Waterboarding: Does the End Justify the Means?

Recently, in the news, there has been much discussion of the interrogation technique known as waterboarding.  This technique simulates drowning and some have called it torture.

But most of the discussions I’ve seen on this topic do not debate whether waterboarding is torture or not, but instead debate whether waterboarding of certain terrorists was successful in obtaining key intelligence that foiled terrorist operations.  In other words, did waterboarding work to extract vital information?

I am deeply troubled by this line of questioning because it clearly misses the point.  Whether waterboarding works or not is hardly the issue, especially if you are a Christian.  If you say that waterboarding is acceptable because it generates crucial intelligence, then you are claiming that the end (gathering intelligence) justifies the means (waterboarding).

There are two major categories of ethical systems: deontological (duty-centered) and teleological (end-centered).  Christian ethics are deontological.  Utilitarianism is a form of teleological ethics.

Christians believe that the end does not justify the means (utilitarianism).  We believe that certain actions are morally wrong, and therefore we avoid them; we believe that certain actions are morally right and we have a duty to fulfill them.  The results of an action do not determine whether it is moral or not.  If waterboarding is truly torture, and we as Christians believe torture is wrong, then it does not matter what results it obtains!  It is still wrong.

I am not going to comment on whether waterboarding is torture, as I have not given it enough thought, but that is the key question that Christians ought to be asking.  We should not be talking about whether the results of waterboarding were successful or not.  That is a clearly non-Christian view of ethics that needs to be avoided by all of us in this debate.

  • There was even a CNN report about a poll which found out that more than 50% of religious Americans support torture! I’ll post about this later.

  • Bill Pratt

    That is depressing. How far we’ve strayed…

  • kay

    If our troops are put through waterboarding, surely that is not torture. We thought this technique up, correct? So why would we put our troops through it if other nations did not even know about?

    Also, what does the Bible say about us standing up for what we think is right? I do pray for Obama, but if some of us think he is leading the country down the wrong path, do we, biblically, have a right so speak out? Like the tea parties.

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Kay,
    My understanding is that simulated drowning is a technique that has been used for a long time by many nations. The method the U.S. uses may be slightly different from other methods, but the general idea holds.

    We should stand up for what is right and I believe Obama is wrong about many things, especially his view on abortion (he is pro-abortion). On the issue of waterboarding, he is at least framing the question correctly. He wants to talk about whether it is torture, while those who agree with waterboarding keep talking about how great the intelligence is that we received from applying it to terrorists.

    My post is saying that many people are discussing the wrong question. Let’s debate whether waterboarding is torture, not whether it helps get information from prisoners. I’m sure it does…

  • Thanks for pointing us to the real issue, which is not whether or not we gained valuable information, but whether or not torture is ethically acceptable.

    When I read about the torture techniques used by our government, I feel like I’m reading The Gulag Archipelago or Tortured for Christ. We are supposed to be the good guys. Torturing prisoners takes us down to the level of our enemies.

  • kay

    What techinques are you reading about, or where can I read them? All I hear about are catapillars, sleep deprivation, throwing them into a padded wall. Guess I am on the wrong side. I am for humane treatment that will keep us safe, and the good guys at the same time. At least we don’t cut heads, hands, feet off. Guess I need to read more about what is being used.
    You are right about us needing to discuss the right question. Are there any examples from God about what to do in times of war?

  • kay

    Thought about torture all night. This is a hard question for a christian to know how to answer. I think I am a christian, hope so anyway.
    Sleep deprivation — ever stay awake for 3 weeks straight watching for foals to arrive? Or depression causes you not to sleep for months. That is not torture, no matter what the cause.
    Sexual humility — what about labor and delivery with a room full of male and female students. Not any privacy there. Or ever have a urine stress test? That is extremely embarrasing.
    Noise bombing — my husband has worked around aircraft engines for over 40 years. Talk about loud. This can not be torture either.
    Punching or kicking — not exactly fun, but not torture. Horses kick pretty hard. They throw you around, into steel fencing and steel walls, that are not padded.
    Don’t know what hooding is.
    Extreme heat or cold — ever “cook” in the Nevada or Arizona heat? The coldest I have been in is minus 12 in Philly. On a trip to Texas that winter, the cab of the pickup had ice inside on the windows all the way to Memphis. That was with the heater going full blast. Maybe have been uncomfortable, but not torture.
    I do not agree with Palestinian hanging.
    Waterboarding — as a youngster in Texas, at the Galveston beach, I was in an undercurrent, fighting to get above water to breathe. That was scary, but not torture.
    Just wanted to share my thoughts.

  • kay

    forgot to mention. Military stand at attention for long period of time.

  • James Rountree

    We as Christians must remember to avoid rationalizations. We must judge with our hearts, but more so with our minds. If it is good, it is turning toward God. If it is not good, it is turning away from God. We must trust in God and know that our choices must be made for eternity and not for short term results. I pray that we will love our enemy, for that is what Jesus taught us to do.

  • kay

    Did not mean to rationalize. Just comparing every day life to what some call torture. Some of us are unfortunate and have a lot of misfortunes in life. Other people seem to have the perfect life. They aren’t given away for adoption, adopted mother dies at early age, adopted father resents child, young husband dies at early age, first baby still born, next child dies at age 7, and on and on. All I am saying is that if you look at life, some people might consider it torture. This has nothing to do with love. Just normal living.

  • James Rountree

    Thank you for expressing your thoughts and feelings.
    I believe that we all have had and will have the same thoughts that you are expressing. We all struggle to understand why there is evil and suffering in this world.

    Evil and suffering are a result of our free will. When we choose evil, suffering is the results. God is patient and will judge all of our sins. We must trust in God and not put our faith in this world.

    Billy wrote an excellent post on the issue of God’s sovereignty and our free will.

    “Can God Be Sovereign and Man Be Free at the Same Time?”

    Our time in this world of evil and suffering is but a blink of an eye compared to eternity. The following verse helps me to know how to view suffering in this world.

    Romans 5:3-5 [NIV]
    “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

    I pray that we all will seek to fill our hearts with God’s love.

  • kay

    Thanks for the post. May be wrong, along with half the other Christians, but to me waterboarding is just a temporary unpleasantry. Life is so much harder. Looking at it that way, waterboarding is not torture. Asked my two Baptist neighbors this afternoon, and they are all for waterboarding. Our troops go throgh it.

    Torture was what happened to the victims of 911, in the burning building, wondering whether to burn or jump.

    And the Airforce One photo op. Those poor people were running for their lives.

    Thanks everyone for the articles and posts.

  • Bill Pratt

    You may be right about waterboarding not being torture. It’s a difficult question. Waterboarding, as I understand it, is meant to provoke physiological responses in the prisoner which come from fear of drowning. In other words, the prisoner’s body reacts because they think they are drowning. Other interrogation methods, like sleep deprivation, good cop/bad cop, playing loud music, and so forth, don’t actually cause the prisoner to think he is dying. Do you think this is why people say it’s torture? I’m not sure. Just kicking the idea around.

    God bless,

  • James Rountree

    I served in the US Army way back in 1985 and was honorably discharged in 1993. I do not believe that we as Christians are to be pacifist. I believe that we must resist evil and that includes taking up arms to do so. I also agree that these types of questions (is waterboarding torture) are valid and worthy questions for us Christians to discuss. I went through prisoner of war training and while it was in a very controlled environment, it was not comfortable. I have never experienced waterboarding, though I have experienced the sensation of drowning in a swimming pool. All of these things in my experiences do not help me to simplify how I feel or think about waterboarding. If anything, my feelings are clearly with the idea of defeating evil and defending freedom, most importantly my freedom of religion. However, I realize that my feelings are contrary to what Jesus tells us to do. I agree that we must seek the answer to a very difficult question; do we live for this world or for God? As Paul teaches us Romans 12:2 “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
    God Bless

  • Steve Cowan

    I think we are just playing semantic games if we refuse to call waterboarding “torture”. Clearly it is. So is sleep deprivation and otehr such interrogation techniques. Just because we can imagine more severe and physically damaging forms of torture does not mitigate the fact that waterboarding is torture. The real question, then, as the original post said, is whether or not torture is always wrong. Or, perhaps more to the point, are all forms of torture always wrong. Just as I think it is clear that waterboarding is torture, I think it is clear that torture is NOT always wrong. My contention is that torture is morally permissible when (1) the torture is necessary to gain intelligence of an immanent act of deadly violence to masses of civilians, (2) the subject of the torture is complicit in that implicity act of violence, and (3) the torture will not result in permanent physical damage. What do you think?

  • kay

    So much to think about. Honestly, I still do not think of waterboarding as torture. Even if the victim does think he is dying, he isn’t. It is just a feeling. People in accidents or deathly ill might think the same thing. Being scared is not real torture. To me torture is more like beheading, amputation, gouging of eyes, etc. These people that were waterboarded chose to join a terrorist orgainzation, so then they suffer the earthly consequences, as do the rest of us when we make poor choices. Heard today that it only last 40 seconds. Bet when the undercurrent got me, it was that long. I was not afraid of dying, just busy trying to get my head above the water. My adopted father was ill for several years. He was so scared to die. Everytime he thought it was near, he would hyperventilate (sp?). He was afraid he would not go to heaven. I still don’t think that was torture. He was just breathing fast until I reminded him to slow down. Sorry, but it may be impossible to change my mind, unless God can do it. Thanks everyone. Enjoy hearing what others think.

  • I just saw how this could be a thin-line debate.

  • James Rountree

    It is never easy to accept that our salvation is not in this world. When we live for this world, we rationalize our actions by what we recieve or achieve in this world. When we live for God, we guard ourselves from doing wickedness, so that even in our suffering we are pleasing in the sight of God. If we believe that by doing evil we are saving someone, it is not God that we serve. Take heart, “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him. Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice.” Proverbs 16:7-8

  • Geno

    well…..1) I dont accept his premise.There has been alot of discussion as to whether waterboarding is torture or not.All some one had to do was listen to the radio talk shows & TV for the following weeks and months when the issue came up.

    2) Unless he clearly lays out from the BIBLE ie;example,commands,principles his presuppositions on Bible ethics are just speculative as to what he”thinks” the bible teaches.Maybe hes right?? but Id like to see him expound from the Word why.

    Good food for thought. Can we think of biblical examples why “the ends justify the mean”? Is it neccessarily wrong?? For the record.WATERBOARDING DOES NO PERMANENT BODILYDAMAGE TO THE PERSON,IT MAINLY SIMULATES DROWNING WHICH INCITES DEATHLY FEAR THAT RESULTS IN CO OPERATION.

    Thats it.

    3) I think the better discussion should be (Are methods such as waterboarding,standing naked on a small square for hours,severe sleep & food deprivation, telling them lies that there family has been killed and more) considered true torture such it leaves no permanent bodily damage on the individual. The idea of (psycological damage) would come into the discussion as well Im sure ,if there is such a thing

  • Thank you, Bill!

    Excellent point! Unfortunately, Christians who side with your valid point seem to be a minority. In my opinion, many Christians have been ‘conned by the Neocons’ since 9/11.

    You may find this ‘Neocon / Christian Quiz’ interesting: