Materialism Handicaps National Debate on Torture

Enhanced DeprivationA Western culture that separates the relevance of spiritual and material realities as aggressively as it separates church and state handicaps itself at defining torture and interrogating terrorists. Here is how.

Our first of four sons was born in 1984, and in 1985 Dr. James Dobson wrote his classic book on raising “strong willed children.” His advice on “shaping the will without wounding the spirit” became a common sense guideline that my wife and I used for discipline. It fits with the way that God treats us. He often sends trials and tribulations to break down our rebellion and build up our faith and character. It is part of the way that he loves us.

I don’t think I was torturing my four boys when discipline sometimes included depriving them of comforts or causing them some physical pain or threatening them with either pain or deprivation. And don’t think my Army Ranger instructors were torturing me when they made me hungry and sleepy and uncomfortable in order to prepare me for surviving on the battlefield.

However, because many Americans have no category in their thinking for an eternal human spirit, they can’t differentiate the human will and the human spirit. As a result, the breaking of one appears no different than the destruction of the other. Ironically, this cultural blindness results in absolutist pronouncements, cookbook procedures, and rigid legalism masquerading as the “higher moral standard.” Situationally tailored enhanced interrogation that preserves human dignity requires differentiating the will and spirit.

This cultural blindness also results in the double standard that it’s moral to “drone” terrorists to death when they are in hiding, but it’s immoral to interrogate them in enhanced ways when they are in captivity. Principles of self-defense permit killing enemy combatants who are even in hiding, but killing enemies after they are captured is not self-defense and is not moral. Without the ability to differentiate will and spirit, destroying the will of captured enemies appears to be as immoral as killing them.

However, when the will and spirit can be differentiated, deprivation, humiliation, pain, discomfort, and threats of these conditions become neutral tools that can be used for either moral or immoral ends. What makes these tools for interrogation right or wrong isn’t what they intrinsically are, but how they are used. Are they used for a good purpose or for an evil one? Are they applied while preserving an attitude of love for the detainee or in an attitude of hate and vengeance?

The principles of just warfare, that are used to guide morality in war, can also guide morality for treating and interrogating detainees. Bombs and guns are not inherently evil. What makes them good or bad is how and with what motives they are used. Yes, sometimes the ends really do justify a means. Just as some things like faith and freedom are worth dying for, and other things like self-defense and restoring peace are worth fighting for, so these same things are worth interrogating for.

Just like spanking a child should not be done in anger, interrogations should be done in compassion and with self control. They should seek to break down the will without destroying the spirit. And they should situationally follow just war principles rather than rigid cookbook procedures and politically expedient formulas. As in just warfare, the degrees and means of confrontation must be tailored to morally fit each presenting situation.

An interrogation that avoids torture will, therefore, be just in its cause (jus ad bellum) and just in its means (jus in bello).

In just war tradition, being just in cause implies it will be the following:

  • A response to imminent threat in order to either
    • protect oneself (national self defense)
    • protect innocent life (law enforcement)
  • Chosen and executed by a competent authority (i.e. a legitimate government)
  • Chosen formally with clear intentions that are
    • to restore peace, not destroy the detainee
    • not from vengeance, cruelty, hatred, jealousy, or power
    • in accordance with national consensus
  • Chosen as last resort after all other options ruled out (not necessarily all other options tried)
  • Reasonably able to succeed
  • Preventing more evil than it causes

And in just war tradition being just in means implies the following constraints:

  • Proportionality – using the minimum force necessary to succeed
  • Safeguards uninvolved personnel (i.e. not harming relatives of the detainee)
  • Respects the sanctity of life
    • recognizes interrogator and detainee as morally equal
    • accepts similar treatment for oneself given reversed circumstances

These principles show how in some circumstances even light treatment can become torture, while in other situations very heavy treatment is morally proper.

Our western culture, which separates the relevance of spiritual and material realities as aggressively as it separates church and state, handicaps us in defining torture just as it handicaps us in spanking children. Because many Americans cannot differentiate will from spirit, the breaking of one appears no different than destroying the other. Ironically, this materialistic cultural blindness results in absolutist pronouncements, cookbook procedures, and moral ultimatums more typically attributed to legalistic religious fundamentalists than to supposedly sophisticated relativistic and tolerant post-modern progressives. Counter-intuitively, it is religion rather than materialism that undergirds sophistication, tolerance, and relativism when it comes to interrogating terrorists.

5 thoughts to “Materialism Handicaps National Debate on Torture”

  1. How can people who lived through 9/11 and witnessed (via TV) the Taiban slaughter hundreds of innocent children, and receive reports of ISIS terrorists cutting off the heads of men, women and children criticize these modest efforts to get information out of real or suspected terrorists? With all due respect to John McCain, these enhanced tactics are nothing compared to the torture he and many others went through.

  2. If materialism is so pronounced in our society, then isn’t it the “national consensus”? And if it is the national consensus, then the PC attitude toward torture that we have is proper. Because it is according to your just war theory point of being “Chosen formally with clear intentions that are in accordance with national consensus”. Please explain why our country can/should do more than what is Politically Correct.

  3. Actually in my opinion I think it is not religion that provides the sophistication that allows for a proper degree of tolerance; for only Trinitarian views see the One and the Many questions with sufficient sophistication to draw proper distinctions on these ethical questions. Sometimes the One or Unity provides the reason to take action to protect the One or Unity of society against another that attacks it. On the other hand the Many or Diversity provides the reasons to be tolerant; even though the tolerance may lead to negative results. FOR EXAMPLE: The God who is One and Three created humanity as One and holds us all accountable for how the One Man acted. So much so that God allows or decrees that some of His creation will go to eternal punishment. Yet The One and Three God moves to redeem some of fallen humanity through the One He sends; and they are redeemed in Him as the substitute One Humanity Thus, God deals with us as both One but also differentiated as Many (differentiated individuals).

    To actually apply this to the present “torture” question takes a sophistication not in the public mind today. another evidence of living in a post Christian world. we have no capacity to wrestle through such complicated questions. we may be on the cusp of a post-Constitutional culture which will see the growth of anti-americanism among the very Americans who benefit from living under such a system. Fundementalists have no appreciation for God’s tolerance with respect to many matters. Their demand for Oneness in every matter of behavior is no different than Islam’s Tawhid principle. That is my knee jerk reaction to your question at this moment in time.

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