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Against torture, against the state

April 23, 2009

In response to Blackadder’s very fine post on torture today, a reader rightly responded that if torture is always immoral then we should not care whether it works or not. Debating the question opens us to the possibility that if torture did work, then we might have to accept the morality of torture. These are important questions, but I think these debates sidestep another important, but neglected, dimension to the issue of torture.

The fact is, torture both does and does not work. It seems increasingly evident that, despite the dishonest claims of torture apologists (such as the ones BA cited in his post), it simply does not work in terms of gaining information, “keeping us safe,” etc.

But there are deeper realities at work here, deeper justifications for torture that are often hidden and always insidious. As William Cavanaugh discusses in his book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ, torture does in fact “work” as part of the technology of the authority of the state. Torture is a liturgy in which the power of the state to do whatever it wants to whomever it wants is sacramentalized. The fruits of this sacrament are fear and arrogance. The u.s. military government may not be extracting useful information from the victims that “keeps us safe,” but the claim that it is and the debates surrounding this claim only serve to distract attention from the real way torture works: exerting violent power over the bodies of human beings.

Honestly, I’m not sure we will completely get rid of torture until we get rid of the nation-state. The state simply cannot exist without perpetuating itself through violence, including the violence of torture. What the Church can do — in addition to demanding an end to torture — is to make an unwavering preferential option for the victims of torture. It can do this by keeping their names and their stories visible, by reminding ourselves of the inherent violence of the state, by continually exposing and telling the truth about this violence, and by refusing to consider any justification for this inherently evil domination of human life. It is through such a preferential option for the victims of violence that the possibility of a resurrection of a state-less world might become irresistible to followers of the tortured and risen Christ and to all people of good will.

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14 Comments
  1. April 23, 2009 2:34 pm

    Right, torture works, depending upon what one sees it as. It doesn’t work in the sense of information gathering. It works greatly as a form of social control (as the states which routinely use it understand). More importantly, this is also the way many states engages other forms of justice. They are not really doing much which can be seen to “balance” out the situation and to fix something which is broken, but to control the populace with fear.

  2. April 23, 2009 2:37 pm

    As I understand it, your argument is that:

    1) Violence is inseparable from the nation-state.
    2) Ergo, holding up examples of victims of violence may bring about the end of the nation-state.

    My first question is what do you mean by nation-state? If by nation-state, you mean ‘government’ (as I think the title of the post implies) I’d agree with the first premise. The first role of a country’s government is to establish a monopoly on violence within its borders.

    But I think the second statement is incorrect, insofar as governments (bad as they often are) act as a hedge against even more extreme forms of violence. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show solidarity victims of violence, but it does suggest such a show of solidarity may not lead to abolishment of the state.

  3. April 23, 2009 3:01 pm

    No, I don’t equate “government” and “nation-state.” “Government” is a much broader, generic term that can mean a variety of things. “Nation-state” refers to one particular, historical way of imagining political community.

    …governments (bad as they often are) act as a hedge against even more extreme forms of violence.

    I disagree. The most extreme forms of violence are, in fact, committed by states. These imaginary “more extreme forms of violence” that the state supposedly protects us from is a key part of the myth of the nation-state. I’m not sure what “more extreme” forms of violence could top the atomic bomb, the holocaust, etc. These are acts committed by states.

  4. Mark Gordon permalink
    April 23, 2009 3:04 pm

    The first role of a country’s government is to establish a monopoly on violence within its borders.

    Yes, and anyone who has ever availed himself of the services of a policeman has expressly legitimized that monopoly and become a willing participant in its preservation. Don’t want a state? Live as if there is none and joyfully endure the consequences. That, it seems to me, is real freedom.

  5. April 23, 2009 3:20 pm

    One more point, John:

    If the state rightly claims a monopoly on violence in order to protect us from “more extreme” forms of violence (again, a myth), then why question torture at all? According to your version of the myth, the state has the right to torture, period.

  6. April 23, 2009 3:28 pm

    I might quibble with a few lines here and there, but this is a very good post. Well done.

  7. April 23, 2009 3:36 pm

    The most extreme forms of violence are, in fact, committed by states.

    The most extreme form of violence is taking a person’s life. Certainly, a country, which consists of a collection millions or billions of people, can devise means to take more lives than one individual can. That is a good reason to try and avoid war between countries. But it does not mean it’s desirable not to have a government enforce laws against homicide, rape, theft, etc.

    According to your version of the myth, the state has the right to torture, period.

    No, it doesn’t. A monopoly on violence is not the same thing as a license for violence; just because a state is the only one who can lawfully use force does not mean that all uses of force are permitted to it.

    For example, a state may (and should) prohibit and punish homicide and use force to detain a person who commits homicide without killing or torturing the person. In this scenario, the state has a monopoly on violence (it can lawfully use force to detain the person who commits homicide), and this monopoly allows it to protect the community from the person who commits homicide. But the state does not have the ability to engage in other forms of violence (e.g. torture, execution).

  8. April 23, 2009 3:40 pm

    I especially liked these lines fwiw:

    “Torture is a liturgy in which the power of the state to do whatever it wants to whomever it wants is sacramentalized. The fruits of this sacrament are fear and arrogance.”

  9. April 23, 2009 3:44 pm

    But the state does not have the ability to engage in other forms of violence (e.g. torture, execution).

    But in reality, the nation-state that you belong to (and which claims authority over your body) does in fact have the ability to torture and execute human beings and to justify these practices.

    I especially liked these lines fwiw…

    Thanks. You should read Cavanaugh’s book!

  10. April 23, 2009 5:15 pm

    Two thoughts:

    – I take it that as a Catholic anarchist you would want to see some sort of communitarian government which is not a nation state and which does not use a monopoly on violence in order to enforce order. I’m curious how such a system would in fact enforce order, or would it have a sort of consentual order and not use compulsion against those who violated it?

    Two thought experiments: This Catholic anarchist society of course has preferential option for the poor. Those who have somehow succeeded in accumulated many goods are expected to share them with those who have, for whatever reason, not been able to accumulate enough to live with basic human dignity. So community representatives come to Farmer A and tell him they need grain to give to Farmer B. Farmer A says he’s keeping his grain and if they don’t leave he’ll flog them all. How does the anarchist society deal with this kind of situation?

    Also, if someone violently rapes and kills several women in the community, can that person be captured (imprisonment is obviously a sort of violence) and punished (probably also involving violence of some description)? If such a society would not use some sort of authorized violence to deal with that kind of crime, wouldn’t that strongly encourage those close to the victims to use violence to solve the problem themselves — and likely use more violence since they’re emotionally closer to the situation?

    – It seems to me that a lot of the pre-nation state human stories we have involve destructive blood fueds. The Iliad and Odyssey, Nibelungenlied, Icelandic sagas, etc. This would seem to support John Henry’s contention that violence is in fact common in a non-state society. For instance, in Njal’s Saga (which is a great read — and covers among other things the arrival of Christianity in Iceland) you have several families locked in a long term blood fued, which the Norse semi-state keeps trying to bring to an end via negotiated settlements at the Allthing. It’s basically the fact that the Allthing did _not_ have a monopoly on violence which allows the killing to go on. It keeps negotiating peace, but it has no authority (or police force) to step in and _force_ tha families to stop fighting.

  11. April 23, 2009 5:20 pm

    But in reality, the nation-state that you belong to (and which claims authority over your body) does in fact have the ability to torture and execute human beings and to justify these practices.

    Right, but any organized government will be able to do that; and a disorganized government won’t be able to protect its citizens at all. I can’t think of an example historically of a government that does not have the ability to torture or imprison. That’s why it’s important to publicly push for laws that proscribe torture and capital punishment. There was a pretty cool story about Chaput and this in Colorado recently:

    http://durangoherald.com/sections/News/2009/04/22/House_votes_to_repeal_death_penalty/

  12. Mark DeFrancisis permalink
    April 23, 2009 8:38 pm

    Rich, civilized discussion once again between blogs.

    Deo Gratias!

  13. digbydolben permalink
    April 26, 2009 1:03 am

    DarwinCatholic, do you notice that, in your narrative of the arrival of the “nation state” on the scene, you leave out the Christian feudal states of the “Age of Faith”?

    In fact, European civilisation once DID have a form of society that was organised along the lines of a Christian polity, and luminaries like Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus did everything they could to ensure that it adhered as closely as possible to Scriptural prescriptions and the teachings of the Magisterium.

    I think that writers like Chesterton (wasn’t he a “Christian anarchist” of a sort?) and Disraeli have touted the virtues of such a society, and it certainly DID mitigate AGAINST the idolatry of any kind of “nation-state.” Instead of producing the “sacrament of torture,” it produced “just war teachings” and the ideals of chivalry on the battlefield that Cervantes mocks AND lauds in Don Quixote.

    Did you know that torture, per se was ILLEGAL in medieval England, and that it was re-introduced as the Tudors heightened nationalism and proceeded to the expropriation and abolition of “papistry”?

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