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Torture is always going to be wrong

tom frame from standing

In the wake of the terrorist atrocities in Bali, Madrid, and London, it is not surprising that decent people and civilised societies start to think the unthinkable: torturing suspected terrorists might be justified, if the sufferings of one person could save the lives of many.

In calculations about consequences, the equation would permit torture, especially if the aim were to inflict pain, rather than cause death. The victim suffers, but will eventually recover, while the innocent are saved from permanent harm. The benefits are tangible.

Soldiers representing some countries that officially condemn torture have apparently found it so tactically appealing they have engaged in it, but there are very few nations, and certainly none claiming to be morally responsible, that resort to torture as a policy. Indeed, most Western nations are horrified when their military personnel are even accused of such behaviour, because it implies the persistence of a barbaric spirit they thought they had transcended. Quite apart from diminished national pride, there are six moral grounds routinely advanced for rejecting torture as a justifiable tool of statecraft.

First, the information acquired from torture is usually worthless. The victims of torture give unreliable or misleading information in their desire to avoid pain. Where they have no useful knowledge to impart, victims simply invent information in order to satisfy the interrogators.

Second, there are few limits on the use of torture once it is employed. Nations that torture detained adversaries must expect their own citizens to be abused following capture. Memories of torture last long in the minds of victims and their families. Torture and revenge are intertwined, and often spiral out of control.

Third, employing torture is tantamount to embracing terrorism. It is cold, heartless, and antithetical to individual self-esteem and social discipline. Armies engaging in torture quickly descend into lawlessness. Torture, threatened or actual, puts fear into the heart and eyes of those subject to it, and everyone is debased.

Fourth, torture hurts the victim, but also harms the torturer. Torture involves wanton acts of cruelty that permanently diminish the perpetrator's capacity to show compassion to anyone, including themselves and their families. In addition to being party to a traumatic experience that is potentially corrosive to the soul, clinical studies suggest that deliberately inflicting pain diminishes a person's ability to impart love, demonstrate empathy, and value tenderness. The perpetrator loses the capacity to ascribe worth to anything. Torture brutalises everyone.

Fifth, torture is a denial of justice. When pain is used to punish or deter, it is usually administered with a sense of proportion. When a person is physically or mentally tortured, they face pain and endure suffering out of proportion to what they have done or might do.

Sixth, people are not means to political ends; they are moral ends in themselves. As each human person bears the divine imprint and is deemed worthy of Christ's atoning sacrifice, human beings are not entitled to treat others as vehicles for achieving their own aspirations or extending collective self-interest.

What alternatives exist for people calling themselves Christian, when torture becomes attractive? They are straightforward, but far from easy. The prophet Micah pronounced that the Lord's people were required to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with their God", irrespective of the provocations to do otherwise. Revenge was, of course, a divine prerogative, although God much preferred destroying his enemies by making them his friends.

There is a fine line between civilisation and barbarism. Torture defines a critical boundary.
Dr Tom Frame is Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force.

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