The Ethics of Waterboarding


On Feb. 22, the Justice Department revealed that an internal ethics review conducted by the Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating the CIA's use of waterboarding.

This forced suffocation and inhalation of water, or as former CIA director Porter J. Goss prefers to call it, a "professional interrogation technique," has been used by the United States for over a century to obtain information from prisoners. The Justice Department is now reviewing legal memoranda from 2002 authorizing the use of this and other harsh interrogation methods.

The panel intends to provide guidelines on the appropriateness of waterboarding in the present so-called War on Terror. However, will their discussion deal with the ethical premise of an assumed moral superiority our country has reserved for itself, particularly since 9/11?

During the Senate confirmation hearing of Michael Mukasey as head of the Justice Department in October 2007, Senator Kennedy reminded his colleagues that after the Second World War, Yukio Asano, a military officer, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for administrating a form of waterboarding on U.S. civilians. Here is the ethical question Senator Kennedy raises: Why is waterboarding a punishable offense when the technique is used against Americans, but an acceptable interrogation procedure when used by Americans? Is this merely an example of moral relativism, or is something more profound taking place?

The real question to ask is: What ethical framework must the United States construct to reconcile the moral contradiction of how when others use waterboarding, it is wrong; but when we use it, this is right and correct? This reconciliation can only take place when the United States reserves for itself the right to participate in actions, some of which can be deemed immoral, due to the claim of moral superiority.

This is a moral superiority defined by the negation of those who question the motives of the U.S. or fight against the imposition of its will upon their sovereignty. In short, "I am what I am not."

Put another way, they are terrorists, they are irrational, they are inhuman. Because we are not "them," we are, therefore, civilized, we are rational, we are humane. We may make mistakes, we may participate in poor judgment, but our actions will never be perceived as immoral because, after all, we are who we are--"one nation under God."

The formation of a moral dichotomy based on absolute good (us) and absolute evil (them) creates a reality in which moral discernment is trumped by an exaggerated view of the goodness of the overall character of the U.S. and its leaders, a portrayal requiring, in turn, the dehumanization of those perceived as a threat.

Our political and religious leaders have dismissed with incredulity and with accusations of providing comfort to the enemy a breadth of thoughtful analysis exploring how our global actions might lead some to resort to terrorism, or force some to take other forms of radical action.

In order to preserve The Common Good, unjust acts may need to be imposed. Sadly, the people more likely to engage in acts against humanity are those who demonize their opponents so as to justify actions as necessary evils required to protect The Good.

Ironically, it is in the defense of this type of Good, that the greatest atrocities, like waterboarding, are committed.

Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

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Tags: Miguel De La Torre, Politics, Theology, Torture