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.
But if doctors can cut off limbs and open up hearts to save lives, and cops may shoot criminals to save lives, and the state may execute criminals, why cannot we commit a lesser evil -- squeezing the truth out of Muhammad -- for a far greater good: preventing the murder of innocents.
Before America had its vast prison system, petty criminals were locked in stocks in the town square as humiliation. Others were flogged. Barbaric, we now say. But was flogging immoral?
Today, many believe that public caning of young criminals, and their return to society for a second chance, would be far better for them and us. It might be a superior deterrent to crime than dumping them into the animal cages that are too many of American prisons, where young offenders face sexual abuse and are exposed to the daily example of how incorrigible criminals succeed and fail.
Who would not prefer a thrashing that might even put one in a hospital for a week to spending years in such a prison?
In short, while the instant recoiling that decent people exhibit to the idea of torturing Muhammad may mark them as progressive, it may also be a sign of fuzzy liberal thinking.
Many of these same folks are all for war on Iraq. Why? To rid the Middle East of a tyrant and his weapons of mass destruction. When John Paul II argues that, with inspections underway, such a war does not seem necessary, or thus moral, Ari Fleischer instructed the Holy Father that this war has to be fought to keep Saddam from giving horrible weapons to terrorists.
But if it is moral to go to war and kill thousands to prevent potential acts of terror on U.S. soil, why cannot we inflict pain on one man, if that would stop imminent acts of terror on U.S. soil? There is no evidence Saddam has murdered Americans, but there is a computer full that Muhammad has and has hatched plots to slaughter more.
What will history say about people who hold Harry Truman to be a moral hero for dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but recoil in horror from painfully extracting the truth out of one mass murderer to stop the almost certain slaughter of their own people?