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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Torture: Is it Always Wrong?


Event Recap

Kenneth Himes, O.F.M., chairman of the Boston College theology department, delivered a presentation provocatively titled “Torture: Is It Always Wrong?” to a packed room at the Boisi Center on November 11. There is no doubt, he said, that the United States government committed acts of torture during the Bush administration. The debate at this point should focus not on whether we tortured in the past, but how to think about it in the future.

Drawing upon extensive research and reflection on the question, Himes made the case that torture is morally impermissible, always and everywhere, because torture violates the dignity and integrity of the individual in ways that cannot be repaired. Torture also irrevocably changes the torturer, violating that person’s dignity as well.

Himes added that the scenarios often given in defense of torture are not realistic and don’t actually defend the use of torture. The most common of these is the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario, in which a bomb is planted in a metropolitan area, a suspect is captured, and authorities torture him until he confesses to the location of the bomb. Himes argued that this scenario is more likely to appear on television than in reality, and also said that torture wouldn’t necessarily be useful – the suspect could spit out misleading information just to get the torture to stop.

Finally, Himes tackled the question of whether or not past abuses should be prosecuted. He said that while he sympathizes with President Obama’s desire to move forward, ignoring past abuses would fail to set an important precedent. This, he said, should not be permitted. Torture must never be allowed as a matter of U.S. policy, regardless of who is in office.