It was another pointless day at my community college. The usual agitators in my English 204 class had started a discussion which ranged far off its original course, and finally degenerated into an argument about that old cliche: If you knew a nuclear weapon was about to explode in a city in a few hours, and you had the perpetrator in custody, would it be ethical to torture him until he gave up and disclosed the bomb’s location?
Jenny, an earnest Marxist with deep blue eyes and an equally deep bosom, passionately laid out her reasoning for appealing to the terrorist’s human side, and stated that the end “…never justified the means, if the means were really mean.”
Paul, our designated conservative, opined that “…in the event that the torture was successful, and the city was saved, the President would surely pardon the torturer. In any case, what right does scum like that have to due process?”
Our instructor, a bored remnant of the Seventies, a blasé man in a tweed jacket, interjected a homily about the ineffectiveness of torture, but lost the thread somewhere in a dazed rant about the political system.
I was hoping Jenny would bounce up again – but then another student spoke up. None of us knew him by name. He was one of those colorless, middle-aged students who came in, took their notes quietly, and left, just collecting their credits for whatever reason. His voice was flat and unemotional.
“You’re all missing the point. There’s nothing philosophical about torture. It’s an act you perform because at the time you feel you have to. You don’t think about the morality of it. It’s beyond that. You have another human being before you, and you need the information. You have to be right. You just do it.”
The plain man rubbed his forehead. We were silent.
“He’s there, and he doesn’t want to tell you what you need to know. You’re there, and you have no choice. You just do it. In his agony, you know he’ll tell you anything he can think of—lies, fantasies, half-truths. So you have to take it to the end. You have to get to that point where he knows he’s going to die, where he’s bleeding from everywhere, and he knows the pain won’t stop, won’t stop until that last labored breath. He’s soiled himself several times. There’s bile on the floor. He’s drowning in his own sweat, and it smells of fear. The stench of him fills the room. You keep pressing him, until in that final haze of pain, just before he dies, you’re sure.”
There was no sound in that room except our breathing. The plain, middle-aged man placed his palms gently on the desk in front of him, and looked around at us.
“Don’t we all just do what we have to?”
He put his little notepad under his arm and left the classroom, just as the bell rang. We never saw him again.
–William V. Burns