John Perry's Torture:
Religious Ethics and National Security
David Perry

John Perry. Torture: Religious Ethics and National Security. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2005.

QUESTIONS REGARDING THE ethics and legality of coercive interrogation techniques have been debated frequently in the United States since the September 11 attacks and addressed in a number of fine books, including Alan Dershowitz, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge (2002), Sanford Levinson, ed., Torture: A Collection (2004), Michael Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (2004), Mark Danner, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (2004), Human Rights Watch, Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for the U.S. Abuse of Detainees (2005), and Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror (2006).

John Perry, the author of Torture: Religious Ethics and National Security, is an adjunct professor of ethics at the Arthur V. Maura Center for Peace and Justice at the University of Manitoba. He characterizes his book as "an exercise in human rights advocacy from a Roman Catholic perspective." His fundamental claim is that "torture is immoral and sinful not only because it violates the dignity we owe to the human person but also because it directly or indirectly degrades any society that would tolerate it." He describes his method as one of "moral phenomenology," involving careful analysis of the experiences of torture survivors (13-14).

The author's writing style is accessible to general readers. His basic theological and ethical claims will be familiar to Christians. His condemnation of torture as a violation of human dignity is rooted in the Genesis story that people were created in the image of God (43,68-69,161) as well as in the teachings of Christian theologians from Tertullian to popes Nicholas I and John Paul II. Perry also strongly criticizes decisions by some Catholic authorities (including at least three other popes) to endorse torture in the interest of suppressing heresy, defeating communism, and other ends (13, 17-18, 47-50, 55-58,123,127-128).

This book is weakened by the author's tendency to offer sweeping, poorly supported, repetitive or disconnected generalizations, rather than well-organized and sound arguments. For example, on p. 37, Perry tries to ground a right not to be tortured in a right to life, and asks rhetorically, "Is torture less lethal than shooting someone?" (37). Well yes, it can be non-lethal. Of course, torture usually is non-lethal, in which case the question is begged as to how a right to life is automatically violated by torture. A better approach to torture would begin from other ethical principles, such as an obligation to respect human dignity (on which the author draws elsewhere in the book) or an obligation not to inflict pain on someone without their consent and not for their own good.

In addition, the author offers contradictory answers to the empirical question of whether torture ever works in interrogation. Though he initially claims that "torture is a highly inaccurate method," (46), he cites instances when it appears to have been effective against terror suspects (51).

Moreover, his claim that "the rules that bind governments to human rights are treated in a much looser manner during times of war than in times of peace" is misleading, especially when combined with his inference that a state of war permits soldiers to beat detainees, which is simply false (30). Under the Geneva Conventions, which have the same status under federal law as any other international treaty signed by a President and rati­fied by the Senate, U.S. soldiers are legally bound never to attack directly and intentionally noncombatants, and must limit harms to them even when attacking legitimate military targets. They must also treat all detainees humanely. In those respects at least, their obligations are quite similar to those of domestic police officers, who are not permitted to use violence in interrogations even of suspected murderers. Recognizing that atrocities sometimes occur in war does not mean that human rights have any less weight under these circumstances than during peacetime.

Perry also exhibits confusion regarding the distinction in international law between torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment (33-36). This is not to excuse the latter by any means. In a moral sense, they also probably qualify as torture. But the author does not help readers distinguish among potentially conflicting definitions of torture, which surely is vital to advancing public debate on the issue.

The author does not seem to recognize the real ethical dilemma facing an intelligence officer who has detained someone suspected of plotting to kill innocent people, and against whom non-coercive interrogation techniques have been ineffective. If the plot were carried out, would the author say that the intelligence officer is free of moral blame if he refused to use coercive methods that might have saved many lives?

This book is helpful in relating stories of torture victims and torturers which the author has carefully gathered from numerous sources, and in outlining various arguments for and against torture that have been voiced within the Catholic tradition. But on balance, it cannot be recommended to Cresset readers, since it adds little that is original or substantial to the existing scholarly literature and contains many serious flaws in reasoning. Readers would be better served by consulting some of the works cited in the opening paragraph of this review.

David Perry
U.S. Army War College

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