We need a better torture discussion

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Yesterday we saw quite a bit of coverage of new Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life analysis which had -- to the many who read it splashed across the interweb, cable television, and newspapers -- some shocking results. Here's CNN, for instance:

The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.

More than half of people who attend services at least once a week -- 54 percent -- said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is "often" or "sometimes" justified. Only 42 percent of people who "seldom or never" go to services agreed, according to the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

It's just a shocking result, isn't it? Apart from church attendance, evangelicals (though not the group most likely to say torture was always justified for important information) were the most likely to support the use of torture at least occasionally. I don't really have any criticism of this particular story. The news reports I read or saw didn't speculate or color the news. They presented the Pew snippet in a rather straightforward fashion.

But . . . there's so much to say about the larger coverage of this debate. And, for those who are sensitive to this, please note that not all of that discussion is overtly religious but it is about morality and ethics and other issues that correlate strongly with religious views or still fall under the general rubric of this blog.

Unfortunately, the Pew analysis is very limited. The entire group surveyed was somewhat small -- only 742 adults -- so we don't have results for how blacks or Hispanics responded. Here's the actual poll question, which is important to include in stories:

Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?

I will go ahead and reveal my bias by saying that I would answer that torture is never justified. That puts me in the distinct minority in the survey -- a distinct minority of evangelicals agree with me but so does a distinct minority of mainstream Protestants and the unaffiliated.

But with significant majorities of Americans saying "torture" is justified on at least some occasions, it does make me wonder what that even means considering we don't have a common understanding of the term.

I just watched Cliff May -- who I first knew of as a newspaper man in Colorado -- on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I watched the uncut version of the interview, which you can and should watch in three parts on the web site. May was brought on the show to defend torture but he quickly says he is, in fact, anti-torture. He and Stewart go on to have one of the most interesting debates I've ever seen on the show. Except for the part where Stewart says Harry S Truman was a war criminal (a position for which he apologized a few days later), both of the men did a great job of explaining their positions in a calm manner.

May pointed out that societies define what duress criminals and other threatening individuals may be put under (including prison and sleep deprivation, etc.) and that different rules are made for citizens and prisoners of war. With the advent of non-conventional military combatants such as terrorists who don't fall under either of those categories, the Justice Department and military attempted and continue to attempt to define what is and what is not permissible.

Both May and Stewart agree that the debate in the country is over where to draw that line. Different people have different ideas. Some people think that one night of sleep deprivation is torture. Others think that's a typical night in the clinker. Some people think that 11 nights of sleep deprivation is definitely torture. Others think that should be the limit. The point is that there is no common definition of what constitutes torture. Stewart refers to the Geneva Conventions. May points out that they permit no duress and both Republican and Democratic officials think the conventions don't apply.

And what's even more confusing is that some people believe that, when they're asked about whether "torture" is permissible, they're being asked if any physical duress or the type of waterboarding that our own military endures is okay. Others presume that they're being asked if a life-threatening beating or a life-threatening waterboarding is okay. And different people will respond differently under either understanding.

At the end of the debate, Stewart says something with which I heartily agree:

"The people are not that far apart but we've become so crazed in our conversation we can't even settle on what is right."

So all these many paragraphs to say that I think that while mainstream media coverage of the Pew report has been fine, the larger coverage of the torture issue has been most inadequate. What's more, it's covered almost solely as a political hot potato. It's easy to characterize torture supporters as bloodthirsty cretins and opponents as people willing to let millions of Americans die before making one terrorist go a night without sleep. But these issues are more complex than that. All the various groups, presumably, care about American safety and human rights.

But let's say that we do have a common definition of what constitutes torture. And let's say that we have analysis of a survey that shows that membership in one religious group or a certain level of devotion correlates with support for torture. We all know that correlation is not causation, meaning that there might be some other factor that is responsible.

What would be great to have in coverage of this larger story is an attempt to answer the question of "why?" Why would someone who goes to church more frequently -- be they mainstream Protestant, evangelical or Catholic -- be more likely to support torture? torture

Some evangelicals, such as Christianity Today editor David Neff, were immediately responding to the results. Neff tries to find potential reasons for the result, notes the limitations of the data, and expresses concern over utilitarian attitudes among some evangelicals. He notes that similar polls have shown similar results vis-a-vis evangelicals. But he also notes that how a question is asked influences an outcome. A question asked with an underlying moral argument shows lower support for torture among evangelicals, for instance. Neff notes that much of the discussion of interrogation under duress has been about whether it works or not.

But the question "Does it work?" presupposes a utilitarian ethic. Utilitarian ethics tends to weigh the magnitude of a potential good against its costs (the greatest good for the greatest number). But evangelicals have been eager to reject utilitarian ethics when addressing other issues -- embryonic stem-cell research and population-control programs, for example. Even if embryonic stem-cell research turned out to be the best way to cure Parkinson's disease, most evangelicals would oppose it, just as we would oppose abortion even if it were shown to reduce, say, food insecurity. By the same token, even if torture produced reliable information about terrorist activity, we should reject it. We are people of principle. Our principles were historically at the root of human rights action and the development of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions, and any number of other moral crusades that put principle above utilitarianism. Our principles should now motivate us to lead the world in rejecting torture of any human being, for any reason.

As with arguments in support of using duress to get information, they take time to explore. I wish our media coverage would permit and encourage some of this discussion. Here's another example of an argument against torture that has yet to be included in any of the mainstream coverage. Writing for the Public Discourse, University of Southern Carolina Professor of Philosophy Christopher Tollefsen uses natural law to argue against any torture for any reason:

I begin with the following normative claim: human life and health is an intrinsic, and indeed, a basic, human good. That is to say, life and health constitute a fundamental aspect of human well-being; the possibility of the promotion of either provides not just a possibility but an opportunity, an offer of benefit. And the possibility of damage or destruction of either provides not just a possibility, but an evil to be avoided and, insofar as such damage or destruction is willed, a wrong not to be done. The normative principle that can be drawn from this practical truth is that in willing, one should never intend the damage or destruction of the life or health of another human being.

It's not just the pro-torture side that uses utilitarian arguments, of course. Opponents also use them, saying that the use of torture weakens our standing abroad or is ineffective. But whether or not it works, Tollefson and Neff argue that it's not to be done as a matter of principle. I find it most helpful to listen to May, Stewart, Neff, Tollefson, et. al, rather than the typical talking heads who scream at each other without ever listening or reflecting. Somehow the media haven't provided a good enough forum for such discussions and I think it has done the country a disservice.

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