Elshtain & Casey debate torture

On last weekend's episode of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. Be sure to watch the second clip, too (by clicking the "extended discussion" tab below the video box). Regrettably, there's no transcript for the online-only portion of the interview, but here is an excerpt from the broadcast.

ABERNETHY: Whats the underlying reason for this?

Dr. CASEY: Well, you look at basic Scripture, you look at Jesus in the Gospels about love your neighbor as yourself, do not repay evil for evil, love your enemyso theres this sense that each person is created by God in the image of God and has an inherent dignity, and torture would render that dignity undermined.

ABERNETHY: And Jean, what are the underlying principles for you?

Dr. JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN (Professor of Social and Political Ethics, University of Chicago Divinity School and Georgetown University): Well, the underlying principle for me is what I would call an ethic of responsibility. Thats an ethic that is especially important when were talking about statesmen and stateswomen who often have the lives of thousands in their hands, quite literally.

ABERNETHY: So they have a different rule, a different ethic, a different moral standard than somebody would if hes just acting as an individual?

Dr. ELSHTAIN: Not entirely different. We dont want a huge chasm to emerge. But I would say that there are extraordinary circumstances when harrowing judgments must be made by those we tax with the responsibility of keeping us safe, and at those times there may be a lesser evil kind of calculation to be made.


Dr. ELSHTAIN: Yes. I would say that the resort to extreme techniques would be used only after all other possibilities had been exhausted. It wouldnt be the first resort; it would be the last resort, and again wed have to be clear about what were considering torture here, because some of the most severe forms I think must be ruled out. But there are other forms of enhanced interrogation that, I think, under those extreme circumstances and as an exception, may well, under the ticking time bomb scenario, be resorted to.

ABERNETHY: There is a recent poll by the Pew Research Center that found that 71 percent of Americans American adults said torture can be justified often or sometimes or rarely. Only 25 percent said never. Is that influential to you at all?

Dr. CASEY: I think that shows the influence of the Rupert Murdoch school of ethics that weve been watching Jack Bauer, where torture is routinely shown to be effective on our television screens. I dont think we decide what is moral and what is immoral based on the latest Pew poll about American opinion.

I'm not sure what torture as a last resort means in the context of the standard hypothetical justification, which Elshtain mentioned, the so-called ticking-bomb scenario. As we Americans have learned from that great moral teacher Jack Bauer, we can't wait for the moment of last resort because the bomb might go off.In the online portion of the interview, Elshtain agreed that waterboarding is out of bounds, but she was fuzzy on other forms of torture, or, as she called it, enhanced interrogation. "If everything from shouting at or threatening someone to pulling out their fingernails with a pliers is torture, we tend to minimize the worst things because we're making these things that aren't as bad torture also," she said. Actually, what that minimizes is the lasting psychological damage caused by some forms of "shouting at or threatening someone." Threatening to murder a captive's children? Threatening to smear menstrual blood on him? To desecrate the Koran? Shouting at him to stand up? Shouting at him all night long to prevent him from sleeping? No one suggests that being mean to a prisoner constitutes torture. What we are talking about is state-sanctioned torture--including waterboarding.Read and watch the rest right here.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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