Waterboarding and the Ethics of Expediency

By John F. Harriman

Waterboarding keeps popping up in the news. The CIA has announced that three terrorist suspects have been subjected to waterboarding since 9/11, though the current director questions its legality. The director of intelligence and the White House assert that waterboarding may be used in the future. The attorney general refuses to discuss it. The vice president says that waterboarding has saved thousands of lives. What are we to think?

Suppose that you hold a captive who you are sure has information about a bombing plot. You must get that information out of him (or her?) to prevent an act of terrorism. Do you waterboard? Suppose that you also hold his wife captive. She is ignorant and innocent. Do you waterboard her before his eyes to force him to confess? Suppose you also hold their five children. Do you kill them, beginning with the eldest, to get him to confess? Remember, you are responsible for saving thousands, if not millions of lives.

I call this “the ethics of expediency.” Are you 100% certain that the captive has the information you need? Suppose that by the strength of Allah (assuming, as is likely, that the captive is Muslim) he holds out. Suppose that the information he has is no longer relevant, because the terrorists have changed their plans. But you have started down the slippery slope to—what? I am old enough to remember the horror of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and we didn’t know half of it until the 1940s after WWII.

The Geneva Convention (1950) is perfectly clear. “No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.”

You’ve probably heard the hypothesis that captured terrorists are not technically prisoners of war. More expedient equivocation. The U.S. holds them. The U.S. is responsible for them.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident.” What are these truths? Our inherent (“God-given”) human rights—yours, mine, and the terrorists’. This is the fundamental principle of ethics.

Granted, ethics is a complex, difficult subject, especially in our pluralist society where we come from all points of the compass. But we do have dialogue and we can reach ethical consensus. Witness hospital ethics committees that must face questions of life and death. Witness professional associations that set ethical standards beyond what the law requires. Witness the Geneva Conventions, which are the consensus of many nations.

Christians (I am one), with their Judaeo-Christian heritage of the Ten Commandments and centuries of ethical pondering and dialogue (and debate and transgressions), should be speaking—no, shouting out. I’m listening for the voices of the churches.

Will our government follow the Geneva Convention, or practice the ethics of expediency? Ultimately it is up to the citizenry. That’s us.

– John F. Harriman, PhD, lives in Bellingham, Washington; he contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com

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