The Problem With Assessing Torture -- By: Daniel R. Heimbach

Journal: Global Journal of Classical Theology
Volume: GJCT 10:1 (Jun 2012)
Article: The Problem With Assessing Torture
Author: Daniel R. Heimbach


The Problem With Assessing Torture

Daniel R. Heimbach

Professor of Christian Ethics

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Wake Forest, North Carolina 27588

Abstract. Here I argue that nearly everything over which evangelicals seem currently divided in assessing the ethics of torture is semantic not substantial, and I propose that solving this semantic problem will help us avoid rhetorical attacks and free us instead to focus on two subsequent challenges, (1) settling the question of what truly distinguishes the category of inherently-evil-actions-that-can-never-be-justified-under-any-circumstance from the category of regrettable-actions-that-are-sometimes-justified-under-limited-but-morally-definable-circumstances, and (2) settling the question of by what principles otherwise regrettable actions may sometimes be justified.

The country has been debating the ethics of torture off and on for several years beginning on April 28, 2004, when shocking accounts filled the news of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.1 In the aftermath, seventeen soldiers and officers were removed, of which eleven were variously convicted in courts martial, sentenced to military prison, dishonorably discharged, or demoted. And since that time the ethics of torture has been debated in presidential politics and at various conferences, summits and roundtables, resulting in several books.2

While no one defends what occurred at Abu Ghraib, the ensuing ethics debate has left the nation deeply divided, or at least confused, as to what moral boundaries apply to the way interrogators go about obtaining vital information from non-cooperating prisoners in a war against forces using terror tactics to implement Islamic sharia law claiming totalitarian authority over everyone in the world. The division we face now has nothing to do with what occurred at Abu Ghraib, but rather concerns subsequent questions having to do with interrogating confessed or alleged terrorists such as those confined at Guantanamo. In this debate evangelicals are as deeply divided as others—a situation that leaves us open to suspicion that we could be shaping our ethics to fit political preferences rather than shaping our politics to conform with fixed ethical standards.3

I plan here to address this division compromising evangelical moral witness on torture and will suggest a way forward. In particular, I will argue there is nothing truly necessary causing this division, and will show that what appears to be contrasting positions is mainly a matter of semantics. That is, I believe it comes...

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