Imagine you are on your way home from vacation, making an airline connection. As you board your flight, you are detained by officials. After a few days of questioning, without charges or access to counsel, you are loaded onto a plane and taken to…who knows where. Once there, you are beaten and tortured until you say anything your torturers want. Wild imagination? Not for Maher Arar; this is exactly what happened to him. His crime? A passing acquaintance with a terrorism suspect.
John Howard Yoder once said that a pacifist was a person who realized that in striking another, you harm yourself more—this is the moral consequence of violence. This may seem shocking, but is it really different from the comments John McCain made recently in his impassioned plea that America recover the moral high ground by explicitly outlawing prisoner abuse? He argued that the use of these vicious techniques stains our own souls in a way that cannot be expunged by specious justifications of torture.
Surely, none will defend torture as inherently good; rather, all arguments are based on appeal to a greater good—that is, torture accomplishes good that outweighs its inherent moral evil. Generally the argument is that we are engaged in a very different kind of war, one in which our enemies constitute a unique threat to civilian populations. Hence we must “take the gloves off” to gain the information needed to protect our people. Torture, though gruesome, is a technique that we need to have in our tool kit. Does this argument hold?