civilian and military.
Calling tough interrogation methods a “valuable tool” in the war on terrorism, President Bush last month vetoed a bill to outlaw waterboarding in a rebuke to congressional Democrats and mainstream church leaders, including signers of a “United Methodists Do Not Torture” petition.
After keeping a collective silence in 2003 and 2005, the majority of delegates to this year’s biennial General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) expressed moral opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Twenty-seven U.S. religious figures, including some evangelical Christians, have endorsed a strong statement against the use of torture by the American military and security forces, saying “the soul of our nation” is at stake.
I am unapologetically patriotic by temperament and upbringing. I sing the national anthem at Wrigley Field, get chills when the navy’s Blue Angels roar overhead at the Chicago Air Show, and fly the flag on the Fourth of July. I spent some time in the air force ROTC, and some of my classmates flew missions in Vietnam. I supported the U.S.
When war causes us to suppress our deepest religious and moral convictions, we cave in to a “higher religion” called war. Yes, there is beauty in patriotism, in its unselfishness and love of country. But this beauty makes for what Reinhold Niebuhr called the “ethical paradox in patriotism”—a tendency to transmute individual unselfishness into national egoism. When this happens, the critical attitude of the individual is squelched, permitting the nation to use “power without moral constraint.”
It's easy enough to say that torture is bad (though it took President Bush a while to do so). But how does one address this classic ethical dilemma: a nuclear bomb is ticking somewhere in an urban area. The bomb-setter has been captured but refuses to divulge the bomb's location. Does one honor the rule against torture, or use whatever methods it takes, including torture, to get information that will save millions of lives? Even in this case, there's no guarantee that torture will produce accurate information. But the argument remains—an undeniable good might be done for innumerable innocents at the expense of evil performed on a single evil one.