Coercion and Torture
Despite my disagreement with his position on interrogations, I have to give credit to Marc Thiessen for at times using the term “coercive interrogations” for those controversial methods he believes do not reach the level of torture. Unlike the adjectives “enhanced,” “aggressive,” or “harsh,” which tell us next to nothing definitive about the interrogation methods, the adjective “coercive” has a clear-cut meaning.
Coercing someone differs from motivating someone, even when painful possibilities or realities are used as instruments of motivation. Motivation works with a person’s will. Coercion works to undermine it. Coercion forces one to act involuntarily, without volition or will. It forces a one to act contrary to their nature as a person, as a free moral agent.
We can distinguish coercive interrogation techniques from torture not because torture doesn’t involve coercion – it does – but because not all coercive techniques involve the infliction of severe physical or mental pain. Torture is one type of coercion.
Contrary to Thiessen, I oppose all coercive interrogation techniques, whether or not those techniques fall into the category of torture. Why? Because coercion is a sin against the person; it reduces the one coerced into a mere means to an end, and does so by stripping him of his capacity to make free, moral decisions. To be sure, we may take away a person’s liberty by putting him in prison, but the prisoner is for that imprisonment no less of a free, moral agent, capable of making free, moral decisions. But to coerce a person is to render them less than a person.
Thiessen would call me a radical pacifist for holding this position, a label I wouldn’t be quick to shake off, but he would be more accurate to call me a personalist. Personally, I think a society that disrespects the person is not long for the world.