Ethics & Morality

Trump and torture: you don’t fight Islamist fire with the embers of Christian virtue

President Donald Trump wants to keep his country safe from Islamist terrorists. He’d also like to destroy ISIS and wipe them off the face of the earth. In pursuit of the former, he has issued an executive order limiting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and Iran. Oddly, the list doesn’t include Saudi Arabia, whence 15 of the 9/11 hijackers hailed, and which is the fons et origo of Wahhabism, the Islamist death cult which inspires jihadists to do what they do. In pursuit of the latter, President Trump hasn’t said anything about what he intends to do, but he does think torture works.

According to an interview transcript, he said:

When they’re shooting – when they’re chopping off the heads of our people, and other people, when they’re chopping off the heads of people because they happen to be a Christian, in the Middle East, when ISIS is doing things that nobody has ever heard of since Medieval times, would I feel strongly about waterboarding? As far as I’m concerned, we have to fight fire with fire.

It is to be noted that he doesn’t advocate a change in US policy: he is asked for a personal opinion, and he gives it. “I want to do everything within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally,” he insisted. “But do I feel it works? Absolutely, I feel it works.”

‘Feels’ is important. We might all feel that torture works, because hanging people upside down and electrocuting their genitals or raping them with broom handles really ought to elicit the swift admission of whatever information is sought. But it manifestly doesn’t work on everyone. If it did, quite a few Christians in the Middle East would be converting to Islam rather than suffering crucifixion, torture, rape, or being burned alive.

President George W. Bush authorised the use of torture (aka ‘enhanced interrogation’) after 9/11. Detainees were deprived of sleep, stripped naked, slapped and slammed against walls, locked in small boxes, hooded, burned and waterboarded. It was justified on the grounds of national security in the acquisition of critical intelligence. Even President Obama sustained the isolation and indefinite detention tortures of Guantanamo Bay, having once pledged to shut it down as an offence against natural justice.

We obviously cannot know if any of these tortures worked or work.

What we can know, however, is that if ISIS is doing things “that nobody has ever heard of since Medieval times”, it is incumbent upon enlightened nations not to sink to their barbaric level. Fighting fire with fire might work if your objective is to extinguish a forest inferno by lighting smaller back-fires to starve it of fuel. But it is profoundly immoral when you burn people alive in order to prevent them from incinerating you.

We’re not talking about war or acts of war; nor are we talking about the means and mechanisms of capital punishment. War can be just; mass destruction can be just, and offended society cries out for satisfaction: rulers do not bear the sword for no reason (Rom 13:4). But torturing souls in order to extract information is not a civilised art, but a defilement of justice. It disquiets nature because it can never morally satisfy: the scars just burn in self-renewing cycles of injury, hatred, loathing and self-loathing.

Torture is a violence which never vindicates, for the truth it might acquire creates a vacuum in nature’s justice. You might feel it works, but it destroys innocence and outrages righteousness. It might make you feel mighty and in control, but it is a power which nullifies political authority and destroys social morality. It hardens hearts and diminishes truth because the truth it gains is tarnished with terror. Torture has no place at all in the Christian tradition: it is the law of the overlord, not the love of the Lord. It coerces captives, breeds resentment and rights no wrongs. It is a ritual of vengeance which is better left in Medieval times, for terror is no antidote to terrorism: you don’t fight Islamist fire with the embers of Christian virtue.