Monday, February 15, 2010

Torture and just war theory

Sometimes in torture debates, a person will make the claim that we must allow torture (or "enhanced interrogation" as most call it now) in wartime, that torture as an act of war is just like killing someone is an act of war--a morally justifiable act based both on Just War theory and the principles of self-defense.

But what is Just War theory? The Catechism of the Catholic Church spells it out:

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; - there must be serious prospects of success;

- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

It is easy to forget that back in 2002, the Catholic Bishops of the United States sent a letter to the President and also issued a statement detailing the areas in which they thought a resolution to go to war in Iraq would violate certain Just War principles. Their concerns about preemptive war, the possibility for greater instability in the Middle East, and the proportionality of the suffering of the innocent were, in light of our continued presence in the region, not far off the mark.

At the present, we continue to think of ourselves as being at war (and we are still fighting in Afghanistan, as well as Iraq), but the "War on Terror" has a nebulous feel to it; air strikes in Pakistan have been part of the war, and there's a sense that just about anywhere that terrorism exists, the United States may be obliged to go fight against it. But can such an open-ended, ill-defined, widespread conflict really fall under the principles of the Just War theory?

It's an important question, especially for those who insist that "Don't you know there's a war on?" is a legitimate rejoinder to any criticism of so-called "enhanced interrogation" techniques. If the war we are fighting has overstretched any legitimate boundaries it might have had at the beginning--and we have been at war in Afghanistan since 2001 and Iraq since 2003--and no longer meets Just War criteria, then quite a lot of things we may be doing aren't necessarily morally justified, above and beyond the question of the morality of torture.

However, even if we could argue that our continued military actions around the world a) are, indeed, a war, and b) are, indeed, a just war, we would still have to face the reality that not all actions are justified merely because we are at war. If torture is morally evil and thus prohibited, as the Church teaches it is, then it is not permissible to have recourse to it simply because we are at war. There is no such thing as preemptive self-defense; taking a bound and helpless prisoner and violating his human dignity by causing him to experience the pains of controlled drowning is not at all the same as defending oneself from a free man's aggression.

This is where a person who supports torture may object by asking if it is true that the Church would rather see innocent people die in an air strike than cause a prisoner some discomfort. The Church would, of course, prefer it if innocent people did not die at all, and thus speaks strongly and passionately against many aspects of modern warfare for the suffering it inflicts upon the innocent. But the question of the morality of torture remains. If we could prevent the death of the innocent by permitting the rape of terrorists, for instance, would that change the morality of rape? If we could prevent the death of the innocent by playing pornographic films in the cells of terrorists, would this use of pornography cease to be morally evil?

Neither an argument that in war certain acts which are usually immoral are now moral, nor an argument that to save the innocent from death certain violations of morality may be overlooked, changes in the least the fact that torture is immoral and never justified.


  1. "There is no such thing as preemptive self-defense"

    Nor is that the argument made by the war mongers. They may have offered spurious and just plain silly arguments giving them title to war, but those arguments all finally hinged on the US being in some manner under attack.

    The crusades were likewise justified under self defense, and rightly so, although Islam at the time was not marching on Europe.

  2. I'm not a historian of the crusades, but my understanding was that it was a war of rescue; the Holy Land had been a part of the (Eastern) Roman Empire until its conquest by Arabian forces.

    In any case, I'd guess that not all the crusades would stand up to rigorous just war analysis, anyway.

    Meanwhile, the invasion of Iraq was exactly a preemptive attack based on the fear of ... terrorist cells? WMD? Saddam's tyranny of his people?

    The invasion of Afghanistan had slightly better rhetoric behind it: the Taliban really were harboring al Qaida and other terrorist types. I'm not sure it's sufficient to justify our presence there.

    Actually, the best example of just war that comes to mind quickly is the First Gulf War, in which an international coalition repelled the invasion of Kuwait and stopped there. I'm not saying that war was perfect, but one can actually make a good argument for military action based on just war theory.

  3. So first you need to come to some conclusion on what is a just war and what is not. Obviously there would be many disagreements on this issue. I suspect that if you had Hitler and Tojo around today doing the same things they did before, you would have a large group saying we do not need to go to war and others saying it would be criminal not to go to stop Hitler and ToJo. Were the crusades a just war to reclaim ownership of the holy land? Was the first gulf war justified? Was Afghanistan? Was Iraq?

    Then you have to come to terms with torture as to what is and what is not torture. Still have not seen anything that makes sense on this issue. Then when you throw in people who do not fight in uniform, but are terrorist who attack women and children, you have to come to terms with the question of what rights do they have. In WWII, if you came behind lines out of uniform you were not a soldier and could be shot legally as a spy. It is also obvious that most americans do not consider waterboarding terrorist wrong if used to try and gain information on other terrorist planning to kill innocent people? Are US troops terrorist fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan? Are we terrorist firing missles in Pakistan and what happens when we fire off missles that accidentally hit and kill houses filled with innocent civilians. Did the person firing the missle become a terrorist? Seems to me this is an area that we might want to follow Christ advice to give to Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is God's.