Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Thought For The Day

BBC Radio 4: Tuesday 11th August

Torture is cruelty to the helpless.

The question of torture is once again a subject of political debate. It's important because it goes to the heart of all the moral dilemmas the liberal society has to face when confronting terrorism.

So, has our government ever directly authorised it, or indirectly condoned it - by suggesting questions that can be put to detainees in foreign jurisdictions, perhaps? Places where we know the line between legitimate questioning and torture is sometimes crossed. Ministers and the head of MI6 have said firmly that the British government does not use and is not complicit in the use of torture. Though we can never be absolutely certain about how every piece of information that comes our way is gathered.

But it's not immediately obvious why torturing an enemy is so wrong. After all, suppose someone we have captured in Afghanistan knows where roadside bombs have been planted, why should we not use physical or psychological pain to extract the information that would save many British and Afghan lives?

How do you explain our stance to an eighteen-year-old who is about to go out on foot patrol in Helmand province?

There are pragmatic arguments against torture - if we use torture the enemy might do the same - though in the case of terrorists, they have no compunction anyway. But why is it so morally wrong to use torture to get critical information from an enemy, when taking their life in battle is, if not morally good, at least morally permissible. If killing can be the lesser of evils, why not torture?

But posing the matter like this is misleading. In war, authorised and supervised by proper authority, lives are taken. In torture, lives are abused. In war, combatants inflict pain and even death on other combatants. In the prison cell, pain is inflicted on the defenceless. And that, crucially, is why torture is so wrong: it is cruelty towards the helpless.

Of course, Christianity has been both a source of our moral revulsion against torture, and also an example of how easily we can resort to it. For although Christian faith has as its focus the image of the bruised and bleeding body of a tortured man, in the past, Christians have often justified the use of torture, not least the torture of one another. If we are to profit from Christian history, we need to hold before ourselves not just the image of the crucified, but also the images of those who were abused in his name.

The life of that young soldier in Helmand may be put at greater risk because we do not employ or condone torture, directly or indirectly. But if the liberal society is worth defending, we need to understand that torture would undermine the very values that distinguish us from the terrorist. Whatever the gains, it would degrade our moral character and identity.

Rev Dr Alan Billings

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