Alex Berenson, a reporter for the New York Times, has written a chilling and informative novel, The Faithful Spy, which raises some serious questions about whether it is sometimes right to do evil so that good might result.
In the course of the novel, John Wells, a CIA agent who has infiltrated Al Qaeda, uncovers evidence that a cell in the United States might be about to follow up the 9-11 attack with a far more lethal strike using a biological or nuclear weapon. Before he can get the information he needs to prevent the attack, he is asked to prove his loyalty to Al Qaeda by assassinating a retired general who formerly headed counter-terror operations for the U.S. army.
Wells refuses to carry out the order. He tries instead to save the life of the general without blowing his cover as a CIA agent. Berenson writes: “There were some lines he could not cross. He couldn’t play God and sacrifice one of his countrymen in the hopes of saving others.”
Not all CIA agents in the novel are so scrupulous. Farouk Khan, a rogue Pakistani nuclear physicist who has been captured in Baghdad while in possession of a canister of bomb-making radioactive materials, is whisked away to a secret, overseas CIA interrogation centre. There, with the authority of a top-secret executive order of the United States president, CIA interrogation experts subject him to various forms of torture, including a series of extremely painful shots of electricity from a Taser electrical gun.
Here the novel takes leave of reality. Under terms of United States law, it is a serious criminal offence for the president or anyone else to authorize or commit “an act specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering upon another person within his custody or physical control for the purpose of obtaining information.”
In conformity with this law, CIA interrogators can, and do, subject Al Qaeda operatives to rough treatment, including prolonged interrogations, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement. But under no circumstances can any agent of the United States deliberately torture or kill a prisoner.
This law is intensely controversial. Democratic Senator and presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton has argued for an amendment that would authorize the torture of a captured terror suspect who knows about “an imminent threat to millions of Americans.”
Andrew C. McCarthy, a prominent conservative columnist and former state prosecutor, takes the same view. In an article published last summer in Commentary magazine, he pointed out that the great majority of people who oppose abortion “favour its availability in cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother is at risk.”
Likewise, he contended that almost all the sensible people who oppose the slaughter of innocents would support a just war that is necessary to defeat a profound evil at the cost of death for some innocent civilians.
“Torture is not meaningfully different,” McCarthy argued. Most people deplore torture, but would favour its use if necessary to get information out of a terrorist who is “aware that a radiological bomb will be detonated momentarily in the heart of a major metropolis.”
President George W. Bush disagrees. He rejects all utilitarian arguments for committing torture and deliberately killing the innocent. As a Christian, he takes the view expressed by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans that: “There are those who say: ‘And why not do evil that good may come?’ Their condemnation is just.”
In a statement on torture at the White House on Sept. 6, Bush reiterated: “I want to be absolutely clear with our people, and the world: the United States does not torture. It’s against our laws, and it’s against our values. I have not authorized it – and I will not authorize it.”
Bush is right. In a just war, innocent civilians might inadvertently be killed. And in some exceedingly rare circumstances, ‘abortion’ might be necessary to save the life of the baby’s mother. Nonetheless, it remains true that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral and can never be justified.
And the same goes for torture. Bush should stand by his conviction that there can never be any justification for authorizing or committing torture or murder.