Sunday, January 29, 2017

On board with waterboarding?

I'm going to comment on this:

i) A general problem is that throughout his article he uses the prejudicial word "torture", even though he's taking specific aim at waterboarding. But since he has just one particular technique in view, why not use that designation throughout?

ii) "Torture" has a range of connotations that may or may not intersect with waterboarding. Torture can be physical or psychological. Suppose you know that the terrorist has a phobia.

iii) Physical torture ranges along a continuum, viz. sleep deprivation.

There are different motivations for torture:

• Terrorize, demoralize

• Humiliate, dishonor

• Punish

• Extort criminal confession

• Sheer sadism

These motivations aren't morally equivalent to waterboarding a high-level terrorist to obtain intel regarding terrorist plots and networks. 

The government endorsement of torture should be seen as a watershed in our society, marking our descent into a barbarism previously unthinkable. I was raised in an Army family and well remember the revulsion against torture that permeated the American military culture. As a young officer in the 1980's, it was made clear that we were never to permit torture by our soldiers. Teaching an ethics class at West Point in the 1990's, our curriculum was uniformly opposed to torture. Well do I remember my grandfather, a World War II tank general, insisting that how America wins her wars is just as important that she wins her wars. "If we become like our enemies in order to win a war, we have in fact lost the war," he insisted. Such noble and humane sentiments seem no longer to have a place in our increasingly barbarized society. 

i) I like Pastor Phillips. But that whole paragraph begs the question. It's an attempt to shame people into agreeing with him. And it's counterproductive. 

ii) Moreover, appealing to what he was taught in ethics class at West Point is not an argument. He's simply giving the reader the opinion of his professor. He doesn't reproduce the reasons the professor gave. So that's an illicit argument from authority. 

iii) Furthermore, it doesn't occur to him that perhaps his attitude is the result of social conditioning. 

Most alarming to me has been the support of waterboarding and other forms of torture among evangelical Christians. To my surprise and indignation, instead of applying the obvious implications of the Sixth Commandment, Christian leaders have lined up in support of waterboarding.

Perhaps because they don't think that's an "obvious" implication of the Sixth Commandment. You can't just browbeat people into agreeing with you.

let me offer three arguments for the Christian rejection of waterboarding and other forms of torture: 
The torture of non-combatants violates God's Sixth Commandment, "You shall not murder" (Ex. 20:13). As Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, this commandment extends beyond murder to doing or even wishing harm against another (Mt. 5:21-22). Killing or harming armed soldiers is not murder, since the Bible commends just war.

So he says harming someone violates the Sixth Commandment. But in the very next sentence he says killing or harming armed soldiers doesn't violate the Sixth Commandment. He begins with a general principle, then appears to contradict his own principle in the very next breath. 

He doesn't explain how his exception is consistent with the general principle he invokes. Does he mean the general principle is suspended in that situation? Or is it just a prima facie obligation or pro tanto principle which may be overridden if it conflicts with a higher obligation? 

Why it's consistent with the prohibition against homicide to harm or kill armed combatants, but inconsistent with the same principle to harm a high-level terrorist to extract life-saving information? 

But torture inflicts terrible suffering on those who no longer pose a threat as a combatant. Whether or not it is true that "torture works" (and many legitimate sources have questioned this), the reality is that torture is a grossly immoral assault on divine image-bearers who no longer pose an armed threat. 

But that doesn't even attempt to engage the justification for coercive interrogation. Suppose we capture a high-level terrorist. In his position, he knows the command structure of the network, he knows where terrorist cells are located, he knows other leaders in the network, and he knows terrorist plans. 

The question, then, is whether a civil magistrate has the duty to harm him, if necessary, to prevent harm to innocent men, women, and children. 

No, he doesn't pose an armed threat, but what makes that the only morally germane consideration? Although he personally may no longer be a threat, his network remains a threat, and he has vital information about that life-threatening network.

The use of torture undermines the moral basis for just war. America has traditionally waged war for the sake of a better peace. Yet torture inspires anger and hatred for generations. America has traditionally understood that behind the military conflict is a battle for hearts and minds. But how can we fight terror - which is rooted in hatred - when we are torturing the fathers, sons, and brothers of an already hate-filled enemy? The reality is that how we treat prisoners of war is directly related to the justice of our cause in war. And the justice of our cause in war is always a matter of strategic as well as moral significance. 

i) Once again, that just begs the question. Devout Muslims hate the infidel. Moreover, Muslims have contempt for a weak opponent. 

ii) Furthermore, his comparison is confused. He's operating with a POW model, where once an enemy combatant is subdued, Geneva Protections kick in.

iii) But terrorists are unlawful combatants. Moreover, a high-level terrorist isn't equivalent to a low-level grunt you capture on the battlefield. Phillips is ignoring some important differences.

iv) Moreover, Geneva Conventions aren't equivalent to moral absolutes. I think the rationale behind the Geneva Conventions is pragmatic: we will treat your POWs humanely to incentivize you to treat our POWs humanely. 

The sanction of torture betrays the military's moral obligation for the ethical development of our soldiers. Do senior officers no longer have a moral duty for the character formation of their troops? 

Once more, that just begs the question. He takes for granted that waterboarding is wrong. But that's the very question at issue. People like Phillips are so convinced of their position that they really don't know how to argue for their position. They just assume the reader shares their intuitions. It doesn't occur to them that this is unpersuasive to someone who doesn't already resonant with their intuitions. That's what they need to defend–if they can. 

Do we consider what it must be like for our soldiers to be trained and commanded to perform these heinous acts of torture, as if they are not themselves victims of these savage acts? What horrors will we unleash on our civilian society when military torturers are returned to their families and neighborhoods?

But that's really an argument for pacifism. Phillips believes in just-war theory. Yet warfare can have a hardening effect on men who've witnessed or participated in the horrors of combat. And it's well known that some soldiers have great difficulty reintegrating into civilian life. Yet Phillips doesn't think that's a sufficient reason to oppose national defense. So his objection is inconsistent. 

The debate concerning waterboarding and other forms of torture comes down to the question, "Do the ends justify the means?" 

That's simplistic because there are many situations in which the ends do justify the means. To say that is not to endorse the-ends-justify-the-means as a universal principle. But there are situations in which a worthy end is sufficient to condone a particular means. Phillips himself believes that. He supports just-war theory. Well, what is that if not the implied principle that the greater good of prosecuting a just war sanctions the horrific, but necessary means? 

Phillips is resorting to an intellectual shortcut. And his arguments, such as they are, are full of gaps, tendentious assumptions, leaps of logic, and ad hoc exceptions. That's not a morally serious way to analyze morally serious issues. We need to draw necessary distinctions, and not default to catchy slogans that at best are half truths. 


  1. Very thorogh response and I'm not trying to be cute. ;)

    Moralizing and posturing has become the status quo Evangelical reaction (thank you Russ Moore, The Gospel Coalition and John Piper for repeatedly modeling this atrocious form , not) for those too shocked by alternatives to their "smatest and most upright guy in the room" views which their dignity apparently cannot endure.

    Why just today I was discussing nature of the dubiousness of some (not all) holocaust claims and the poor fella I was talking with was so shocked by the validation of any alternative possibilities that all he could do was treat his view as the only morally truthful narrative and all others as ghastly with nothing even remotely able to be better qualified on the matter.

    Ego-investment in one's beliefs will get you every time.

  2. Fine job exposing question begging. His defense was obviously weak, if one existed at all. Yet you really nailed it. Aside from that, your post challenged me. Not sure I care to stretch my thinking in this unpleasant area. I'll stop reading your blog if you keep this up. :)

  3. T.Y.for again assisting evangelicals to think more clearly!

  4. May I please weigh in on this? I worked with a gal who was secretary to USAF Gen. Charles Horner in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. While in Riyadh, she learned a lot about tactics. In America, she said, "it's not whether we win or lose, but about how we play the game. But in the Middle East, its not about how we play the game, its about whether we win or lose."
    I thought that was most insightful. I am certainly sympathetic for POW soldiers on both sides who suffer unjustifiably, but that's not the point. If you fight a terrorist group who has no regard for life, you can't be touchy-feely about it. I agree with Steve entirely and I wish his assessment gets taken seriously. I love Rick Phillips, and agree with him in *other* areas, not this one.

  5. In light of this discussion a recent book may of interest. J. Porter Harlow has had his RTS M.A.R. thesis published: "How Should We Treat Detainees? An Examination of 'Enhanced Interrogation Techniques' under the Light of Scripture and the Just War Tradition" (P&R, 2016). I found Harlow's background interesting and relevant: (J.D., Univ. of South Carolina School of Law; LL.M. U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School). He recently retired as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served as an operational law attorney--including service as an associate professor of international and operational law at the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's School in Charlottesville, VA. The book's foreword is written by Richard Phillips.

    Here is the P&R page on the book:

    1. Several issues,

      i) It's important not to confuse the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, which, from what I can tell, had nothing to do with interrogation, with coerced interrogation.

      ii) I don't think JAGs are necessarily the people best-equippped to assess the ethics of coercive interrogation since their reference frame is primarily legal rather than moral.

      iii) Given that Muslims hail from shame cultures, religious humiliation may be leverage during interrogation.

      iv) As I made clear in my original post, I'm not discussing the treatment of "detainees" in general.

      v) Terrorists are not POWs. Terrorists are unlawful combatants. And that's not just a technicality. There are good reasons not to accord the same rights to unlawful combatants that we do to lawful combatants:

      vi) As I also made clear in my original post, I'm not even discussing unlawful combatants in general, but "high-value" terrorists. Individuals who are treasure troves of intel.

      Moreover, by their role in terrorist organizations, they have forfeited the prima facie right not to be harmed.