No Comment, Six Questions — August 14, 2009, 2:09 pm

Six Questions for Derek S. Jeffreys, Author of Spirituality and the Ethics of Torture

While a great volume of material has been published about torture from a political or legal perspective, there have been relatively few publications addressing the spiritual and moral dimensions of the issue. University of Wisconsin professor Derek S. Jeffreys tries to fill the gap with a new book entitled Spirituality and the Ethics of Torture. I put six questions to Prof. Jeffreys about his book.

1. You write that “we cannot adequately comprehend the immorality of torture without considering our inner life”—suggesting your view that religious values are indispensible to resolution of the torture debate. But polling shows that frequent churchgoers, particularly those who identify themselves as evangelicals, are high among the groups most likely to accept torture. How do you explain this?


Human beings are remarkable creatures who can intellectually transcend their environment, develop an inner self-possession, and give unselfishly to others. These spiritual qualities give them a moral dignity that no government can remove. Sadly, both religious and non-religious people often disregard it. Some evangelicals strongly oppose torture, but as you note, many churchgoers also support it. They ignore their own rich spiritual traditions and adopt standard secular ways of thinking about torture. National security concerns, ticking bomb scenarios, and nationalism are deeply seductive. We need to challenge them by retrieving neglected spiritual ideas and practices. What’s clear also is that those of us opposing torture have a lot more work to do in churches, synagogues, and mosques.

2. Jean Elshtain and neocon writers like Charles Krauthammer object strongly to those who reject torture on purely moral grounds saying that they are guilty of self-indulgence—putting the purity of their conscience ahead of the safety and security of the community. How do you respond to this argument?

In an age where politicians arrogantly dismiss the past and claim we face entirely new situations, we might benefit from a previous generation’s wisdom… [W]e must counter evil by retaining the deepest elements of our spirituality. With them we can reject the manipulation of memory prominent in the War on Terror. We can resist torture’s assault on the human spirit and display our compassion for those it harms. Above all, we can recall our dignity as embodied spirits capable of seeking what is true and good in our world.

—From Spirituality and the Ethics of Torture
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Palgrave Macmillan. Copyright (c) 2009 Derek Jeffreys

The self-indulgence argument is emotionally powerful but philosophically flawed. Some people opposing torture are squeamish about violence and value their moral purity over the community’s welfare. We shouldn’t elect them to public office. However, others rejecting torture aspire to live in a community that respects the dignity of all persons. They struggle to institutionalize this respect in our institutions. For example, many military leaders think torture is incompatible with American values. We demean their efforts to ban it by calling them self-indulgent. I hope we can stop casting this aspersion and begin to consider more serious ethical issues.

3. Elshtain and Krauthammer, among others, also defend torture on purely consequentialist grounds—essentially arguing that “torture works,” and that it would therefore be foolish to withdraw it entirely from the arsenal of tools available to the state. Is this consequentialist argument sustainable or are they missing something?

Consequences are important in our lives, but consequentialism holds that they should determine an act’s moral quality. On this view, we can justify torture by showing how it protects lives or exhibits our political power. Despite its popularity, consequentialism is fatally flawed because it assumes we can precisely measure consequences. We can roughly calculate them, but our record of economic and other calculations is often quite poor. Moreover, we cannot quantify spiritual realities like love and beauty. For example, we cannot divide and measure our experiences of listening to Mozart’s music. Once we include spiritual values in public policy considerations, consequentialism falls apart. Grounding an ethic in a person’s dignity provides a far more secure foundation for political and social life.

4. You fashion an argument against the consequentialists and in favor of an absolute rule of prohibition drawing on the writings of Friedrich von Hayek. Can you draw this out for us?

Hayek famously opposed state-controlled economies by arguing that states lack the information necessary to make large-scale decisions. They possess little knowledge of local conditions, and cannot predict how multiple actors will interact. I don’t share all of Hayek’s views, but use him to show that we can’t know if torture “works” as an institution. In one case, it might produce valuable intelligence, while in another it might yield false information that leads to rash actions. Given multiple cultures and institutions, we cannot say with confidence that torture produces good consequences. Some social scientists and policy-makers hope that analytic and technological tools will enhance our predictive powers. In contrast, I think our ignorance of consequences remains endemic to social and political life.

5. The “dirty hands” approach, which Michael Walzer derived from Max Weber, Albert Camus, Niccolò Machiavelli, and others, suggests that a political leader may have to violate moral rules in the interest of protecting the state. It also suggests that a good leader must be prepared to suffer the penalty for such actions, a point which Machiavelli made with a celebrated anecdote from the life of Cesare Borgia. But the accepted wisdom of the Beltway is that political leaders can’t be held to account for torture because to do so would disturb the equilibrium of the political system. Is this an ethically sustainable position?


For years, I struggled with the dirty hands view, and I still find its picture of moral ambiguity in politics attractive. Political leaders face terrible moral dilemmas that sometimes seem insoluble. I have come to believe, however, that the dirty hands view offers no guidance for statecraft and leaves leaders too much leeway for decision-making. The classic dirty hands position holds that leaders incur moral guilt for the sake of the community. The dirty hands thinker should therefore be consistent, and demand that Bush Administration officials accept penalties for their acts. Trials or public inquiries about torture can dangerously disturb the political system’s equilibrium. Nevertheless, political stability often masks profound injustice, and justice demands that we hold torturers responsible for their actions.

[Machiavelli] extols the brutal action of Cesare Borgia, the son of a Renaissance pope. Confronting disorder in Romagna, Borgia appointed Messer Remirro de Orca to suppress it. A “cruel and efficient man,” de Orca soon stamped out chaos. Pretending to be shocked by his action, Borgia publicly executed de Orca by having him “placed one morning in Cesena on the piazza in two pieces with a piece of wood and a bloodstained knife alongside him.” The atrocity of such a spectacle left those people at one and the same time satisfied and stupefied. With this example, Machiavelli recognizes torture’s expressive power, its capacity to simultaneously intimidate and fascinate a populace. Borgia’s action may appear cruel, he notes, but is really compassionate because it creates order and protects the innocent.

—From Spirituality and the Ethics of Torture
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Palgrave Macmillan. Copyright (c) 2009 Derek Jeffreys

6. President Obama makes the argument that the nation must “move on” from the torture issue. But you make the argument that memory and institutions are essential for resolving the torture question. Explain your position.

We cannot “move beyond” torture because it remains with us in memory and in the lives of torture victims and perpetrators. We have tortured thousands of people, leaving them with deep psychological and physical scars. If we don’t try to heal them, the pernicious effects of torture will appear in anger, historical mendacity, and revenge. To counter this poison, we must honestly acknowledge that we tortured. Some Americans may find this admission difficult because they think our country is morally exceptional. Open discussions, media and university symposia, and other mechanisms can help us come to terms with the truth. In many countries, truth commissions have also been a valuable way to address torture’s aftermath. Carefully constructed, they cultivate a proper appreciation for torture’s horror. I am, therefore, deeply saddened that President Obama refuses to appoint a truth commission. The recent controversies over detainee abuse photographs and the International Committee of the Red Cross reports show that he cannot ignore torture’s legacy. I commend the president for renouncing torture, but wish he would more honestly deal with past crimes.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Acres of crossword puzzles Americans fill in each day:


In Burma, a newly discovered noseless monkey was assumed to be critically endangered because—despite its efforts to keep its head tucked between its legs on rainy days—it sneezes whenever rain falls into its nasal cavity and thereby alerts hunters to its presence.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racketon the clock

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today