Thomas More: “I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake”

by James M. Wall

scofield-cropped1In his press conference Wednesday night, President Obama was asked two questions about torture. In his first answer he referred to an article he read recently. His staff did not initially provide the source, but Huffington Post suggests his source could have been a blog posting by Andrew Sullivan:

In his blog, The Daily Dish, Sullivan wrote:

 Most ordinary people lived through the Blitz, a random 9/11 a week, from an army poised to invade, and turn England’s democratic heritage into a footnote in a Nazi empire.

As all that was happening, and as intelligence was vital, the British captured over 500 enemy spies operating in Britain and elsewhere. Most went through Camp 020, a Victorian pile crammed with interrogators. As Britain’s very survival hung in the balance, as women and children were being killed on a daily basis and London turned into rubble, Churchill nonetheless knew that embracing torture was the equivalent of surrender to the barbarism he was fighting. 

Responding to a second torture question: “Do you believe that the previous administration sanctioned torture?” Obama ignored the “previous administration” reference, evoking instead the Churchillian rationale:

What I’ve said — and I will repeat — is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. I don’t think that’s just my opinion; that’s the opinion of many who’ve examined the topic. And that’s why I put an end to these practices.

I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do, not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.

I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, “We don’t torture,” when the entire British — all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat.

And then the reason was that Churchill understood, you start taking short-cuts, over time, that corrodes what’s — what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.

And — and so I strongly believed that the steps that we’ve taken to prevent these kinds of enhanced interrogation techniques will make us stronger over the long term and make us safer over the long term because it will put us in a — in a position where we can still get information.

In some cases, it may be harder, but part of what makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy.

At the same time, it takes away a critical recruitment tool that Al Qaida and other terrorist organizations have used to try to demonize the United States and justify the killing of civilians.

And it makes us — it puts us in a much stronger position to work with our allies in the kind of international, coordinated intelligence activity that can shut down these networks.

So this is a decision that I’m very comfortable with. And I think the American people over time will recognize that it is better for us to stick to who we are, even when we’re taking on an unscrupulous enemy.

Later, in the press conference the subject was revisited :

QUESTION; Did you read the documents recently referred to by former Vice President Cheney and others saying that the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” not only protected the nation but saved lives?

And if part of the United States were under imminent threat, could you envision yourself ever authorizing the use of those enhanced interrogation techniques?

OBAMA: I have read the documents. Now they have not been officially declassified and released. And so I don’t want to go to the details of them. But here’s what I can tell you, that the public reports and the public justifications for these techniques, which is that we got information from these individuals that were subjected to these techniques, doesn’t answer the core question.

Which is, could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these techniques? And it doesn’t answer the broader question, are we safer as a consequence of having used these techniques?

So when I made the decision to release these memos and when I made the decision to bar these practices, this was based on consultation with my entire national security team, and based on my understanding that ultimately I will be judged as commander-in-chief on how safe I’m keeping the American people.

That’s the responsibility I wake up with and it’s the responsibility I go to sleep with. And so I will do whatever is required to keep the American people safe. But I am absolutely convinced that the best way I can do that is to make sure that we are not taking short cuts that undermine who we are.

That is the right answer. Taking shortcuts that “undermine who we are” takes us in the wrong direction. 

The President’s stand on principle echoes the experience of Sir Thomas More, the 16th-century Lord Chancellor of England, whose whose real life story is told in the 1966 film, A Man for All Seasons.

Early in the film, Cardinal Wolsley (played by Orson Welles) summons More (Paul Scofield) to his palace. The Cardinal needs More to help him persuade the Pope to grant King Henry the right to divorce his wife.

The Cardinal argues that the divorce is for the benefit of both king and country. Henry has no male heir; he expects a new wife to provide him with one. More responds: “No, Your Grace, I’m not going to help you.”     An angry Cardinal Wolsey insists that if More could see “facts flat on” without his “horrible moral squint”, he “might have made a statesman,” evoking this calm rebuke from More:

“I think that when statesmen forsake their own private consciences for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to choas.”

In another pivotal moment later in the film, William Roper  (Corin Redgrave) visits Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) to ask for permission to marry his daughter Meg (Susannah York).

In this clip from the film, More receives a second visitor, a weak and amoral man, Richard Rich (John Hurt), who first warns Sir Thomas that he is surrounded by spies (of which Rich is surely one), then begs More for a job. 

Rejected, Rich leaves. More’s daughter shouts at her father that Rich should be arrested for being a “bad man”. More refuses, and insists Rich should remain free: “Go he should. If he were the devil himself, until he broke the law”. 

WILLIAM ROPER: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

SIR THOMAS MORE: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

The debate will continue over how to treat those who were responsible for torture during the Bush presidency. Meanwhile, the Congress could investigate and the Attorney General could prosecute. But the chief executive has made his position clear.

He opposes torture because it is wrong, ineffective, and unworthy of a nation of laws. He intends to carry out his duty to protect the American people by living up to the highest values of this democracy. It is a stand that is both pragmatic and principled.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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4 Responses to Thomas More: “I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake”

  1. clancop says:

    Where will your “morality” be when society is torn apart by those you are so willing to grant legal rights which they have no rights to?

    As for the Churchill nonsense, it wasn’t true. The whole meme started with Andrew “Trig’s not Sarah Palin’s baby” Sullivan, and it was not true. In WWII, the British ran an interrogation center called “the Cage”, where detainees were subject to and threatened with everything from exposure to extreme hot and cold and “unnecessary surgery”. Matter of fact, British run interrogation centers in Germany after the war went even further, even killing inmates, according to Ian Cobain, a reporter for the Guardian newspaper.

    As for whether or not Churchill did or did not support this, it is unlikely that the former British leader would publicly admit to allowing this. He, though being a prisoner of war during the Boar War, wasn’t afraid of making the hard choices. Knowing that the lives of his people were in jeopardy, he was forced to make decisions that he didn’t agree with but knew would help protect his country.

    Your idealistic ideas is ill-informed and your morality concerning those who have sworn to kill us and destroy our society is simply foolish… Pathetic…

  2. The Engineer says:

    I am confident that we can fend off people like you who want to tear down society without having to resort to torture. That is what separate people who want to tear down our society, such as you and the taliban, from us who fight to preserve it.

  3. Eric says:

    Doubtful anybody is reading this anymore, but here goes anyway… Clancop, the problem is WHO, exactly, has “sworn to kill us and destroy our society”? Forget for a moment that terrorist organizations are not capable of destroying our society – they have not the means; rather, what they want is to scare us into destroying our own society. A terrorist’s objective is not to kill (the killing is almost incidental); a terrorist’s objective is to spread terror. But let that go for now… In my opinion, torture in situations in which you KNOW the guy knows something, and you KNOW he has been in on systematic terrorism and resulting loss of innocent life… well… then I actually feel like it’s okay. Admittedly, this makes me a Cretin, but I have no sympathy for those for whom there is no doubt that they are both guilty and in possession of vital intelligence, and I say go ahead and torture away (though, even then, most experts agree that the intel gained from torture is notoriously unreliable, for various reasons). However, where we have really taken a wrong turn as a nation is in the fact that we have undoubtedly been torturing at least some innocent people. Folks scooped up in a drag net, folks turned in by other folks who were trying to protect themselves, folks we have not tortured, but have turned over to other countries, knowing those countries WILL torture them… THIS is my problem with torture. If KSM, for example, was tortured… well who cares? He damn well deserved it, IMO – whether we gleaned intel from him or not. However, if even one, single, solitary innocent person has been tortured, then we have lost our way as a nation – in fact, ironically, we have betrayed the very same good aspects about Western-style freedom and democracy that we are hoping these folks will one day embrace.

  4. BOBBY RIZZO says:


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