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.