Once upon a time, I was advised that I’d need to temper my sense of morals depending on the culture with which I was interacting or observing. The argument was that some things I saw as morally wrong were completely acceptable to others and that I should withhold judgement based on cultural differences.
That’s a load of crap.
Regardless of the culture involved, there are some things that are always wrong whether or not the culture recognizes them as such. Rape is always wrong. Murder is always wrong. Discriminating against someone because they’re different than you is always wrong.
Trying to make the argument that any of these inherently evil things are acceptable is trying to bake intrinsic evil into the culture that allows them. The thing is, I don’t believe anyone is inherently evil; nor do I believe a culture is inherently evil, either. However, everyone is always given to be selfish, and the evils above are rooted in manifestations of that selfishness.
That doesn’t make them excusable or acceptable.
Another such evil is torture. It’s something that happens in this world, it’s something that perpetrators (and benefactors) will always try to justify, but it’s also something that is always evil and wrong.
Last week, a Senate report disclosed the lengths to which American officials tortured prisoners suspected of terrorist activities. Whether you call these techniques torture or “enhanced interrogation,” the fact remains that individuals representing the United States used methods specifically designed to inflict pain and fear to extract information from prisoners. 1
Later last week, a justice on the US Supreme Court came out in support of these practices:
“I think it is very facile for people to say ‘Oh, torture is terrible,'” [Justice Antonin Scalia] said. “You posit the situation where a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people.
“You think it’s an easy question? You think it’s clear that you cannot use extreme measures to get that information out of that person?” 2
Whether or not someone would act in a certain way when pushed to their limits does not necessarily justify it. If someone were to attack, injure, or kill a member of my family, I would very likely be driven to some form of retaliation. That does not excuse or justify my actions.
If I was in a position where I knew there was a ticking bomb in play, I had in captivity an individual who knew the location of said device, and it was up to me to stop them … I’d probably be driven to do something terrible to get that information. Again, this does not excuse or justify my actions, but it does explain them.
I am not God. My willingness to act when given no other option does not justify that action or make it morally acceptable.
Humans tend to be selfish, and we’ll often take the easiest way out of a situation if given the option. Torturing a prisoner in the hope of extracting information is easy. It’s also morally reprehensible and makes us no better than the alleged terrorists from whom we try to extract that information.
They use violence to instill fear in us. We use their imprisonment paired with violence to instill fear in them. At the end of the day, torture lowers us to the same plane as the criminals and monsters we seek to defend against. Then we take a step further and aim to provide legal (or even moral) justifications for our actions.
That a justice on the Supreme Court would defend such behavior is absolutely chilling. That so many people have supported his hollow argument even more so.
There is a such thing as a more absolute. Torture is absolutely wrong.
- To be clear, terrorism itself is defined as “
- Scalia on torture morality: ‘I don’t think it’s so clear at all’ ↩