by Charles Fried and Gregory Fried. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 222 pp. Cloth. $24.95. ISBN: 9780393069518.

Reviewed by Zachary Baron Shemtob, Department of Law and Police Science, John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Email: Baronshemtob [at]


In his recent memoir DECISION POINTS (2010), George W. Bush offers a forceful defense of waterboarding. According to the former president, this tactic yielded important high-level information, thereby saving countless American soldiers and citizens. In Bush’s own words, “The CIA interrogation program saved lives. Had we captured more al Qaeda operatives with significant intelligence value, I would have used the program for them as well” (p.171).

Charles and Gregory Fried’s BECAUSE IT IS WRONG take President Bush to task. Not only do the authors’ decry waterboardings' use in the War on Terror, but they declare such practices absolutely and unequivocally abhorrent. As they argue, “nothing can make [torture] anything but wrong and nothing can make what the torturer does anything but wrong” (p. 29). Despite the forceful clarity of their thesis, however, the Frieds’ overall argument is limited by a religiously motivated perspective.

BECAUSE IT IS WRONG begins with an analysis of Golub’s INTERROGATION I, praising the painting’s grim depiction of two soldiers beating a naked man with their truncheons. While most viewers will instinctively recoil from such a depiction, the Frieds argue this moral repugnance is often tempered: What if the tortured man is a serial killer, and therefore somewhat “deserving” of his punishment? And more importantly for their own argument, what if Golub is portraying a “ticking time-bomb scenario,” where torture will elicit information necessary to save hundreds or even thousands of lives?

It is the latter logic, that of the Bush administration, the authors spend most of their book attacking. According to the Frieds, in violating God’s image, torture is wrong in any and all scenarios. This is supported in two distinct yet interrelated ways. First, humans are “not only of transcendent value but of infinite value, of a value and significance than which nothing is greater” (p.37). Torture both degrades and defaces its victims, and thereby denies this inherent value. Second, every human has something of “God in him,” and torturing even the most base individual is simultaneously a sort of assault on the Almighty. As the authors’ summarize, torture by its very nature defaces its target, “and defacing the image of God is something we must not do, whatever else we do” (p.39).

The Frieds next consider the issue of privacy, and whether wiretapping should be treated as seriously as torture. Although they recognize such programs' potential for abuse, the Frieds respect the Constitution’s medium ground here. According to them, the Fourth Amendment’s prevention of “unreasonable searches and seizures” avoids granting the state open access to everyone’s lives, while also protecting [*12] the populace from those who seek to harm it. Though privacy is certainly valuable, unlike torture, it therefore does not hold absolute value; privacy’s “boundaries are set by custom and law and every intrusion on” it “might in exigent circumstances be justified if only certain limits…are observed” (p.109). As the authors’ summarize, while wiretapping may be wrong because it is illegal, “torture is illegal because it is wrong”; we may seek a middle way, but “there is none” when it comes to such actions (p.25, p.146).

The book concludes by contemplating the greater responsibility of political actors, and again considers the “ticking time-bomb scenario.” If an entire community is threatened, can torture then be justified? Dick Cheney is singled out here for his (in)famous statement that such scenarios will and must invariably move us “to the dark side” (p.141). Unsurprisingly, the authors find Cheney’s stance both philosophically and morally repugnant. Though the authors again stress their absolute claim, however, they also ground this argument in more utilitarian reasoning. According to the Frieds, once allowed, such barbarous methods are unlikely to dissipate: “once a community makes that kind of power available…it is all too likely that a monster will appear to seize it, because that kind of power by its very nature knows no bounds” (p.148). And indeed, President Bush’s own position likely embodies this fear: While Bush (almost proudly) declares waterboarding used in only thirty cases, he entirely overlooks even darker policies of extraordinary rendition and “outsourcing” our abuses to foreign lands (Bush, p.169).

Before expressing my reservations with the authors’ argumentation (if not their conclusions), let me stress the work’s strengths. Unlike many political and philosophical works, BECAUSE IT IS WRONG is clearly written and forcefully articulated. Readers are left with little doubt of the authors’ stance, and such moral clarity is powerful and refreshing. This is unsurprising given both men’s pedigree; Charles Fried is a brilliant legal scholar, and his son Gregory an original and innovative philosopher (the latter’s HEIDEGGER’S POLEMOS (2000), remains the single best survey of Heidegger’s philosophy I have yet come across). I also deeply admire the authors’ honesty. The final chapter is especially powerful, expressing the Frieds’ own disagreement with whether the Bush White House’s leaders should be prosecuted. While Greg demands such “loose ends be tied,” Charles (and I) worry that such an action will handcuff current and future administrations from crucial but potentially controversial policy decisions (p.163).

The works impressive intellectual force and moral clarity, however, cannot right its greatest defect: BECAUSE IT IS WRONG is grounded in a religious eschatology, and the authors’ various claims to the contrary continuously come off as inconsistent and somewhat disingenuous. An openly religious stance would undoubtedly alienate a particular readership, but remain philosophically consistent. Instead, the authors appear to want it both ways, refusing to make a “religious commitment” while steeping their argument in religious terminology (p.49).

This contradiction becomes apparent at BECAUSE IT IS WRONG’s start. Recognizing their argument rests on the notion that man is made in God’s image, the Fried’s nevertheless deny taking a [*13] purely religious viewpoint. As the authors’ remark, “humanists have similarly celebrated the sacredness of the human person” (p.37). Only a single example of this (being a passage from Shakespeare) is provided, however, which is itself steeped in religious allusions (“What a piece of work man is…how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” (p.37)). Left unmentioned are purely secular humanists ranging from Voltaire and Rosseau to Bentham and Russell. One must assume that postmodernists are beyond the pale entirely. The authors’ further assert that their religious discourse may be taken as metaphor, yet offer no secular theory of natural rights in its place. And they pointedly condemn torture’s distortion, destruction, or impairment of its victims’ “souls,” a notion entirely inseparable from religious mores (pp. 55-56).

Those who find God’s image problematic to invoke in intellectual debate may take refuge in more utilitarian forms of reasoning. And, as mentioned earlier, the authors’ themselves adopt a more consequentialist schema when invoking the “ticking time bomb scenario.” This stance not only contradicts BECAUSE IT IS WRONG’s previous deontological framework, however, but results in a rather unconvincing slippery slope. According to the Frieds, the decision to torture in even the most extreme scenarios risks spreading such tactics like cancer: “Today, some argue that we should torture the enemy only in ticking-time bomb scenarios…But tomorrow, why not torture citizen criminals here at home, if that too might save lives?” (p.164). Yet such logic seems a gross oversimplification. The reason that torturing terrorists may be justified is because such figures are particularly dangerous. Waterboardings’ defenders, shrill as they may be, seem unlikely to advocate “enhanced” interrogation for even the most heinous of “common” criminals. After all, it is a rare “citizen criminal” who threatens thousands of lives with one phone call, or who seeks biological, chemical, or even nuclear weapons. Where to draw the line here will admittedly be arbitrary, but may be better than drawing no line at all (as the Frieds would have us do).

Can there then be a “middle ground” on torture? Can we separate the ideologically warped yet strategically clueless al Qaeda underling from Khalid Sheik Mohammed? Or, as the authorsassert, is torturing either man universally and fundamentally wrong? Despite the Frieds’ categorical pleas, BECAUSE IT IS WRONG left this reader uncertain. In one striking passage, Charles and Gregory Fried cite the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous quotation that our beliefs, no matter how sophisticated or structured, eventually “hit bedrock and our spade is turned” (p.48). By couching man in “God’s image,” the Frieds’ invoke man’s sacredness, ultimately turning their spade on religious grounding. Where secularists are to turn, however, remains frustratingly unresolved.

Bush, George W. 2010. DECISION POINTS. New York: Crown Publishing Group.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Zachary Baron Shemtob.