Torture: From the Gulag Archipelago to Guantanamo Bay

By Brian Edgar

Is it ever right to do wrong in the name of the common good? Does the end justify the means? Can it be argued that torture is sometimes a necessary evil which is really morally good?

Although torture is a very individual and personal action with one person deliberately inflicting severe mental or physical pain and suffering on another, it is also an action which cannot be understood apart from the society in which it takes place.[1] This is not only because cultural and social values can prohibit, limit, permit or even encourage its practice but also because the idea of the common good provides the most common rational justification for what would otherwise be morally indefensible. This paper examines the argument for “doing evil in the name of good”, the theological connections between broad-scale socio-political principles and individual actions and the theological principles which provide the foundation for a Christian approach to the claim that the common good can justify torture. The conclusion is that torture can never be justified as an evil done for the common good and this does not rely on the commonly cited reasons of natural law, social justice, a shared humanity or human rights but more specifically and cogently on evangelical themes relating to the call to participate with Jesus Christ in the covenant community of God.

This paper appeared as “From the Gulag Archipelago to Guantanamo Bay: an evangelical assessment of torture” in Evangelical Review of Society and Politics (UK), Vol.2, No.2 (October 2008), 14-29.

The abstract and the first few paragraphs of the article appear below and the full text can be downloaded here:

Abstract

This paper examines the theological principles which provide the foundation for a Christian approach to torture and the argument for ‘doing evil in the name of good. It also considers the connection between individual acts of violence and broad-scale socio-political principles. There is an examination of two books related to torture: Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism. The former deals with radical communism and the latter with extreme capitalism. The conclusion reached is that torture can never be justified as an evil done for the common good. This does not rely on the commonly cited reasons of natural law, social justice, a shared humanity or human rights but more specifically and cogently on evangelical themes relating to the call to participate with Jesus Christ in the covenant community of God. The concept of the nation as a good in itself is challenged by the universal call to belong to God’s covenant community; the moral status of the human person as influenced by the imago dei is interpreted in a more communal fashion than usual; the possibility of a moral duty to perform an otherwise evil action is contrasted with the idealistic nature of Christian love; and the concept of human rights is explored in terms of a responsibility to God rather than as intrinsic rights belonging to individuals.

Although torture is a very individual and personal action with one person deliberately inflicting severe mental or physical pain and suffering on another, it is also an action which cannot be understood apart from the society in which it takes place.[2] This is not only because cultural and social values can prohibit, limit, permit or even encourage its practice but also because the idea of the common good provides the most common rational justification for what would otherwise be morally indefensible. This paper examines the argument for “doing evil in the name of good”, the theological connections between broad-scale socio-political principles and individual actions and the theological principles which provide the foundation for a Christian approach to the claim that the common good can justify torture. The conclusion is that torture can never be justified as an evil done for the common good and this does not rely on the commonly cited reasons of natural law, social justice, a shared humanity or human rights but more specifically and cogently on evangelical themes relating to the call to participate with Jesus Christ in the covenant community of God.

The kind of situation which is used to illustrate the moral dilemma of torture usually involves the capture of an undeniably evil person who has the information which can prevent a disaster which is due to happen very soon. This ‘ticking bomb’ scenario, the kind found in the Fox television series “24”, is used to argue that the innocent majority need to be protected by an interrogative process which can obtain the information needed to prevent the disaster. In reality, however, most torture is not undertaken as the result of this kind of utilitarian reasoning and there is even a danger that focusing on it will only serve to disguise the fact that most torture is done for more brutal and base reasons. Nonetheless, it is still necessary to address and debate the usual rationalization – however rarely it applies – because it serves to give significant moral cover to the general practice of torture.

A detailed Amnesty International review estimates that 75% of the world’s governments currently practice torture.[3] For those nations associated with the conflict in Iraq and ‘the coalition of the willing’ (the USA, the UK and Australia) the current form of debate extends from US President George Bush’s “Declaration of National Emergency by Reason of Certain Terrorist Acts” on September 14, 2001[4] through various government declarations, Abu Ghraib, Guantanomo Bay, ‘extraordinary rendition’ and ‘torture by proxy’ to (most recently, at the time of writing) the veto of legislation that would have banned the CIA from using a variety of interrogative techniques, such as water-boarding, which are internationally recognised as torture. The Australian connection with torture is generally less direct and involves David Hicks allegations of torture at Guantanamo Bay;[5] allegations (which have been denied) that an Australian consular official was present while former Guantanamo Bay inmate Mamdouh Habib was allegedly being tortured in Pakistan; the ABC’s Four Corners exposé in June 2007 claiming that Australian authorities have co-operated and will continue to co-operate with the CIA’s “rendition” program; public support for torture from some Australian academics;[6] the diminished rights of alleged terrorists in prison including, firstly, Dr Mohamed Haneef being treated as a terrorist (rather than as a prisoner on remand)[7] and subject to special conditions including being shackled and in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and, secondly,  the 12 people on trial in Melbourne whose conditions, according to the trial judge were so severe they were likely to cause mental illness; and, finally, the Howard government’s equivocation on whether some techniques (such as water-boarding) are torture and its difficulty with signing the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights .[8] These indicate that it is still important to keep debating issues related to torture in the public arena within Australia.

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[1] The Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment adopted by the by General Assembly of the United Nations in resolution 3452 (XXX) of 9 December 1975 says, “torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating him or other persons.” See http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/h_comp38.htm

 

[2] The Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment adopted by the by General Assembly of the United Nations in resolution 3452 (XXX) of 9 December 1975 says, “torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating him or other persons.” See http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/h_comp38.htm

[3] J. Quiroga, J.M. Jaranson,. “Politically-motivated torture and its survivors: A desk study review of the literature”. Torture 15 (2-3) (2005): 39-45.

[4] See the 1249 pages  of  Karen J. Greenberg and Joshua L. Dratel, eds,  The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib – full texts of the memoranda, reports, legal papers and testimonies about the use of torture and the explanations, justifications and arguments, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[5] Penelope Debelle, “US officer’s claim sparks new call for Hicks torture inquiry”, The Age, (2/8/2008)  and “Hicks ‘tortured’ in jail”, The Australian, (13/6/2008).

[6] Mirko Bagaric and Julie Clarke, Torture: When the Unthinkable is Morally Permissible, State University of New York Press, May 2007.

[7] According to Queensland Police and Corrective Services Minister Judy Spence.

[8] Which recognizes the competence of the UN committee to receive and consider communications from individuals subject to the jurisdiction of signatory states who claim to be victims of a violation by that State. See http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/a_opt.htm. The present government has indicated that it will sign the protocol.

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