Reflections on reactions to the Senate’s report on CIA interrogation methods

The mixed reaction to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA interrogation and detention programs is not surprising given the political polarization in our society.

Much has been written about the political motivations influencing those supporting and opposing the report. That politics has influenced responses almost goes without saying.

Nevertheless, this should not discount the substance of the report, which reveals serious moral failings. The actions described in the report harm the U.S.’s reputation and credibility, and must be addressed through policy revisions and increased oversight moving forward.

What surprises, and disappoints, me most is the response of the U.S populace.

According to a Pew Research survey following the report’s release, 56 percent of Americans said the CIA tactics were justified. 51 percent affirmed their belief that the techniques produced information that helped prevent terror attacks.

These responses are striking because the report describes interrogation methods that most would define as torture, and asserts that no credible evidence exists to affirm that the tactics provided “actionable intelligence.”

A column in The Washington Post summed up the reaction well: “That big CIA ‘torture’ report? Americans just shrugged.”

The survey did not ask respondents to comment on their views of the methods used (“enhanced interrogation”) in light of the results obtained (“actionable intelligence”), but it seems that this connection is influencing those who support the interrogation tactics.

In other words, the logic of ends justify means is being employed by those who support and defend the CIA’s tactics.

Brian Kaylor reported that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler stated: “We can conceive that there just might be circumstances in something like the war on terror in which one horrifyingly, even immoral thing, may be outweighed by an even more horrifying more immoral reality.”

“The rendition, detention, and interrogation program [the CIA] created, of which enhanced interrogation was only a small part, enabled a stream of collection and intelligence validation that was unprecedented,” the minority report from GOP leaders on the Senate Intelligence Committee asserted.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney defended the CIA’s methods, stating, “I would do it again in a minute” because “it worked.”

CIA Director John Brennan admitted that some actions described in the report were “not authorized, were abhorrent and rightly should be repudiated by all.” Yet, he defended the overall program as having provided some useful information: “This agency did a lot of things right during this difficult time to keep this country strong and secured.”

Those defending “enhanced interrogation” methods appear to be influenced, perhaps unknowingly, by utilitarianism.

Popularized by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, this ethical system asserts that right and wrong are not fixed concepts, but rather are determined by the achievement of the most positive results for the greatest number of persons.

An often-quoted statement from Bentham’s “A Fragment on Government” summarizes this logic well: “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”

The morality of an action is determined solely by the greater good that it produces. By this logic, torture that produces information to prevent further terrorist attacks is tolerable, moral.

Though he was not addressing utilitarianism directly, in his book “The Irony of American History” Reinhold Niebuhr cautioned against this approach to ethics.

He critiqued “those who are ready to cover every ambiguity of good and evil in our actions by the frantic insistence that any measure taken in a good cause must be unequivocally virtuous.” Niebuhr also warned of “the monstrous consequences of moral complacency about the relation of dubious means to supposedly good ends.”

Sadly, the Pew Research survey reveals that a majority in the U.S. has failed to heed his advice.

In contrast to the utilitarian ethics being widely employed, the Bible sets forth an ethical system that requires both means and ends to be moral. Biblical ethics require the common good to be pursued neither at the expense of the many nor the few.

A fundamental biblical teaching is that all people are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and, therefore, have inherent value and should be treated with dignity at all times.

This is the ultimate basis for human rights and it precludes torture, even in the context of war and even when it is said to achieve a greater good such as “actionable intelligence.”

Torture is always immoral, and information obtained through torture, even if it does save the lives of many, does not make it a moral act.

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