It’s wrong to say torture is wrong

This side of the scripture, few moral strictures work without qualification, and even some biblical commandments may require it.

‘Thou shalt not kill’, for example, may be construed as a demand for pacifism. It took St Augustine, later helped along by Aquinas, to put the doctrine of just war in the Christian context.

‘Thou shalt not steal’, yes of course. But what if stealing a piece of bread is the only way to save a child from starving to death?

‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’, fine. But what if doing so will save an innocent life from unjust prosecution?

Killing, stealing and lying under oath are all wrong, except that under certain circumstances they may prevent a greater wrong. God told us what’s right and what’s wrong, but then he also endowed us with free will and reason – and refused to absolve us from the need to exercise those faculties.

If even commandments issued by God leave room for nuance and interpretation, one can’t expect human rules to be chiselled in stone in a way that preempts divergence or even discussion.

Yet, judging by the sanctimonious response in our press to the congressional report on the CIA torturing of suspected terrorists, our secular morality is supposed to be more absolute (yes, I realise this is a logical solecism) than anything God commanded.

Suppose for the sake of argument that you are in charge of London’s anti-terrorist squad. You’ve received verified reports that a nuclear device has been planted somewhere in W1, and you have under lock and key a man who knows where the bomb is and when it’s set to go off.

You ask him politely to divulge this information, which he refuses to do, instructing you instead that there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.

You repeat your request, eliciting nothing but a reference to your porcine lineage on the maternal side.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking away, and so are the lives of possibly hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting Londoners living within the killing radius from the epicentre.

How firmly would you stand on the principle of no torture under any circumstances? I dare say you, I or any sane person would be concerned only about the efficacy of torture, not its moral implications.

Torture is always cruel, inhuman and wicked. Yet sometimes it may be necessary to combat an evil occupying a higher place in the pecking order.

Hence my problem with the headlines and lead paragraphs screaming that torture is wrong under any circumstances.

One doesn’t confidently expect nuanced thought from hacks, and in any case that’s not what sells newspapers. Still, it wouldn’t have hurt their AGM too much to say instead something like “torture is almost always wrong” or “torture is disgusting, but at times we have to make disgusting choices.”

Moving on from the general to the particular, specifically the report under discussion, we should approach it with a grain of salt, ideally accompanied by a shot of tequila and possibly a wedge of lime.

Only parts of it have been released, and they do account for gruesome reading indeed. Personally, since I insist that each case must be considered on merit and in its fullness, I don’t see how such consideration is possible in the absence of complete data.

Neither am I going to debate the fine legal points, mainly because I don’t feel qualified to do so. As a matter of general principle, though, I don’t see as valid the complaint that terrorists have been held without due process.

They aren’t chaps who’ve knocked off a convenience shop, or even killed the owner while at it. They are enemy civilians involved in guerrilla action against us, something banned under the Geneva Convention.

I can’t for the life of me see why it’s moral to mow down such people with machinegun fire, but immoral to lock them up beyond the limits stipulated in habeas corpus.

Having said all that, I’m going to make an absolute statement of my own. Torture may or may not be wrong, but legalising it always is.

Before resorting to torture an officer should weigh the moral ramifications of his actions, which in our secular times he’d be unlikely to do if there weren’t any legal ramifications.

A carte blanche issued to torture will inevitably be seized upon by assorted sadists, who would torment suspects for the sheer pleasure of it, rather than to prevent a greater evil – and God knows, intelligence forces and armies have a fair share of those.

Torture is like euthanasia: if it’s made legal, sooner or later it’ll become rife, and then it’ll become compulsory.

It ought to be communicated tacitly that the officer’s superiors may turn a blind eye, but only if they agree that the operational necessity outweighs the moral imperative.

Meanwhile, one hopes that our newspapers will practise moderation which used to be such an endearing trait of the English character.

Wait until all the facts are in, chaps, before passing judgement. And don’t think for a second that the facts will make judgement redundant.


My new book, Democracy as a Neocon Trick, is available from Amazon and the more discerning bookshops. However, my publisher would rather you ordered it from  or, in the USA,


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