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Kingdom of Priests

Andrew Sullivan now seeks to invest his hyperventilating stance on torture with the dignity of a papal encyclical. He complains: “The point of torture is to violate the integrity of the human person and to coerce the will itself.” As I’ve already told you, I have the impression that much of the prosecutorial fervor on this subject, while it includes some genuine moral anguish, is also an extension of a general vindictiveness that “Fathers” in the political realm evoke from “Sons.” 

What does the Torah say about torture in a war context?
The authentic view is, in a word, realist. I’ll save more detailed analysis for later. For now, let’s go to the conclusion of a serious thinker, Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, who teaches law at Emory University (from an article in the Jewish Week a few years ago).
He asks, for example, about “water torture in the hands of a team of skilled professionals who believe that this process will extract information of value and save the lives of others.”

Answer please?

[T]orture is permissible and consistent with halacha [Jewish law] in all situations where there is a proper, thoughtful military chain of command (the higher up a decision goes, the more thought tends to be put in) and no other reasonable alternative is available….[T]he wholesale suspension of the sanctity of life that occurs in wartime also entails the suspension of such secondary human rights issues as the notion of human dignity, the fear of the ethical decline of our soldiers, or even the historical fear of our ongoing victimhood.


Furthermore, the protection of our own soldiers and civilians undoubtedly trumps the claims of human dignity by those who seek to do us evil. International law, which Jewish law generally expects its adherents to obey, is limited in its scope to those who pledge themselves to its obedience. Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas nor al Qaeda are signatories to the Geneva Convention and do not conduct themselves in accordance with its provisions. They certainly do not treat prisoners they capture in accordance with its requirements (as shown by the recent murder of two captured American soldiers in Iraq). Thus we are not required as a matter of international law to treat their prisoners in accordance with the convention on the treatment of prisoners.

In sum, according to Jewish law and ethics, torture in the context of war is no more problematic than death itself, and is permitted by the general license to wage war. There is no logical reason that halacha would categorically prohibit duly authorized wartime torture as a method for acquiring information otherwise not available, in order to save lives in the future. Of course, not all conduct permitted as a matter of Jewish law is wise or prudent; the consideration of which policies work in what settings is fundamentally not a question of Jewish law or ethics, but one for military and political leadership.

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