Article Dec 18, 2014

Should Caesar torture Jesus?

In a recent article (7 Things Christians Should Know About Torture), I wrote that the recent Senate Report on the C.I.A.’s interrogation techniques should be the beginning, rather than the end, of the discussion on the morality and legality of torture. Since then I’ve been encouraged by the attempts to examine the issue (though I’ve been mostly disheartened by the outcomes supported).

For example, in a recent article in The Federalist, D.C. McAllister argues that “Yes, Christians Can Support Torture.” One of her primary claims is that,

If government officials have a known terrorist in custody, and it is certain that he has information needed to save lives, it is morally justified for them to use interrogative torture to get the information necessary to protect innocent life.

Her formulation of the issue is helpfully clarifying, though the use of the term “known terrorist” is unnecessarily limiting. Are we only justified in using interrogative torture when the person is “known” to be a terrorist? What if we know they have information necessary to protect innocent life but they cannot legitimately be labeled a “terrorist”?

A set of more applicable terms for discussion about national self-defense and the use of force would be “culpable aggressor” and “culpable bystander.” We can define a culpable aggressor as a person who is performing or is planning to carry out a culpable act for which they are criminally responsible, and for which the actor lacks a moral justification or excuse. An example would be a kidnapper who is planning to take a child hostage. A culpable bystander is a person who has knowledge about an act of culpable aggression and is morally obligated to reveal that information so that the harm may be ended or prevented. An example would be someone who knows a kidnapping is soon to take place.

Let’s substitute “culpable bystander” for “known terrorist” and label McAllister’s position the “Torture Claim”:

If government officials have a culpable bystander in custody, and it is certain that he has information needed to save lives, it is morally justified for them to use interrogative torture to get the information necessary to protect innocent life.

This is a reasonably well-formulated version of a position many Americans hold in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, so let’s use it to examine our moral intuitions about interrogative torture.

Let’s begin with a thought experiment. In our representative case, government officials have a culpable bystander in custody, and are certain he has information needed to save lives, specifically, information about a plot to assassinate a nation’s highest political leader.

According to supporters of the Torture Claim, such as McAllister, it is morally justified for the government officials to use interrogative torture to get the information necessary since it will protect innocent life. But if we accept the Torture Claim, we have to accept all relevant conclusions that can be drawn from similar representative cases.

Consider, for instance, the following logically sound conclusion that can be derived from a straightforward application of the Torture Claim:

1. Intelligence sources within the Roman Empire suspect an assassination attempt is being plotted against Caesar Augustus.

2. They have heard the followers of Jesus claim he is a God, and that he would thus have access to knowledge about potential assassination plots against Caesar even if he were not involved. (The incarnate Jesus would not have to be omniscient to have access to the knowledge of the Father. From a reading of Matthew 4, we can reasonably assume such knowledge would be given to him if he were to ask.)

3. Access to such information is enough to make Jesus a culpable bystander, so he is taking into custody.

4. If Jesus refuses to reveal the plot against Caesar, the Romans will use interrogative torture to get the information necessary to protect innocent life.

The inevitable conclusion for Christians who support the Torture Claim is that the Romans would be morally justified in torturing Jesus.

We can also conclude that the German government would have been justified in torturing Dietrich Bonhoeffer to uncover details about a plot to kill Adolph Hitler; that Saddam Hussein would have been justified in torturing women to foil a plot against himself; and that the KGB would have been justified in torturing hundreds of people to defend the Soviet Empire. All are reasonable conclusions to be drawn from the moral claim.

Please understand that I’m not making an argumentum ad consequentiam; my position is not that the Torture Claim is moral or immoral based on whether it leads to desirable or undesirable consequences. My assertion is interrogative torture is immoral for a variety of other reasons and that this thought experiment merely illuminates our moral intuitions about the issue.

We can gain insight into our own moral perspective by examining the issue outside of our narrow, U.S.-centric focus. Americans who defend the Torture Claim likely do not object to torturous interrogation if our culpable bystander has access to knowledge about an assassination attempt on a U.S. President by al-Qaeda. But moral rules aren’t culturally specific. Our rule has to apply to all relevant situations, and not only to threats against countries we admire, such as the United States.

If it is morally justified for the government to use interrogative torture to get the information necessary to protect innocent life, then it would be morally justified for Caesar to torture Christ.

For Christians to have an honest discussion about the morality of interrogative torture, this is the conclusion on which we should begin the debate.

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