In a current posting on Sojourners modestly named God’s Politics blog, Ryan Stewart features the recent excursion of Pastor Seth Kaper-Dale to Washington, DC in order to read the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program – pejoratively known as the Senate Torture Report – outside the US Department of Justice. The veracity, reliability, and interpretation of the report itself has already been the focus of a great deal of debate and I’m not going to enter here into that particular fray. But I am interested in responding briefly, in a wider view, to elements of Stewart’s blog piece, which necessitate some pushback. Specifically, Stewart records Kaper-Dale as being “struck by the obvious injustices perpetrated by his own government.” A few sentences later, Kaper-Dale describes his own “sadness” and “despair” regarding the report and his deep commitment to national repentance. Accompanying the blog is a picture of Kaper-Dale and a pair of colleagues outside the Justice Department holding a banner that reads, “Torture is always wrong.”

Being convinced as I am of the theological integrity of the just war tradition and the belief that war is sometimes not only morally permissible but even obligatory, it is not immediately clear to me why aggressive interrogation is always immoral. If in order to restrain their wrongdoing we can sometimes kill our enemy why can we not hurt them? Under just war’s tutelage, we come to understand that circumstances matter: both the external circumstances cultivated by the aggressor – that is, the presence of a gross threat against civilians against which the application of sufficient counter-force seems to be the only available means of resistance; as well as the internal circumstances of our own disposition – most particularly our intention and motives.

Of course, using the term “aggressive interrogation” will be maligned by some as a disingenuous euphemism. But it gestures instead to the necessity of conceptual nuance. For instance, all too often opponents of interrogative torture refer to the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib. No reputable defender of the CIA’s aggressive interrogation program has likewise defended the Abu Ghraib crimes, intrinsically evil acts of sadism which were never a part of the US interrogation program and the perpetrators of which were prosecuted and imprisoned. Thus, to continue to point to those abuses as an argument against aggressive interrogation is at least either lazy or ignorant if not demonstrative of a willful disregard for the importance of truth telling, to which Christians must be committed even when it weakens their argument. A sad example of this seems to be the book cover to David Gushee’s 2010 edited volume critiquing the American counter-terrorism which depicts the Statue of Liberty with a cloth sack over her head, intentionally evocative, if I’m not mistaken, of one of the more infamous images to emerge from Abu Ghraib. Thus my occasional insistence on “aggressive interrogation” is meant to redress the ongoing dysphemistic employment of the term “torture.” Nevertheless, if we can agree that, here, what we mean by “torture” is the inflicting of harm for the purpose of gaining information to prevent terrorist attacks against citizens then I have no quarrel with the term. So why do some think that torture is always wrong?

Some insist that torture can be used to demonstrate absolute power, to intimidate, to sate the pleasure of doing harm, and to wreak vengeance. All of this is certainly true: torture can be used to accomplish these things and when that is the point – again as it seemed to be in Abu Ghraib – than it is morally wrong by definition. But that it can be used to do these things doesn’t mean that it must do these things nor that it is employed only to do these things. Just as one can kill in war without an active desire to see our enemy suffer, or can kill without hate or vengeful animosity but rather with reluctance, sorrow, and the regret that a non-lethal means of stopping the enemy’s wrongdoing and achieving peace is, in the moment in question, unable to be found, so too does it seem that one can cause harm during interrogation without hate, with manifest regret, and with reluctance – even as one remains convinced that a just cause exists, that the conditions of last resort and proportionality have been met, and that the road to peace leads, because of the terrorist’s own actions and intransigence, through the interrogation room.

Some insist that what makes torture wrong is the application of pain in order to bring about a changed will. But the just war tradition reminds us that this is the very basis of punishment itself – the infliction of harm in order to change another’s mind and to bring about more desirable behavior is equally appropriate in reprimanding a willful child as it is in the common example of bending the arm of a subdued mugger in order to induce him to give up your wallet. The primary difference in all of these examples is located in proportionality and in the ratcheting up of force in direct proportion to the offense and the importance of the intended aim. The infliction of harm is, in any event, not intrinsically wrong. Moreover, one can intend to bend another’s will without hoping to shatter it. This notion of proportionate response relates directly to the assertion that torture is “obviously unjust.” If the application of harm is a proportionate response to an act of ongoing injustice – in these cases the continuing terroristic threat against civilians – I don’t see how aggressive interrogation in these limited and quite rare occurrences, guided by just cause, last resort, and proportion, is anything other than the very pursuit of justice.

There is much more to be said that will remain, for now, unaddressed. I only want to make room for the notion that “obviously unjust” and “always wrong” are assertions against which basic arguments can be sustained. Obviously, then, I think that the assertion that in light of the Senate’s report our nation needs to repent has not yet been proved. One repents for having done wrong. Aggressive interrogation or torture – like war – always results in an evil; that is, it is in the loss of certain essential goods. But to bring about an evil is not always to be guilty of a wrongdoing – there is a crucial distinction between non-moral evil and moral-evil. Aggressive interrogation can, under the limits described, be carried out, however tragically, nevertheless without sin; and therefore without the need for repentance.