Windows and Doors

Windows and Doors


Torah, Torture and Obama’s News Conference

posted by Brad Hirschfield

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.



  • New Age Cowboy

    That was probably the most intelligent take on this whole “torture” thing I’ve read yet.

  • DML

    I really don’t think that we can condone torture, even in those ‘exceptional’ cases. That idea basically defends all the torture that took place during the Bush administration. Exceptional terrorists at GITMO… so we were told.
    From my understanding, historical evidence discounts the value of torture. I’m not sure what was really learned from the Spanish Inquisition either. The goal wasn’t to learn anything, but to strike fear.
    That was the same goal for the Bush administration. Their tactics of keeping these special non combatants identities secret are even reminiscent of the ‘Natch und Nebel’ tactics from WWII.

  • Your Name

    Torture is a violent act.But,the question is,what is that kind of torture to you.Is it physical,mental,emotional,psychological,etc.?
    Sometimes you may interpret an act as torture but it is not,it all
    depends how you take it.To me,if i am asking questions or just
    sharing story with my friend and compare this and that with my own,that is not called torture to someone listener of the conversation.It is just a matter of self expression on the part of
    the person asking quetions to the other,maybe that person is just
    seeking attention or assurance,and if there is any reaction or opinion
    that she can gather from that conversation,then at least,if the reaction is very convenient and life saving,that can satisfy her purpose of inflicting that so called torture.We should be very understanding always to anyone who tries to ask question,who knows
    your answer can give her a peaceful answers to his/her doubts not
    to mention the limited freedom she/he has.Be understanding always!
    And it is not right to assume schizophrenia as the result of that
    person asking let’s put it plain survey.Got me?Or maybe,one reason
    of his/her survey is just to know how her listener reacts and by that
    she can also satisfy her question to doubts.Think positive to people
    you say you care and love.The worst,ever that we can commit to hurt others is to assume they are schizophrenic,by which,i understand
    is for certified physicians or psychiatrist to disclose.Again,that is
    wrong.In conclusion,we all have freedom of expression,that is only the
    freedom i can enjoy at the moment.Be gracious.

  • Robert R.

    Rabbi, I appreciate the eloquence of your statement. I fear slippery slopes, but I tend to agree that there may be times torture is morally just. The problems arise when we aren’t conflicted about it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tincottage Robyn

    Obama brings to mind another very wise leader…. Solomon. You expressed so well what I have been trying to verbalize to my husband. Obama is not just being evasive or “playing politics.” He is not just being diplomatic (though he IS being diplomatic). But he is being honest about the complexity of the issues we face. He is both affirming what he/we claim we believe as Americans and allowing for a margin of error by showing mercy to those who may or may not have crossed those moral lines in their efforts to prevent far greater travesty upon us all. To use a phrase Obama himself sometimes uses, he is not an “either/or” kind of guy. He realizes sometimes, we are in a “both/and” situation. He holds firmly to what he believes to be right, when he knows what is right, and yields the final judgment to the Lord in areas where we all have a hard time agreeing.
    When he says a certain question is “above his pay grade,” he is not being arrogant, but humble. He is saying, “I’m not God. I do not feel equipped to answer that.” Even in the areas where I hope he will alter his approach, I highly respect his reasons for the choices he makes… which is often to allow individuals to make their own decisions and let God be their judge, and to work in other areas to improve the environment so they might feel less inclined to make the drastic choices they are making.

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