President Obama had the chance last night to slam the door on torture, but did not take it. One can agree or disagree with him on this, but he claimed that his opposition to torture was not based on an absolute principle, but upon it being generally contrary to American values and ineffective.
Obama did not take the chance to foreclose on torture as a potentially acceptable tool under certain circumstances, even when offered that chance to do so by reporter, Mark Knoller. Knoller asked: “If part of the United States were under imminent threat, could you envision yourself ever authorizing the use of those enhanced interrogation techniques?”
President Obama responded:
“Here’s what I can tell you, that the public reports and the public justifications, for these techniques, which is that we got information, from these individuals that were subjected to these techniques, doesn’t answer the core question which is, could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these techniques? And it doesn’t answer the broader question, are we safer as a consequence of having used these techniques? …. And there have been no circumstances during the course of this first hundred days in which I have seen information that would make me second-guess the decision that I’ve made.”
In other words, if he saw information which suggested that torture was efffective, he might change his mind. I applaud the president’s nuanced approach. It’s rarely seen, but actually reflects a deep wisdom from Jewish tradition i.e. the ability to take strong stands without falling prey to moral absolutisms. It’s easy to say that torture is wrong and that whatever tradition we hold dear forbids it. I wish it were that simple.
Imagine for a moment that you knew the life of someone you loved; your child for example, would be saved by information extracted by torture. Are you really certain that you might not suddenly find some justification which allowed it “just this once”? Anyone answering “no” too quickly is either kidding themselves or doesn’t know the meaning of loving someone close to themselves.
None of which is to suggest that I am in favor of torture. But I am more concerned about the endless moralizing around tough issues which makes them seem too easy too fast. In fact, that’s the style of argument which typifies those who defend the use of torture.
Their arguments pose the question about saving a life as if we could know with certainty beforehand that the torture for which they advocate would save a life in immediate danger. I wish it were that simple, but it rarely, if ever is.
My experience is that any decision about issues which involve taking another life, or even threatening to, leave you haunted even under the best of circumstances. I would hope that whatever answer people offer to this question leaves them feeling so, at least a little.
Talmudic tradition preserves that kind of haunted feeling, even in the face of what the Rabbis deem to be justifiable action in capital cases – precisely the cases where we are most eager to get rid of it. Unlike our preference for unanimity on the part of the jury in capital cases, under rabbinic law, a unanimous jury could not impose the death penalty.
It boils down to the premise that if everyone sees things the same way, then everybody is probably missing something. Not to mention that having a less than unanimous court assured that the day following the execution the judges had to confront each other, some thinking their colleagues were murderers and others thinking their colleagues were fools. Each side haunted by the decision taken.
The very notion of torture sickens me. I am almost 100% certain that it must always be opposed. But I live with the awareness that if it was my kid and I genuinely believed that torture would save their lives, I might think differently. I hope that those who favor torture will wonder how they would feel if the ones torturing their kid believed the exact same thing.