Can torture -- the infliction of intolerable, even excruciating, pain to extract information from war criminals -- ever be justified?
Civilized society has answered in the negative. No, never. And torture is everywhere outlawed. Regimes that resort to it deny it, lest they be judged barbarous. Routine torture marks the regime that uses it as unworthy of rule or even respect. And rightly so.
But that does not address the moral question, a question that has arisen with the capture of Khalid Shaikh Muhammad. Among the crimes to which this monster has been linked are the plot to blow up a dozen airliners over the Pacific, the truck-bomb massacre at the U.S. embassies in Africa, 9/11 and slashing the throat of Daniel Pearl.
When Muhammad was seized in Pakistan, found with him was a treasure trove for CIA and FBI investigators: a computer, disks, tapes and cell phones with data pointing to planned new atrocities.
Muhammad is not talking. Yet, if he can be forced to talk, the information could save thousands. It was said to be two weeks of torture that broke the Al Qaeda conspirator who betrayed the plot to blow up those airliners. And if ever there was a case for torture, this excuse for a human being, Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, is it.
Thus, the question: Would it be moral to inflict pain on this beast to force him to reveal what he knows? Positive law prohibits it. However, the higher law, the moral law, the Natural Law permits it in extraordinary circumstances such as these.
Here is the reasoning. The morality of any act depends not only on its character, but on the circumstances and motive. Stealing is wrong and illegal, but stealing food for one's starving family is a moral act. Even killing is not always wrong. If a U.S. soldier had shot Muhammad to save 50 hostages, he would be an American hero.
But if it is permissible to take Muhammad's life to save lives, why is it impermissible to inflict pain on him to save lives?
Is the deliberate infliction of pain always immoral? Of course not. Twisting another kid's arm to make him tell where he hid your stolen bicycle is not wrong. Parents spank children to punish them and drive home the lessons of living good lives. Even the caning of that American kid in Singapore that caused a firestorm was not immoral.
Civil War doctors who amputated limbs without anesthesia on battlefields inflicted horrible pain. Why? For a higher good: to save the soldier's life, lest he die of gangrene.