Torture in America
Hi everybody, and a very big thanks to Michael and Katerina for getting this great new blog off the ground. I’m a boorish amateur in such company, but you are all very welcome to my own humble blog, Reasons and Opinions. Most of the arguments you will see there, or you find here too.
The first topic I would like to address is one dear to my heart, the issue of torture, and, specifically, how Catholics should deal with the issue now that it has become US policy (at least in Republican circles). Note that you will find no mention of it in the Catholic Answers voter guides, they of the five non-negotiable principles fame. There is, of course, no clear reason such an exclusion, based on their own criteria: issues that “involve principles that never admit of exceptions and…. are currently being debated in U.S. politics.” A cynic might say that the voter guides are a subtle (or not-so-subtle) exhortation to vote Republican. Make of that as you will!
But back to the Church. The teaching on torture is pretty unequivocal. The conciliar document Gaudium Et Spes condemns””physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit”. The encyclical Veritatis Splendour went even further and declared it to be intrinsically evil, meaning evil in its object, that can never be legitimated by appeal to intent or consequence. As servant of God John Paul said: “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.” Torture is evil because it violates the God-given dignity and integrity (the intrinsic worth) of human beings. Human beings are being used as a means to some end, such as the extraction of information. No circumstance can make it right. The Church clearly condemns consequentialism, the notion that the end justifies the means. It is never licit to engage in an evil act, so that some good might come of it. Lest there is any remaining doubt, the Compendium of Social Doctrine declares that “international juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances.” That would be the Geneva conventions, by the way…
Those who defend torture, at least how it is practiced by the US, make two standard arguments. First, they agree that torture is evil, but claim that what they propose is not really torture. Second, they appeal to the circumstances, notably the much-touted “ticking bomb scenario”. Both arguments are fundamentally flawed.
Attempts to define torture based on some measurable or quantitative dimension (such as the amount pain inflicted) are bound to fail, and, even worse, open the door to consequentialism. Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin falls squarely into this trap. He states the issue as follows: “torture is intrinsically evil because it is the infliction of disproportionate pain on a subject.” But what is “disproportionate”? This is not much different than Bush official John Yoo defining torture as “death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function”. Coming up with a quantitative definition always means that something falling just below the standard does not constitute torture. And if not torture, then not (necessarily) evil. One clear implication is that psychological torture can be conveniently swept aside. But this is clearly fallacious. It for for good reason that the Church always refers to both physical and mental torments. For while many defend “torture light” under the euphemism of “coercive interrogation techniques”, experts believe that psychological torture is often harder for victims to overcome. It scars them for life. But it cannot be “measured” by this yardstick.
But once we set off down this road, sooner or later we always bump into consequentialism. For Akin, the action becomes disproportionate (and hence torture) if there is no other way to save lives. So, he argues that waterboarding is not torture “if it is being used in a ticking time bomb scenario and there is no other, less painful way to save lives.” Note that this logic is similar to that of those who defend the use of nuclear weapons during the second world war. By the standards of Catholic moral philosophy, Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities was an evil one, no matter how many lives were saved through an early end to the war. And directly-procured abortion can also not be defended by appeals to “goods” such as the economic situation of the mother. If only those on the right and on the left would realize they are coming from the same (philosophical) position.
We live at a time when the Republican party is becoming defined as the party or torture. We can very easily trace the various policy decisions made by the Bush administration: the abrogation the Geneva Conventions for whole classes of suspects; the ludicrously restrictive definition of torture as death or serious organ failure; the approval of ever more aggressive interrogation techniques; and the transfer of Gen. Miller, the architect of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo, to Abu Ghraib, which the specific instruction to bring his techniques with him, and to elsewhere in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The slow sad transformation of the Republican party into the party of torture seemed complete during this week’s South Carolina debate. As Andrew Sullivan notes, “…increasingly, the explicitly pro-torture position of the GOP will define their party. And it should define their party.” Disappointingly, most of the candidates were only too willing to embrace torture, except for John McCain, who has actually been tortured, and the contrarian Ron Paul. Specifically, both Giuliani and Tancredo backed waterboarding, a technique perfected by the Khmer Rouge. Pumped-up Rudy wants them to use “every method they can think of”. Tancredo says he wants Jack Bauer. Romney just looked sinister when he all-too-enthusiastically invoked the Orwellian phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” with a manic glint in his eye. He also wants to double the size of Guantanamo. Even Brownback, a Catholic, seemed unfazed.
It boggles the mind that the Republican party can be officially pro-life and against torture at the same time, when the underlying moral logic is basically the same. But then again, evil corrupts. If you use the One Ring, it will destroy you. Is it any surprise, in the current climate, that more than a third of soldiers in Iraq support torture for gathering information, and 40 percent support torture to save the life of a fellow soldier?
To see the bankruptcy of this mode of reasoning, look no further than Jose Padilla, locked up without charge or access to a lawyer for three and a half years, who is suffering from a severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and is by now a mental case. This is the result of so-called “torture light” as it did not involve “severe” or “disproportionate” pain. No, merely extreme sensory deprivation, extreme cold, stress positions. As one of his lawyers noted, he was treated like a piece of furniture. That’s another way of saying his God-given human dignity was degraded. This is what torture is all about.
Many argue against torture on the grounds that it does not work, that it backfires by fueling further hatred of the United States, or that it causes the surrender of the moral high ground. People like John McCain note that others could use the same techniques against Americans in the future. These arguments are all true, all valid. But we should not rely on them, because, even if they were not true, torture would still be wrong. That’s the rub.
I will leave the last word to servant of God Oscar Romero:
“There is no dichotomy between man and God’s image.Whoever tortures a human being,whoever abuses a human being,Whoever outrages a human being, abuses God’s image.”