June 23, 2004
There’s been quite a bit of talk about torture over the past several weeks. Justifications for it, differeng definitions of it…
One of the most compelling (and dangerous, in my mind) arguments in favor of loosened restrictions is the “ticking time bomb” scenerio. Imagine a time bomb is planted somewhere in the Sears Tower. In twenty minutes, it will go off, destroying the building and everyone in it. In custody is a man who’s confessed to planting the bomb, but offers no other information on its location or how to disarm it. Would it be worth torturing the man to save those people? Is his physical and mental comfort worth their lives?
The natural consequence of this line of questioning is a dissolving of the barriers that keep us from harming others. We may believe that they hold us back at times, but adhering to them, voluntarily, also keeps us from becoming the very evil we claim to fight. These guidelines are for our own spiritual and psychological wholeness as much as the physical comfort of prisoners.
If I’m the man who’s questioning the terrorist mentioned in the hypothetical above, how highly do I value my own life? If I truly, honestly believed that any price would be worth the lives of those in danger, I would be willing to accept the legal consequences of the actions I deemed necessary. President Jefferson dealt with the core principle – personal responsibility – when he authorized the Louisiana Purchase. At that time, the President had no such authority, and he gave it the thumbs-up without Congress’ permission. It was controversial, and Jefferson took full responsibility for acting in a fashion unauthorized by the Constitution.
Took responsibility for is a key phrase. Although he knew he was acting outside of the bounds set for him by our nation’s founding documents, he felt it was necessary. So necessary, in fact, that he was willing to suffer whatever personal, professional, and political consequences followed. Are those who want to loosen restrictions on torture willing to accept those consequences? From the looks of it, no. In those exceptional “ticking time bomb” moments, there should not be any easy choices. Offering them will only make it easier for brutality and opression to bleed into every aspect of our culture, our legal system, and our treatment of those we suspect as enemies.