Brother Ivo has lived a fairly broad life so, as the world considers the US Senate report on the interrogation of prisoners, you may not be entirely surprised to hear of a conversation he once had with a former work colleague who mentioned in casually that he had once electrically tortured someone.
Brother Ivo was young then, and even more idealistic, and was appropriately appalled. He could not but ask how this man, who he liked a lot, could do such a thing.
The story is short.
The colleague had been employed as a colonial policeman in an outpost in Africa many years ago, when they captured a guerrilla fighter who had been working that night laying land mines. They had far too few men and resources to undertake a physical night search over a wide area. The guerrilla had mines in his possession when caught so they had no doubt that lethal weaponry was out there somewhere targeting civilians.
The police station was equipped with an old telephone system, and power was generated by a hand cranked generator which could deliver a powerful but not lethal charge. He had chosen to turn the handle and extracted the information.
The colleague then turned the tables on his interrogator.
“It is three in the morning, and the school buses hit the roads at 6 am. I had to make my decision: I turned the handle – what would you have done?”
That question has rested on Brother Ivo’s conscience ever since.
Would he have had the moral courage to stand by his principles, to look at the shattered bodies of children and into the eyes of grieving parents the following morning, knowing and perhaps explaining to them, “I might have stopped this, but chose not to”?
Alternatively would he have had a different type of courage, to have embraced the opprobrium of most right minded people and no small amount of self loathing, and inflicted the suffering on the would-be perpetrator so that the schoolchildren might live.
In either case, such problems rarely seem to present themselves at a time of quiet moral reflection with the academic support of expert moral philosophers on hand: like so many decision points, it came out of a clear blue sky, like a thief in the night.
Brother Ivo does not intend to answer that question today.
He recounts the story simply to act as a reference point for anyone thinking that they know what they would do in such extreme cases.
The truly fortunate never have to answer such questions. Many of us will offer an opinion over the news story as it unfolds, but whatever decision we think we might take, let us retain a degree of compassion for all and any for whom these questions are not matters of idle or academic interest only.
Prayer would not come amiss of both gratitude and intercession. as the Christas song agonisingly cries “Thank God its them instead of you”.