To the Editor:
I am pleased that you published the letter from Howard Pitts in response to mine about information derived from torture. It is very important that we in Canada discuss this issue from all possible points of view because it is not a simple one, and we need to know what we think our country should do and why.
Studies of how people are turned away from the values that they are deeply committed to, such as justice, patriotism, honesty, all indicate that it begins with a small compromise that seems either insignificant or the lesser of two evils.
Another important factor is being authorized to violate your values so the individual actors do not feel personally responsible for the consequences of their actions. These are also techniques used by gangs to recruit. Philip Zimbardo illustrated this dramatically in a psychological experiment called the Stanford Prison Study in which perfectly normal university students were divided into "guards" and "prisoners." The guards were authorized to give the prisoners electric shocks. The results were so rapid and terrible that the experiment was cancelled after a few days.
I am convinced that this use of the results of torture by our government is like that experiment. If we allow it, we are one step closer to losing our collective souls. Some things cannot be touched without changing everything, because on some essential level the commitment is total. A woman is either pregnant or not. No one can be a little bit pregnant. Likewise a country cannot be a little bit involved with torture. We are either committed to torture or not.
Mr. Pitts put forward the idea that information from torture could save lives. This is called the "ticking bomb" problem, which presents a "what-if" scenario common to discussions of situational ethics. There are two problems with Mr. Pitt's argument. First, he fails to recognize that torture is not guaranteed to produce accurate information. To get the torture to stop people will say whatever they think their torturer wants to hear. Second, the scenario he described, of the Toronto subway (which I love to ride), and the ticking bomb scenarios are more likely to be found in a Die Hard movie than real life. There seems to be a lot of fear mongering in our country lately and many people are becoming hostages to fear, which of course leaves us vulnerable to being manipulated whether it is so we will buy antibacterial soap or the acceptability of torture.
There are better ways to save lives than accepting the results of third party torture. Agencies such as Amnesty International, the United Nations, Democracy Watch, organizations that work for food security, economic justice, racial equality, access to water, health care and education, good-faith diplomacy and access to lawyers are all ways to save lives without torture.
As long that is, as the lawyers do not co-operate with governments that break the law or devise laws that violate human rights.
Life far too regularly presents us with situations that have no easy answers. Canadian use of the results of torture is one of them. But let's not allow ourselves to be trapped by arguments with invalid premises. Consider all possible responses. Realistically assess the situation we need to address. Often we will find that the situation is different from what a simplistic "us-or-them" viewpoint presents.
This changes what we need to respond to; in effect changing the situation, and changing the situation changes the outcome.
We do have choices.
Rev. Leslie-Elizabeth King
St. John's United Church and Advent Lutheran Church