I’m sitting on a train with my workmate when conversation turns to torture. (No reflection on our employer at the time. Well, not much of a reflection.)
It’s doubtful that many people are advocates for torture as a method of information extraction. But what about when it’s for the “greater good”? We’re talking Hollywood style: we’ve got a key player in a terrorist network sitting in front of us and we know that a megaton bomb is hidden somewhere in the city, poised to blow millions of innocent people into smithereens. We need to get information from our prisoner, and fast.
Most people won’t want to admit it, but I think we’d all justify in our minds that sometimes heavy handed tactics have to be used for the collective good – one person’s suffering vs the death of millions. A presumably straightforward choice, right?
So let’s say they don’t talk. We’ve done every horrible thing we can possibly conceive of to break them, and still, they’re holding firm. Time is ticking. We’re down to an hour until the world as we know it goes boom.
Unnamed expendable agent who hasn’t been part of the scenario until now suddenly barges on screen into the interrogation room and announces we’ve got their family. We’ve swooped in, and scooped the whole lot up, and now their kids and partner are sitting in the room next door. We see a flicker of emotion across our terrorists face. And we know: the way to get them to talk is to threaten to harm their family.
Where would you draw the line? If the terrorist didn’t talk after we threatened their kids with words. If you knew millions of people were going to die, could you actually hurt a child to get the information you needed to save lives?
Morals are a very grey area. You’ll often hear people declaring that they would “never” do A, B, or C. But D is perfectly ok. Why is it fine to chow down on a cow, but not socially acceptable to eat an animal that is deemed a pet?
Why is it ok to sneak a peek at your partner’s open mail on the table, but not acceptable to read their emails on their open laptop in the lounge?
Is there any reason why stealing a packet of gum from your local mum and dad run corner shop is worse than stealing that same packet from a huge multi billion dollar business like Walmart?
When you borrow money off your friends knowing full well you can’t pay it back when you say you can, is that any worse than telling a bank that you’re good for the loan repayments you can’t afford?
If you were a Nazi soldier and it was a choice between the safety of your family, or the heinous crimes of your job – what would you do?
When you start saying what’s right or wrong, and what you would or wouldn’t do, it’s easy to slide into indignant outrage that anyone would question your moral fibres. It’s unfortunately also far too easy to forget just how blurred the lines can be.
I keep learning, the older I get, and the more of the world that I experience, how easy it is to judge and how hard it is to really understand. I’m not saying that everyone should be given understanding – I’m definitely not one to stand by and excuse criminals for their behavior because of their upbringing, or their lack of education, or a childhood experience that left them traumatised. I do believe that everyone is guided by a moral compass, and we shouldn’t make excuses for people who don’t take responsibility for their own actions.
But there are times when I ask myself – could I sacrifice my family and friends, the people I love and would do anything to protect, to save the lives of others? And I just don’t know the answer.
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