Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A guest post

The following is a thoughtful and interesting paper by Joseph Grabowski; Joseph has graciously permitted its publication here:

Joseph GrabowskiMoral Questions in the Interrogation of Mohammed Al-Qahtani

The leaked interrogation record of alleged terrorist Mohammed al-Qahtani (http://www.time.com/time/2006/log/log.pdf) raises several interesting moral questions. First, the question arises whether the various tactics used in interrogating al-Qahtani – sleep deprivation, forced positioning, and verbal and psychological derision touching particularly upon facets of Muslim piety constitute “torture” as typically defined, the determination of which would bear several moral implications. Second, whether or not Catholic moral teaching on torture per se is applicable to al-Qahtani’s treatment, specific elements of that treatment might be scrutinized in order to ascertain their special moral qualities.

First, a working definition of torture must be posited. The United Nations offers the following summation:

The term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person... (UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Article 1).

The essential elements of this definition can be correlated to various pronouncements of Catholic Magisterium. The Catechism defines torture as using “physical or moral violence to extract confessions, [&c.]” (CCC 2297). Further, Gaudium et spes, listing offenses which John Paul II called “intrinsically evil acts,” broadly includes “whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself [emp. added]” (Gaudium et spes, 27; cf. Veritatis Splendor, 80). These are important distinctions, as many definitions are not so extensive; for example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/torture/) specifies only physical suffering, and also distinguishes torture from coercion. In light of this, it is worth noting that the trajectory of both the Church’s definition and that of the United Nations tend toward a broad classification of torture. One might argue, therefore, that doubts about whether individual actions constitute torture should be applied to the reflex principle of ethics whereby an individual is bound to choose the morally safer course (see Rev. Charles Coppens, S.J., A Brief Text-book of Moral Philosophy, #100, available from http://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/mp03.htm).

Now, the question arises: if the actions in the al-Qahtani case were to be designated “torture,” what would be the Catholic Church’s teaching on the matter? Here, it must be admitted, the historical currents are more short of clear, although not altogether obscure. On the one hand, Thomas Aquinas and Augustine seem, in different places, to legitimize some form of torture (see Summa Theologiae IIa IIae, Q65, a1; City of God, XIX, 6). Also, certain theologians in the manual tradition also argue for a moderate use of such techniques (for example, McHugh and Callan v.II, 1870). On the other hand, a number of condemnatory statements can be found throughout Magisterial sources. For example, both the Catechism and the Second Vatican Council, in the places cited above, condemn torture. Pope Nicholas I, in the ninth century, said torture was precluded by both human and divine law (DS 648). Also, Pope Pius XII, in two significant speeches (Address to the Sixth International Congress on Criminal Law, 03 October 1953; and Address to the Rome Congress of the International Association of Applied Psychology, 10 April 1958) “denounced [...] the aberrations still sadly displayed by the 20th Century in its acceptance of torture and violence in judiciary proceedings.” Notably, the second address deals specifically with the use of psychological methods of coercion, which classification accurately represents most of those techniques described in the al-Qahtani case.

Upon closer investigation of the sources cited above, those appearing to legitimize torture are seen to do so only in the context of pronouncements on the authority of the State to judge, imprison, and punish, and such was the case in most historical situations where the practice was tolerated (see “Inquisition,” from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08026a.htm). The general tone, especially in Augustine, is unfavorable toward torture and statements of allowance are rather vague, never taking the form of an approbation of any particular means. Condemnations, contrariwise, are stated in much clearer terms. And, even if it be alleged that the historical record presents an inconsistency in teaching on this matter, the Catechism (CCC 2298) anticipates the argument with specific reference to such ostensible contradictions:

In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. [...] In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. [...] It is necessary to work for their abolition.

It is clear, therefore, that the developed Doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church has come down firmly in forbidding the use of torture, especially when distinguished from corporeal punishment properly understood.

The next question that must be asked is whether al-Qahtani’s treatment does indeed constitute torture. It is worth recalling some of the tactics used during the detainee’s interrogation: sleep deprivation (by white noise, loud music, and forced positions); verbal derision (mostly ad hominem); religious affront (such as suggested worship of a “shrine” to bin Laden, the statement that al-Qaeda “raped” the Koran, and occasional denial of religious observances); sexual insinuation; and physical humiliation (such as the “sissy slap”). On the surface, these techniques taken individually may seem inordinately described as “torments inflicted on the body or mind” (Gaudium et spes, 27). Considered in light of their combined impact and prolonged exposure, however, one could easily argue that such techniques qualify as such; and it is furthermore obvious that, since they were used in a process of “interrogation,” that these represent sub-rational appeals to give up information, which is to say coercive methods. In fact, a particular case study in European law pursuant of upholding the United Nation’s prohibition of torture argued that the combined effect of otherwise legitimate techniques may tip the scales toward a designation of those actions as torturous (Judgment of European Court, 1987 available from http://www.echr.coe.int/Eng/Press/1999/Jul_Aug/Selmouni.eng.htm). However, such an exercised argument seems unnecessary in this case, since it is very tenable to hold that the individual actions in this case, judged in light of Catholic moral standard, are indeed acts of torture.

The Second Vatican Council’s condemnation of torture includes “whatever violates the integrity of the human person” (Gaudium et spes, 27). Similarly, Pius XII’s pronouncements on the subject condemned injury to the human personality, which he defined as “the psychosomatic unity of man insofar as it is determined and governed by the soul (Address to the Rome Congress of the International Association of Applied Psychology, 10 April 1958 available from http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius12/P12APPSY.HTM). At least two instances from the al-Qahtani proceedings can be shown to fit into these categories: the verbal berating and the religious affront.

Thomas Aquinas (ST IIa IIae, Q75 a1) defines derision as “a special kind of sin,” by which “the derider intends to shame the person he derides.” The interrogation log details several instances of such actions (e.g., 30 Nov/0540hrs; 14 Dec/0025hrs; 15 Dec/0230hrs; 17 Dec/0001hrs). Even the seemingly simple matter of “name-calling” involved in this case is condemned by the Catechism (CCC 2158) and the New Testament exhortation to charity in speech (1 Peter 2:1; cf. Mt. 5:22). The “religious affront” toward al-Qahtani came in the forms of depriving him of the necessary calendar information for the prescribed observance of Ramadan; denying frequent requests to observe the traditional hours of Muslim prayer; and presenting verbal and physical situations offensive to Muslim piety. The Second Vatican Council, defining religious freedom, notes that “all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits” (Dignitatis Humanae 2). This includes psychological freedom (ibid.). Further, the Catechism condemns “every improper use of the names of God [emp. added] (CCC 2146); and although “Allah” is not a revealed name for God, custom and tradition afford it a certain dignity as referring to the One God of Judea-Christian faith (cf. Nostra Aetate 3). Even if such profanities do not constitute offenses against the Divine name, they could certainly be seen as disrespectful toward al-Qahtani’s religious dignity.

It is true that specific aspects of this case remain open for discussion. It seems that no evaluation of the whole is possible, but that each instance and individual action must be evaluated as pertinent to the Church’s teaching on torture or not. John Paul II encourages that reflection upon such matters always recall the story of Christ’s Passion. Recollection of such sufferings should inspire the Christian “always to refuse to countenance a similar treatment applied to one of his brothers in humanity” (Address to a Committee of the International Red Cross on 15 June 1982; # 5). Scripture offers both of the following statements as summations of the Law: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12); “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14). Side-by-side with such a measure as Christ gives, in his words and in his own suffering service, the treatment which al-Qahtani received at the hands of his captors should at the very least trouble our consciences. If such actions are to be held legitimate, then the onus remains for one who intends to do so to demonstrate his case in light of sound moral doctrine. In any event, a good starting point for such a discussion should be to recall our intentions: do we look for ways simply to excuse what is expedient, or do we seek perfection in every way, looking instead for how best to put into practice our Lord’s command to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44; cf. 5:48).


  1. Thanks for posting, Red. I am humbly honored.

    I am also in need of adding a brief disclaimer. I wrote this paper some time ago, and I now know there is a need to contextualize one element of the discussion: namely, the "reflex principle" of ethics for "always choosing the morally safer course" in cases of doubt. This is a minimalist kind of theory called tutiorism, which, when used absolutely, is not condoned by the Church. The principle can be used in a mitigated form as a guide within a broader value/virtue based understanding, as a sort of ancillary to the virtue and guidance of prudence. A decent discussion of the matter can be found here: http://branemrys.blogspot.com/2009/05/moral-certainty-probability-and-liguori.html.

    Anyhow, maybe I'll get around to revising and expanding the essay to include such a discussion, but more likely I'll just cut out reference to the principle since I only pull it in as a buttress and it is non-essential to the thesis and such a tangent would only distract (as this comment is doing, no doubt).

    What I'm saying is, don't anybody go accusing me of heresy because I don't hold to an absolute tutiorism, k?

  2. So in the end of all those words, what is the final definition of torture; anything that offends the dignity of a person?

    I am deeply offended by many things in life on a daily basis. The democratic party is certainly guilty of torture and has been since their founding as they supported slavery. I think you should focus on the democratic party with full force as those who have offended the dignity of the human person decade after decade and as a party that has done more harm to our country than anything else in our history.

    Democrats supported slavery

    Democrats went to war to keep slavery

    Democrats upon losing the war spent the next hundred years fighting on every front to keep Blacks from gaining any human rights.

    Democrats lynched black people and terrorized them for decades and this was well known to democrat presidents like FDR who would not risk his votes to come out against lynching or beating blacks.

    Democrats finally lost on the civil rights and immediately found a new cause in supporting abortions where a huge number would visit on black babies. The fought to find money to help those who can't afford to kill their baby the funds to proceed. Again, this would seem to have more impact on killing black babies since their poverty level is much higher.

    Democrats supported and tried to stop any restriction on abortion including partial birth abortions. In court, it was proven that babies over a certain age that most of the partiel birth babies were over felt pain. Partial birth abortion rips the limbs from babies long before they are dead. I know of no torture that has ever been done int he history of our country like this.

    Democrats through their efforts have directly impacted the murder of over 50 million babies.

    So you spend all your time worrying about how we put terrorist under conditions like white noise and suggestions that might offend their islamic faith which they have perverted first to say that mass murder is OK with them and honored with 72 virgins.

    Give me a break. When I see you focus on the real evil in our country, the democratic party, and the only source of getting them out of power, electing republicans whose platform is pro life, then you might make some sense. Giving aid and comfort to the democrats by always hitting on the fact that republicans want to defend the lives of the people from islamic nuts make no sense when confronted with the above history of the worst part of america, democrats.

  3. Mr. Annonymous

    RE: The Real Evil In Our Country Is the Democratic Party

    No. The real evil in our country is Original Sin. Torture is neither a Republican nor aDemocratic thing. It is simply evil. It also corrupts the National inteligence product which gets our soldiers killed.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  4. This is why I so despise the American party system. If you are critical of any aspects of the Republican party, well then you must certainly be in bed with the Democrats.

    Anonymous, I challenge you to shed the blinders of partisanship and take evil to task wherever it occurs. And prop up good wherever you can find it.

  5. Richard and Leo, there is nothing the republican party has done in its history that compares in the slightest way with what I listed for the democatic party even on one of the items. slavery, lynching, denial of civil rights with segregation for generations, and finally the holocaust of 50 million babies.

    Yes, take those blinders off and bash the republicans to death for waterboarding a terrorist. There is a reason you folks are in the minority in this country even with Catholics. When you live in a country with a two party system and bash the good guys on all the issues where the democrats have failed, you give some few an excuse to continue to support the democrats as if there is an ounce of moral equivalency. In fact, the weakness of those who did not treat terrorism with a club left us vulnerable to 9/11. We will get hit again under Obama. It is not if, only when.

  6. Mr. Anonymous

    The issue of torture is not a partisan political issue. It is a moral one. Torture is evil. People who persistently advocate torture, objectively speaking, commit a serious sin.

    BTW I vote regularly. I rarely vote for the Democratic Party candidate. I usually vote for the Republican Party candidate as the lesser evil.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  7. Anonymous:

    But that's just it. I'm not a partisan. I don't see either party as the "good guys." Both parties have fundamental flaws. I do not have partisan blinders on.

    I hold the Democrats to task when they are responsible for intrinsic evils (e.g. abortion). I hold the Republicans to task when they are responsible for intrinsic evils (e.g. torture).

    It sounds as though you are the one who needs to remove the blinders.