Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Bomb is ticking; do you OK torture?

By Rob Elder

I have friends who, while not exactly condoning the torture of prisoners in Iraq, put it in interesting perspective by asking variations of this hypothetical question:

"Suppose you are the president of the United States. You have hard intelligence that a dirty bomb is set to explode somewhere in Chicago within the next 12 hours. The Department of Defense is holding an enemy combatant connected with the terrorist group that placed the bomb. You have every reason to believe he knows the location of the bomb, but he refuses to talk.

"'Mr. President,' the secretary of defense says to you, 'with your approval, we can make this man talk, thereby saving hundreds, maybe thousands, of American lives. But the interrogation won't be pretty, and the prisoner may never recover. Shall we do whatever's necessary?' ''

Some of those who pose this question say the answer is a slam dunk. Of course the prisoner should be softened up, by any means necessary. What's one dirty terrorist compared to thousands of innocent Americans?

A more philosophically complicated route to much the same conclusion is taken by Harvard's Michael Ignatieff in a new book, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. Ignatieff hedges his answer: He's against torture but in favor of "coercive interrogations.'' Our counter-terrorist actions should be openly debated and subject to review by all three branches of the federal government, he argues, conjuring up, in my mind, congressional debates and court decisions about whether it's OK to hack off a prisoner's finger but not his whole hand.

But the point is a serious one. The ultimate evil, Ignatieff says, would be for Americans to become so frightened that we demand a virtual police state to protect us. By comparison, giving up some civil liberties — for ourselves and our prisoners — is the lesser and necessary evil.

I think he and I would agree that the hypothetical situation does focus on one important point. Requiring presidential approval for physical abuse of a prisoner would, whatever the president decided, be a major improvement over the present situation, in which an attitude gets set at the top and just trickles down to the people at the action level, leaving the president and other big-wigs free to deny any responsibility.

Not in my wildest dreams do I imagine that anyone in the White House or Pentagon ordered that detainees in Abu Ghurayb prison be led around on leashes and forced to wear women's underwear on their heads. But we know that White House lawyers wrote a memo arguing that torture was an acceptable tactic in certain situations. Apparently that attitude worked its way down to the Americans actually in charge of Abu Ghurayb, and those working there.

So military careers are ruined at the bottom of the chain of command, while at the top, the president and the secretary of defense can deny any responsibility.

Wouldn't it be more ethical for George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld to say something like this: "We detest torture, but in wartime, extreme measures are sometimes necessary to protect American lives. The actions at Abu Ghurayb were a distortion of what we had in mind. Clearly things got out of hand there, and those in charge will be held to account.

"Even so, the ultimate responsibility is ours, and we accept it.''

That kind of candor would go a long way toward earning my respect.

This article originally appeared on August 24, 2004 in the Opinion section of the San Jose Mercury News.

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