Friday, January 22, 2010

Quid est cruciatus?

One of the persistently frustrating aspects of the torture debate is that people who ought to know better have a tendency to raise the question, "But what is torture, anyway?" with the air that this is probably an unanswerable question, and that thus prohibitions against torture are mere ivory-tower abstractions, not practical rules for conduct.

Now, I have to differentiate between the sort of smart-aleck askers who think that this question is an end-all to debate, and those people who have somewhat legalistic minds and like to have everything spelled out in, if you'll forgive the phrase, torturous detail before they decide whether they're for a thing or against it. I used to belong to the latter category, and it sometimes frustrated me to hear from someone that the only reason I wanted to know what torture was was so that I could tiptoe right up to the line and then stick my hand over it while swearing virtuously that whatever I was doing or supporting, it wasn't torture.

What finally got through to me, thanks to Mark's ceaseless diligence and often-prickly charity (which works a lot better on a redhead than the syrupy-sweet kind), was that it came down to a question of intent.

You'd think that would be obvious, especially to Catholics. But judging from the number of hits my personal blog gets from people who are frantically searching the Internet to find out if it's a sin for them to miss Sunday Mass in a blinding snowstorm when they've been without power for days and are running a 99.5 degree fever, I think quite a few of us Catholics have missed the boat on the question of how our intentions influence the morality of our actions.

I'm not a moral theologian (and if one out there wants to become a contributor, email me, please!), so this is subject to correction. But as I understand it, actions themselves may have objective morality or immorality, and the intentions of the actor may also be moral or immoral. To look at a silly hypothetical, suppose a married couple both suffered from bouts of amnesia. During those bouts they forgot that they were married. If they engage in the marital embrace while truly believing they are not married, have they sinned? Objectively, they are married whether they realize it or not--but in choosing, as an act of the will, to commit the sin of fornication they have in fact, if I am not mistaken, committed that sin.

So how does this discussion of intent relate to torture? I'll be re-posting, above this post, something I wrote on my own blog to tackle this problem a while ago. But what I finally realized is that all the seemingly-gray areas evaporate when we realize that torture is a matter of intent.

If an interrogator slams a prisoner violently up against a wall in order to frighten him, hurt him, intimidate him, etc., his intent is to torture. If that same prisoner tries to escape, and the guard who catches up with him is propelled by both his force and the prisoner's such that the prisoner ends up slamming into the wall, and the guard's honest intention was only to stop the prisoner from escaping--then he has not had the intent to torture. Even if the first incident only results in a broken shoulder and the second two broken arms and a hairline skull fracture, the first incident, and not the second, is an act of torture.

The question we need to be asking ourselves is not "Well, did a little water forced down someone's throat causing them all the pain and terror of drowning every really hurt anybody?" but "Is this action intended to cause pain, fear, terror, etc. in someone whom I have complete power over at this moment?" Because if the answer to the second question is "Yes," then our intention is to torture, regardless of the method being employed.


  1. Intent

    "If an interrogator slams a prisoner violently up against a wall in order to frighten him, hurt him, intimidate him, etc., his intent is to torture."

    A judge threatens to punish a criminal by sending them to jail for life without the possibility of parole because they refused to give information. Is this torture? He is certainly intending to frighten him, intimidate him. This happens all the time in courtrooms. A person gives up information becuse they fear longer prison terms and are intimidated. A cop talks to a con about being raped in prison if they do not cooperate. Is that torture? Do we let prisoners have enough freedom to prey on the weak for a purpose or is it because liberal lawyers defend the right of criminals to have freedom in jails to continue to be criminal? I always love it when someone is so certain they can define evil so clearly. How about a boss that threatens a worker each and every day with loss of income knowing they have a family and little chance of another job. Torture? We live in a world of human beings and the strong always seem to try to intimidate and threaten the weak for power. Starts in the school yard. How about the bishop that threatens a nun who thinks women should be allowed to be priests? They try to intimidate? Where is the line drawn on intent. According to your definition and that of mark shea, most of the world is filled with torture. You see it behind every rock. Yet the only part you seem to hammer is that of an interrogater trying to get information to save lives. I want to see you and mark take on all the others including some bishops.

  2. The only part you seem to hammer is that of an interrogater trying to get information to save lives, even if it means doing things we call "war crimes" if done to our own side and which sometimes lead to the death of the subject.


    Red's point is that it matters whether you inflict pain as a by-product of, e.g., subduing a prisoner, or whether you do what you do because of the pain it causes. If you're beating someone up to intimidate them, the infliction of pain is not incidental - it is the point of what you're doing. You're using pain to intimidate, whereas if you accidentally cause injury, you're not trying to use pain at all.

    (This raises the question of how much pain constitutes torture, which is a potentially interesting discussion. But it's safe to say that under any sane definition of torture, "too much pain to be endured" will count as torture. And the context of all of this is interrogation, where if you're inflicting pain, it's to try to break the prisoner's will - to try to make resistance too painful to be endured. An interrogator who inflicts pain on a prisoner is a torturer.)