“Torture is not always impermissible,” argues Charles Krauthammer in “The Truth About Torture”, his provocative essay in The Weekly Standard. “However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you’ve established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that’s left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when–i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb. ”
The “truth” about torture is an issue being widely addressed throughout the country, yet our sense is that the Christian intellectual community has been relatively silent on this important issue. We believe a symposium of this nature could significantly aid and inform the Church and the wider culture and help provide clarification on the principles involved in judging this practice. In order to open the dialogue we have asked several leading Christian ethicists and opinion journalists to respond to Dr. Krauthammer’s article and to address the questions: “What is the truth about torture from a Christian worldview? Is torture ever allowed? And if so, under what conditions and circumstances? ”
The responses appear below in alphabetical order:

Darrell Cole :: John Jefferson Davis :: Daniel Heimbach :: Mark Liederbach :: Kenneth Magnuson :: Albert Mohler :: Richard John Neuhaus :: Robert Vischer

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Darrell Cole

Christians in America are being asked to support the war on terror. For Christians this means saying “yes” both to the proposed war and the methods waged to fight the war. Trying to decide the justice of your country’s proposed war and the methods used to wage it is not always an easy task. That task is made even harder when the enemy does not behave like any enemy we have faced in the past. Because we face a new kind of enemy, some notable political pundits have been arguing for a new way to deal with the enemy (new to us) that we have previously refused to use for moral reasons–namely, torture.
As Christians consider these arguments they must keep in mind that they can fall prey as easily as other citizens to impressive arguments that support tactics that promise our safety, even when the tactics argued for are morally questionable. All people–Christians included–desire safety. When our safety is threatened, we tend to look for any means available to end the threat. The more cowardly we are (and when it comes to physical pain, most of us can be very cowardly) the more likely we are to stoop to any means whatsoever to maintain our safety.

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Daniel R. Heimbach

Charles Krauthammer has written a timely and provocative piece critical of Senator John McCain’s effort to ban all forms of torture. In particular this debate regards whether “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” should ever be used with detainees who operate outside the boundaries of civil responsibility, and whose effectiveness depends on breaking principles by which nation-states hold themselves accountable in war.
But, while Krauthammer offers much insight and nails the fundamental incoherence in McCain’s position, he muddies his otherwise careful analysis by taking a position that is equally incoherent. What I mean is Krauthammer rightly criticizes McCain for arguing “no torture under any circumstance” while holding up Israel, which uses physical coercion as a standard practice, as the model for how nations should deal with terrorists. And then Krauthammer is equally incoherent when he says “there is no denying the monstrous evil that is any form of torture,” while claiming that torture can nevertheless be “a moral duty.”

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John Jefferson Davis

In a recent Weekly Standard article, “The Truth about Torture,” Charles Krauthammer has questioned the coherence of the McCain amendment passed by the Senate by a vote of 90-9, ostensibly banning under all circumstances “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of any prisoner, even under the most extreme circumstances of the global war on terrorism.
Those committed to a Christian ethic would, of course, instinctively react strongly against methods of interrogation that use severe force, pain, or coercion, and as such threaten to undermine the inherent dignity of the person created in the image of God; which could lead to “slippery slope” abuses in less extreme cases, and which could stain the national reputation and destroy the moral integrity of those who employ such means. From a deontological or principle-based ethical point of view, it could be rightly said that the ends, however good, do not justify the use of any and every means to achieve those goods; right ends must be achieved through righteous and justifiable means.

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Kenneth Magnuson

In his Weekly Standard article, “The Truth about Torture” (December 5, 2005), Charles Krauthammer responds to arguments made by Senator John McCain and codified in the McCain amendment, which would prohibit any “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” of any prisoner in United States custody.
Senator McCain proposes a total ban on the use of torture, arguing that it is ineffective and, more importantly, immoral and contrary to the ideals upon which our democracy is founded. It weakens America’s standing in the eyes of the world, and takes a heavy toll in the war of ideas that is central to the struggle against terrorism. According to a Newsweek article (November 21, 2005), he acknowledges that there may be extreme situations (the “ticking time bomb”) in which the ban would have to be violated in order to save innocent lives. Nevertheless, only a total ban will prevent the horrors that accompany any policy that would permit torture.

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Albert Mohler

Looking back at World War I, Winston Churchill was moved to write: “When all was over, torture and cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian states had been able to deny themselves: and these were of doubtful utility.” The “Great War” was a laboratory for human killing, with the first widespread use of mechanized weapons of mass murder like the machine gun and the tank. Accompanying these weapons were inventions such as aerial bombardment and poison gas. Yet, the war saw neither side institutionalize the use of torture. In the end, that was about all Churchill could claim on behalf of military restraint.
The question of torture arises once again in the context of the War on Terror and has been brought to public controversy with the amendment to the current Defense Authorization Bill sponsored by Senator John McCain. The measure, which would render illegal all “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatments of prisoners under U.S. control, passed by a vote of 90-9 in the full Senate. President George W. Bush had threatened to veto the legislation, if it were to be passed by the House of Representatives. On December 15, the White House announced that it would back the McCain amendment.
Nevertheless, public debate over the amendment– and the issues of coercion and torture–will not end with the conclusion of this political drama, nor should it. This is a vital issue of great moral consequence, and this debate should not be allowed to slip from public view. All citizens bear responsibility to be informed and engaged concerning this question.

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Richard John Neuhaus

This is an argument very much worth having. Charles Krauthammer writes in the Weekly Standard:

But if that is the case, then McCain embraces the same exceptions I do, but prefers to pretend he does not. If that is the case, then his much-touted and endlessly repeated absolutism on inhumane treatment is merely for show. If that is the case, then the moral preening and the phony arguments can stop now, and we can all agree that in this real world of astonishingly murderous enemies, in . . . very circumscribed circumstances, we must all be prepared to torture. Having established that, we can then begin to work together to codify rules of interrogation for the two very unpleasant but very real cases in which we are morally permitted–indeed morally compelled–to do terrible things.

Krauthammer is writing against Senator John McCain’s proposal for banning all forms of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of prisoners, a proposal which has overwhelming support in Congress but is opposed by the Bush administration. McCain has said that in extreme circumstances–such as the familiar “ticking time bomb” scenario–authorities will do what they have to do to extract information. Krauthammer says that means McCain’s proposed rule is “merely for show, ” and comes close to saying that its supporters are guilty of hypocrisy.

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Mark Liederbach

“But a certain one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘you know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish. ‘” John 11:49-50


Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He’s not talking. Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?
With this case study Charles Krauthammer seeks to engage his reader in a debate about the ethics of torture. (Charles Krauthammer, “The Truth about Torture, ” The Weekly Standard, Vol. 011, Issue 12 (December 5, 2005)

An analysis of Krauthammer’s argument reveals that he believes the following:

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Robert Vischer

Self-preservation is not the ultimate value underlying Christian ethics, and recognition of that fact must underlie any attempt to articulate a Christian response to torture. The specter of terrorists holding information that could save thousands of lives does not alter or eviscerate the Gospel’s call to transform our world through an abiding and uncompromising ethic of love. Foremost in any framework purporting to implement this ethic is a prohibition against using our fellow humans instrumentally, as a convenient means to our chosen ends, no matter how noble.
This principle is reflected in the Catholic Church’s inclusion of torture in the category of “intrinsically evil acts.” Torture, as explained by Pope John Paul II, is by its very nature “incapable of being ordered to God” because it “radically contradicts the good of the person made in [God’s] image.” Pope Paul VI cautioned that “it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it.”

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