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Torture: A Collection
Torture: A Collection

Oxford University Press, 2004
328 pp., 51.93

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Lesser Evil: Political Ethics In An Age Of Terror
Lesser Evil: Political Ethics In An Age Of Terror
Michael Ignatieff
Penguin Canada, 2004
224 pp., 100.00

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Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ
Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ
William T. Cavanaugh
Wiley-Blackwell, 1998
286 pp., 68.95

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Stephen Lake


The Lesser Evil?

Torture lite.

Through the reflective glass, we see the suspect in the adjacent interrogation room. He is sitting erect, wearing a black leather jacket, looking unnaturally confident, even tough, while cuffed to a chair. A cold blue ribbon of neon light casts an eerie glow on the room.

"Remember," Agent Dessler says to her colleague, "he's an ex-Marine. He won't cave easily."

Eyes fixed, face stern, Agent Manning replies, "I just need to establish that even though we are in a government building, I'm willing to go as far as it takes."

"How are you going to start?" Dessler asks.

"I'll use Richards"—and the camera pans to a man lurking in a dark corner of the room.

"OK," answers Dessler.

Agent Richards, carrying a pale blue case, follows Manning into the interrogation room.

The cocky suspect, Joe Prado, announces to Manning: "Told you, I'm not talkin' to you, pal. I haven't been charged with anything. I haven't done anything wrong." Prado was just seen assisting a known terrorist, whom he inexplicably shot and killed.

"We both know that's a lie, so let's not waste each other's time. Whaddya say, Joe?"

"I'm not sayin' anything to you," Prado insists.

And with that, Richards flips open the case and pulls out a syringe.

If you watch Fox Television Network's edge-of-your-seat anti-terrorism series 24, you will recognize the above scene from season four. You will have also been to the interrogation room before. Numerous times. In this past season alone.

The fictitious Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) portrayed on 24 responds with any means necessary to terrorist crises. It is customary for Richards to administer the "truth serum" and various sensory deprivation techniques, while lead character, Agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), will beat, shoot, and otherwise employ extreme measures to force suspects to disclose crucial information. Coercion, including torture, is routinely applied and justified by the logic of the so-called "ticking time-bomb." The fourth season of 24 delivered the ultimate apocalyptic storyline: CTU raced to stop Islamic terrorists from launching a nuclear warhead at an American city. Under those conditions, who could object to breaking the law—and a few of Joe Prado's fingers?

With Hollywood-style Realpolitik, 24 raises old questions in a new context. Questions about "dirty hands" or the "lesser evil" are probably as old as politics itself. Sometimes it appears as if the expedient, or even good thing to do, may require recourse to immoral means. The name of Machiavelli is forever associated with such casuistry. The new setting of such questions—countering terrorism—has provoked a lively debate about the choice between security and civil liberties and is now associated with the names Abu Ghraib and Guantànamo Bay. May a person be coerced to the breaking point if our national security appears to demand it?

Most of the time, most of us think, governing does not require such choices because with a little imagination and a little cunning—all within the bounds of morality—laws can be passed and enforced. And ought to be. But what if the post-9/11 world is, somehow, different? If our enemies do not play by the rules, must we? Or may we bend them? It is here that our normal moral intuitions are put to the test.

Sanford Levinson's anthology Torture: A Collection showcases the robust debate about the lesser evil, in which Christian voices are playing a small but not insignificant part. The most provocative proposal comes from Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. He advocates court-ordered torture warrants for cracking the tough nut in a time of emergency. Most contributors, however, are reluctant to normalize torture through an official warranting process. Judge Richard Posner, for instance, prefers that courts consider the "necessity defense" in prosecuting government agents who go too far in fighting terror. Elaine Scarry, who launches a full-scale critique of her Harvard colleague, argues that a principled appeal to necessity may be morally, if not legally, exculpatory.

The prominent human rights theorist Michael Ignatieff takes on these issues in his Gifford Lectures, published as The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. With Rawlsian aplomb, he develops stringent criteria under which we might undertake the lesser evil calculus. But he has not pleased anyone. Critics on the left accuse Ignatieff of selling out to the Bush Administration1; but later, much to his outrage and dismay,2 the kinds of considerations he advocated appear to have lost out entirely during internal debates about detainee treatment at Abu Ghraib and Guantanàmo Bay.

But what about the followers of Christ? What does the Christian ethicist have to say about these matters? In general, we acknowledge all humans as bearers of the image of God. Our Lord further instructs us not to repay evil with evil and to love our enemies (Matt. 5). It is respect for these teachings that motivates both Christian pacifist and just war traditions in their common insistence that the enemy be treated fairly and humanely, and that even in a time of war there are certain means—such as torture—that are evil as such (malum in se). For Christians, even in terrorist emergencies, is there ever a place for the lesser evil?

In her contribution to the Levinson anthology, University of Chicago professor Jean Bethke Elshtain confesses:

Before the watershed event of September 11, 2001, I had not reflected critically on the theme of torture. I was one of those who listed it in the category of "never." It did not seem to me possible that the United States would face some of the dilemmas favored by moral theorists in their hypothetical musings on whether torture could ever be morally permitted. Too, reprehensible regimes tortured. End of question. Not so, as it turns out.

For Elshtain, the Christian ethicist now ought to reexamine the case for the lesser evil more carefully, recognizing the harsh and dangerous world in which we live.

While Elshtain decries Dershowitz's torture warrant proposal as "a stunningly bad idea … up-ending the moral universe: that which is rightly taboo now becomes just another piece in the armementarium of the state," she admits that "there is no absolute prohibition to what some call torture." Her primary concern is definitional. There is a problem, she argues, with "the word itself," torture: "If everything from a shout to the severing of a body part is 'torture,' the category is so indiscriminate as to not permit of those distinctions on which the law and moral philosophy rest. If we include all forms of coercion or manipulation within 'torture,' we move in the direction of indiscriminate moralism and legalism—a kind of deontology run amok." For the sake of precision, she argues, we ought to limit use of the term "torture" only to horrific torments that everyone would consider as such: rape, mutilation, electrical shocks, the rack, crucifixion and cruelty to a suspect's spouse or children. Just as there are degrees of murder, from manslaughter to murder in the first degree, so too is there is a range of coercive tactics. Thus she endorses Mark Bowden's notion of "torture lite,"3 admitting that shouting, trickery, sensory and sleep deprivation, hooding and stripping, and even moderate physical coercion (slaps, shoves, collaring, etc.) may be allowed. For when it comes to defending innocent lives from terrorist attack, it is "moralistic 'code fetishism'" to proscribe all forms of what the Geneva Conventions call cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.4

In short, Elshtain appears to sympathize with the legal position eventually taken by the Bush White House, that there is a real difference between banned torture and legitimate torture lite. Ultimately, she concludes, "I would want officials to rank their moral purity as far less important in the overall scheme of things than eliciting information that might spare my child or grandchild and all those other children and grandchildren." They should also be prepared to defend their actions in court—and pay the penalty, if unjustified.

What are we to make of Elshtain's position? The first thing to note is that she bases it mainly on an appeal to our common sensibilities. It has the feel of Justice Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity: I know it when I see it. She does not (and I suspect it is not possible to) offer a univocal lexical definition of what counts as "torture" versus "mere coercion," so we could sort the offending acts from the benign. This is a strange feature of a distinction she claims ought to serve for greater legal and moral precision.

She also neglects what John T. Parry offers, namely a phenomenologically richer description when, observing the history of the practice, he puts torture in its more complex political, sociological and psychological contexts.5 Torture involves a relationship of domination and submission; it serves to fragment social groups and instill fear in the surrounding population; it is, as Elaine Scarry has argued, "world destroying" for the subject.

This raises, I think, a more significant question for Elshtain's distinction: Is it not possible that the cumulative effect of many acts of torture lite would amount to torture proper? A steady diet of hooding, sleep and food deprivation, nakedness and shame, exposure to severe temperatures, deception, and intimidation can surely have the effect of creating servility, creating a environment of fear, and destroying a subject's world. Here it is telling to note that Elshtain tends to associate torture with singular acts of extreme physical torment; but if Parry and Scarry are correct, the cumulative effect of persistent torture lite—which plays as much on the mind as on the body—can be equally devastating to the person as a whole.

Christian ethicists (including Elshtain herself) hold that the image of God resides in the whole person, who is a complex, integrated whole of body and mind. If this richer understanding of coercion is correct, it might, then, appear better to draw the lines precisely where the Geneva Conventions did, putting torture and torture lite in their respective categories while proscribing both. Even if necessity drives agents beyond the pale, even if our courts allow for such a legal defense, the moral line remains clear in this murky terrain. To my mind, this line of reasoning hardly counts as "moral code fetishism"—least of all, for the Christian ethicist.

An emerging voice in Roman Catholic theology strikes a markedly different tone. In Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ and more recent publications,6 William T. Cavanaugh admonishes Christians to reject lesser evil thinking entirely. The Christian's response to torture, he maintains, is to unite as the body of Christ and to practice, instead, a Eucharistic politics of peaceable resistance to power. In the Eucharist, the Church is united as the body of Christ in celebration of the Lord Jesus Christ, tortured and slain by the powers of this world. In his own, typical words:

The job of the church is to tell the truth: this is not an exceptional nation and we do not live in exceptional times, at least as the world describes it. Everything did not change on 9/11; everything changed on 12/25. When the Word of God became incarnate in human history, when he was tortured to death by the powers of this world, and when he rose to give us new life—it was then that everything changed. Christ is the exception that becomes the rule of history.7

Eucharistic resistance responds differently in the face of terror. By it,

we are made capable of loving our enemies, of treating the other as a member of our own body, the body of Christ. The time that Christ inaugurates is not a time of exceptions to the limits of violence, but a time when the kingdoms of this world will pass away before the inbreaking kingdom of God.

A crucial feature of Cavanaugh's approach is to contextualize torture. He would agree with Parry's broader understanding of the phenomenon, and go further. Theologically and historically, torture must be located within the modern state's battle for political supremacy over other competing authorities—especially over religion. Here he builds on a controversial narrative he developed some years earlier,8 which rejects the common view that the Wars of Religion necessitated the rise of the modern secular state as an adjudicator of conflict and keeper of the peace. Rather, "what was at issue in these wars was the very creation of religion as a set of privately held beliefs without direct political relevance …[which] was necessitated by the new State's need to secure absolute sovereignty over its subjects."9

In Torture and Eucharist, Cava-naugh illustrates this point through a case study of torture and the Roman Catholic Church in Pinochet's Chile. He argues that in typical modern fashion, the church tragically accepted a lesser evil tradeoff with the modern, secular state. In a kind of Gnostic deal with the devil, the church gained conditional "spiritual authority" over "Chilean souls" so long as it did not contest the state's unconditional sovereignty over the body and the means of physical coercion. But eventually, when the cycle of violence threatened to destroy the Chilean republic, the church corrected course. It rejected the terms of the modern compromise and sought to recover its Eucharistic unity as the body of Christ. Only then was it finally capable of resisting the practice of torture by the Pinochet regime—and helping to bring it to an end.

The message is clear: If the post-9/11 world forces such choices on the body of Christ, we ought to reject them, too. Instead of security at all costs, Christians ought to embrace our nation's friends and enemies—and reject torture as a means to our own security.

Cavanaugh's message is provocative and stirring. At its best, it is, I believe, a prophetic call to the church to move to a deeper and more rigorous denial of a politics rooted in violence. Nevertheless, I have yet to find in his writings10 a systematic reckoning with the Pauline teaching in Romans 13, that the governing authorities are God's "agents … who do not bear the sword for naught." Cavanaugh readily embraces Paul's teaching about the body of Christ and its mission, but what of his teaching about the state and its mission? It may be that the state often immorally rushes to violent means, but does violence ever have a role? Elsewhere, Cavanaugh appears to endorse just war ethics,11 but it is not clear how its affirmation of restrained political violence in the service of justice fits within his Eucharistic politics, which appears to eschew violence entirely. Perhaps the most plausible interpretation is that he wants a more rigorous, morally idealistic application of just war thinking than Elshtain, George Weigel, or some other theorists have offered. But for that application to have a more solid grounding, I think Cavanaugh will need to integrate Paul's teaching about the body of Christ with his teaching about the limited sovereignty over earthly affairs that God does grant to the state.

Stephen Lake is chairman and assistant professor of philosophy at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois. This essay draws from a larger research project, entitled "Ethics After 9/11," graciously funded by a Trinity Summer Research Grant. Visit him on the web at drlake.blogspot.com.

1. See, for example, www.opendemocracy.net/democracy-americanpower/jefferson_2679.jsp

2. "Mirage in the Desert," The New York Times Magazine, June 27, 2004.

3. A term Bowden brought into common currency with his important article, "The Dark Art of Interrogation," The Atlantic Monthly, October 2003.

4. Unfortunately, Elshtain mistakenly asserts that the Geneva Conventions make "no distinctions of any kind" between torture and these lesser forms of coercion such as shouting, sleep deprivation, and the like. But as John T. Parry's essay in the Levinson volume makes clear, mere "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" is placed by the Conventions in another category, which, however, signatories are also bound to "prevent."

5. Levinson, ed., p. 152ff.

6. See for example "Taking Exception: When Torture Becomes Thinkable," The Christian Century, January 25, 2005, p. 9.

7. Ibid., p 10.

8. See " 'A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House': The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State," Modern Theology, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Oct. 1995), pp. 397–420.

9. Ibid., p 398.

10. Including his book Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism (Continuum, 2002).

11. See "At Odds with the Pope: Legitimate Authority and Just Wars," Commonweal, May 23, 2003: p. 11.

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