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They’re All Ticking Time Bombs

February 19, 2010
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As I stated in my previous post, defenders of torture are removing the ticking time bomb from their defense.  5 years ago, plus or minus, those that wanted to remain respectable made a big deal about torture not being illicit in the case of a ticking time bomb.  They did this in part to avoid having to defend each and every instance that our government used torture.  In particular, the revelations of Abu Ghraib were fresh, and there was no need to defend what went on there, because the dominant narrative was that the acts resulted from individuals acting on their volitions.  Additionally, an absolute prohibition of torture (or torture-like acts, since they didn’t wish to concede that what they were describing was torture) had the unpleasant  effect of leaving us impotent in the face of very constrained scenarios.  This condition has a long history of being shocking to American sensibilities as was shown when the Vatican wrote that they did not find embryo adoption to be the best solution to embryos leftover from IVF.  It was generally conceded at the time that ticking time bombs would be exceptional, since they had the requirements both of immediate general knowledge and having a known conspirator in custody with immediate and specific knowledge.  It was always conceded that raping the conspirator’s wife, for example, would be wrong in an effort to coerce a conspirator. 

Now the 2nd generation of torture defenders are using these same arguments except they have removed immediacy from them.  In fact, the time no longer even needs to be finite.  Lives saved no longer has to be concrete, but is now an abstract device.  Thiessen’s post on Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, is illustrative.  A portion is:

What Obama officials don’t seem to understand is that the intelligence Abdulmutallab has is perishable. He was supposed to be vaporized with the plane when it exploded. As soon as al-Qaeda learned he had survived, they began shutting down e-mail accounts, bank accounts, moving and hiding operatives, and closing the intelligence trails he could lead us down. Every second, every minute, every day he did not talk resulted in lost counterterrorism opportunities. If he starts talking three months from now, that’s not good enough. [emp. original]

These are the things Thiessen proposes we should have tortured Abdulmutallab in order to gain:  e-mail accounts, bank accounts, and the locations and names of Al Qaeda members.  How is this materially different from what the Soviet Union would have wanted if they had captured one of our CIA agents during the Cold War?  We certainly would have called torture by its name if the Soviets had done it.  In fact, at this point Thiessen has made the alleged exception so sweeping that I have difficulty recalling  instances where torture has been used historically that would qualify as wrongful torture under Thiessen.  While I disagree in principle with torturing one man to stop another man from killing twenty, I can at least understand the gut impulse.  Thiessen and his defenders however think we should torture people over gmail accounts.  Is this seriously what Catholics want to defend?  Is this really the hill you want to die on?  It is one thing to disagree with the Church over the illegality of abortion in the instances of rape.  It is several degrees of magnitude different to claim that you disagree with the church because you think a woman should be able to have more than 5 abortions per year.

But what do we have today?  Look at The Corner at National Review.  You have Ramesh Ponnuru claiming the techniques understood throughout the world as torture to be torture aren’t clearly understood be so when the Church uses the term in the Catechism.  You have Andy McCarthy claiming that Thiessen doesn’t advocate torture.  Mike Ptomera makes the claim that “conscience has sacred claims,” which is an understandable peace-offering, but is inadequate given how perverted Thiessen’s conscience is.  He goes on to state, “I think torture is a great evil, and that the resort to it in the past decade is a black spot on America’s record.”  Raymond Arroyo should learn those words, believe them, and utter them.  His protests that he is anything but a torture advocate wouldn’t ring so hollow if he did.  In the end we are left with the question, “Are the first generation of torture supporters going to walk off the plank with the second generation?”

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9 Comments
  1. February 19, 2010 3:03 pm

    This is a really good observation. You’re right; it would be hard to imagine a scenario where torture is wrong.

    I’m beginning to think this issue has snowballed enough to require episcopal response. Not sure what that response looks like, but the scandal needs to stop. Let’s pray that God graces our bishops & pope with the necessary words that re-open people’s hearts to God & love.

  2. February 19, 2010 3:35 pm

    Good post.

  3. Kyle R. Cupp permalink
    February 19, 2010 4:22 pm

    Well said, M.Z.

  4. February 19, 2010 4:47 pm

    How is this materially different from what the Soviet Union would have wanted if they had captured one of our CIA agents during the Cold War?

    Easy: We are good, and they are bad with the consequence that our actions are justified and theirs are not. We, the altruistic provider of all Good to the world, are the exception to all rules. IF we do it, it is not illegal, immoral or evil. God has singled the US out among all nations to be his instrument of salvation. We are justified no matter what we do.

    Ok, let me get my tongue out of my cheek …

    Right. What I meant to say was, ‘Great post.’

  5. February 19, 2010 6:17 pm

    “I’m beginning to think this issue has snowballed enough to require episcopal response. Not sure what that response looks like, but the scandal needs to stop. Let’s pray that God graces our bishops & pope with the necessary words that re-open people’s hearts to God & love.”

    Well maybe the Bishop are not prepared to make a judgment on the morality of water boarding.

    I know the internet Catholic office has made its choice However the Catholic church before in its teachng office declares soemthing a evil it takes time. They must consider it and does not work on our political time lines

  6. phosphorious permalink
    February 19, 2010 7:40 pm

    I know the internet Catholic office has made its choice However the Catholic church before in its teachng office declares soemthing a evil it takes time. They must consider it and does not work on our political time lines

    [/ snark)Ahhh, yes. . . skepticism and doubt. We certainly don’t want to move too quickly on torture (a phenomenon that has only existed for a few weeks), and GOD FORBID we get misxed up in politicis.

    But tell me. . . what is the nature fo the confusion. Is there simply no way of knowing wheteher waterboarding is torture? Is the nature of waterboarding like the nature of Christ, an ineffable mystery?

    How, oh how (and here I cast my eyes up to an uncaring sky) can we ever answer this question. . . ? [/snark]

  7. Kyle R. Cupp permalink
    February 19, 2010 9:07 pm

    ‘Course, part of the reason the Church has a teaching office is to tell it like it is when confusion abounds.

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  1. Apropos of Last Weeks Torture Post … « The American Catholic

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