In Defense of Torture

Posted: Dec 13, 2014 12:01 AM

I’m a big fan of the television show Arrow, based on the D.C. Comics character Green Arrow. On a recent episode, they flashbacked to the character’s formative years, when he was being trained in Hong Kong to become the hero he is today.

The Arrow is charged with “interrogating” a known terrorist, who has planted five bombs in densely populated areas across the city, which are due to go off simultaneously any moment. Of course, the terrorist won’t give up the information willingly, so the Arrow has a choice to make. Is he willing to do “what it takes” to make the terrorist talk before innocent lives are endangered?

The answer is no.

So he begs the captured terrorist to tell him where the bombs are, but the terrorist remains silent. Until suddenly there are several bright flashes in the background, followed by voluminous screams throughout the city. The bombs are going off, and many innocents are being murdered or maimed as a result.

The lesson the Arrow learns from this moment is that sometimes in this fallen world there is an evil so extreme, so willing to watch the world burn, that it cannot be confronted through traditional mechanisms. And he vows never to allow that to happen on his watch again, which explains why each episode of the show features the Arrow paying homage to Jack Bauer.

I thought about this as the post-9/11 debate over water-boarding and so-called known “enhanced interrogation techniques” was renewed this week, thanks to the release of what’s being called the “CIA torture report.”

Here’s the question that never gets answered: what is torture?

I consulted my trusty 1828 edition of Webster’s dictionary for a definition. I use this one because it was written by Noah Webster himself, and isn’t saddled with the baggage of pagan political correctness.

Noah Webster defined “torture” as:

Extreme pain; anguish of body or mind; pang; agony; torment. Ghastly spasm or racking torture….Severe pain inflicted judicially, either as a punishment for a crime, or for the purpose of extorting a confession from an accused person.

I put the term “judicially” in bold because here’s how Noah Webster defined that word:

The forms of legal justice; as a sentence judicially declared. By way of penalty or judgment; as, to be judicially punished.


Here is the man known as the “father of American education,” who was also a devout Christian that often used Biblical language and citations in his dictionary definitions, describing some forms of torture as “legal justice.”

When the New Testament talks about “love your neighbor as yourself” it is talking about how we treat each other as individuals. It is not talking about civic justice. Otherwise our prisons would be empty since almost everyone in them claims to be innocent, and who among us wants to be held accountable for our actions? In fact, that same New Testament also says this about godly government:

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.(Romans 13:3-4 ESV)

Let’s play out these words in the real world.

Suppose a policeman, duly appointed by the recognized authority to punish wrongdoers as the Bible just described, came upon a home invasion and tried to stop it. Unbeknownst to him, though, is the fact that not all of the invaders are already in the home. So as he enters the premises he’s ambushed from behind by the evildoer who was charged with standing watch. He subdues that evildoer, but has to empty his gun during the melee to do so.

He next hears the screams of those being attacked. So he grabs the only weapon he can find, a sharp knife, and sneaks up on the other two from behind. He kills one of them instantly, but the other assailant begins to fight back and knocks the officer off his feet. Now the only way the officer can stop the invader from causing harm to these innocent homeowners is to hit the attacker with whatever he can, wherever he can.

So he grabs a chard of broken glass and digs it into the Achilles Heel of the attacker, but that still doesn’t stop him. In fact, the attacker doesn’t stop until the policeman repeatedly plunges the glass into that sensitive area, and the pain becomes so severe the attacker is finally subdued.

Now I ask you: is that “severe pain” torture or is that justice?

That is justice. Just as its justice when defensive warfare against an enemy causes some of them to have their eye sockets or limbs blown off, also causing severe pain. All done to preserve innocent life.

What we’re really against here is sadism, which is inflicting extreme pain for perverse pleasure, persecution, and/or vindictiveness. Torture, as we’re offended by it today, isn’t an action—it’s a motive. It’s violence for the sake of evil, not violence for the sake of stopping evil.

As a Christian, I don’t believe the “ends justifies the means,” which is why I agree with Noah Webster. This must be done “judicially,” within the duly-appointed process the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” demands. That is the proper, just, and primary role of government—defending the innocent by punishing evil.

But now that we’ve abandoned those natural laws, we’ve lost touch with the true nature and origins of justice. We’re now left with emotional arguments, such as Jihadists who already strap bombs to young boys in the name of Allah will suddenly treat us even worse if we judicially interrogate them. That is frankly a ridiculous argument, coming largely from people who reject the natural law, and are a law unto themselves. No names mentioned—John McCain.

I respect those who respect the natural law and disagree with me on this, and look forward to their feedback. However, to those whose arguments against my thinking are emotion-based, I ask you this emotion-based question:

If it was your loved one in the cross-hairs of these Jihadists, wouldn’t you want the authorities to do what it took to extract the information that would save them?