Friday, May 15, 2015

I am ashamed of my country today

We don’t need to execute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  He poses no continuing threat to our public safety.  Protecting the common good does not require us to kill him.  I am convinced, as are many others, that the principal actor in the Boston Marathon bombing was his brother Tamerlan--and Tamerlan is already dead.

There are only three reasons to kill Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and none of them are consistent with the Catholic moral understanding of the just use of the death penalty in an age and nation where the possibility of highly secure incarceration is a reality.  These reasons are revenge, retaliation, and retribution--and none of those is a good enough reason to kill someone who is believed by many to have been his brother’s dupe throughout the crime, not some sort of criminal mastermind in his own right.

I mourn the deceased victims of the attack and stand with the injured who have undergone so much.  None of my shame for my country’s decision today is a minimizing of their real pain and suffering.  But killing Tsarnaev will not bring back the dead nor heal the wounded.  Sufficient time in prison might, instead, make him experience real remorse and shame for his own part in this terrible crime.

I call on my Catholic brothers and sisters, my Christian brothers and sisters, and all those who believe that the death penalty has outlived its time to stand with me in objecting to this shameful decision.  If we truly believe that human life is sacred there is no justification for executing criminals who do not pose a continuing threat to public safety, whom we can safely incarcerate instead.

(Cross-posted at And Sometimes Tea.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Torture and Bishop Fulton Sheen

(The following was first posted at And Sometimes Tea)

Have you read about the torture report?  Here’s a look:

The report is reigniting the partisan divide over combating terrorism that dominated Washington a decade ago. Democrats argue the tactics conflict with American values while leading members of the Bush administration insist they were vital to preventing another attack.
It contains grisly details of detainees held in secret overseas facilities being subjected to near drowning, or waterboarding, driven to delirium by days of sleep deprivation, threatened with mock executions and threats that their relatives would be sexually abused.
The central claim of the report is that the controversial CIA methods did not produce information necessary to save lives that was not already available from other means. That is important because supporters of the program have always said that it was vital to obtaining actionable intelligence from detainees that could not be extracted through conventional interrogations. [...]
"In many cases, the most aggressive techniques were used immediately, in combination and nonstop," the report says. "Sleep deprivation involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in painful stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads.”
In one facility, a detainee was said to have died of hypothermia after being held "partially nude" and chained to a concrete floor, while at other times, naked prisoners were hooded and dragged up and down corridors while being slapped and punched.
Multiple CIA detainees subjected to the techniques suffered from hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia and tried to mutilate themselves, the report says.

There are more gruesome details reported here, including details about sexual assaults, rectal feeding, threats to torture or kill family members of those imprisoned, ice water baths and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques.  And reportedly twenty-six of those treated this way were not guilty of anything, including two men who had been CIA sources before being arrested and tortured.

Some Catholics will read the report, shake their heads, and say that all of this was perfectly justified and morally right in the War on Terror.  They are wrong.  Torture is intrinsically evil, and this is just the latest in a series of proofs that this is so.

In Life is Worth Living: First and Second Series, Bishop Fulton Sheen described a Communist torture cell this way:  
The two ledges at the sides suggest beds for rest, but the slanting position makes it impossible for anyone to rest on them...The bricks fastened to the floor make it impossible for a person to sit, or even stand at ease...The Communists found after they used these torture chambers that they could drive people mad by making them stand for days and nights before a blazing light.  (Fulton Sheen, Life is Worth Living: First and Second Series, Garden City Books, 1955, p. 276)

Bishop Sheen then describes torture by the Chinese Communists of that day:
...the principle is to break down the mind through fatigue...When arrested, he (the prisoner) is kept standing before a blazing light for seventy hours or more.  Then he is told he may sleep.  The prisoner sleeps for fifteen minutes, then is kept awake for eight hours; is told to sleep again, but is awakened after six hours.  This goes on for months...(Fulton Sheen, Life is Worth Living: First and Second Series, Garden City Books, 1955, p. 276-277)
Bishop Sheen was warning the people of his day about the evils that people in Communist regimes had accepted as necessary for public safety and state security.  I wonder what he would say if he knew that some of the people who make the case for sleep deprivation and other forms of torture today are not only Americans, but Catholic Americans?  I have a feeling he would be shocked and appalled.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Sarah Palin and the politically homeless Catholics

(Cross-posted at And Sometimes Tea)

I don't know that I would have learned that Sarah Palin blasphemously compared the torture of waterboarding to baptism if Rod Dreher hadn't written about it here.  I'm completely with him when he says:
OK, stop. Not only is this woman, putatively a Christian, praising torture, but she is comparing it to a holy sacrament of the Christian faith. It’s disgusting — but even more disgusting, those NRA members, many of whom are no doubt Christians, cheered wildly for her.
For having written that, Rod is now being attacked on Twitter as a non-conservative; one such Tweet even misidentifies Rod as a Catholic in order to add a little anti-Catholic bigotry to the attack.  About that, Rod writes:
Well, I’m not Catholic, but I’m honored by the Hon. Kincannon’s mistake, given that the Catholic Church has stood up strongly against torture. Now, let’s be clear about this: Kincannon doesn’t represent Southern Baptists, either in his anti-Catholic bigotry or his support for torture. My Southern Baptist friend Joe Carter is a Marine Corps veteran and a political and religious conservative, but he was quick to criticize Palin’s remarks on the Gospel Coalition site. So readers, don’t use this Kincannon tweet to slam Southern Baptists. What’s interesting here, and unsettling, is that a professing Christian is so eager to defend a Christian who endorses torture (and compares it to baptism!) that he publicly indulged in anti-Catholic bigotry, presumably because the Catholic Church opposes torture.
Like I said, I’m not Catholic, but I’ll proudly stand with Catholics and any other Christians who believe that human dignity and the Holy Name is more important than maintaining solidarity with barbarism and its proponents. How can it make you proud that the more an American goes to church, the more likely he is to support torture? What is perplexing is the increasing self-marginalization of the populist right. Do they imagine that most Americans take pleasure in hearing a conservative leader promote torture in a gleeful tone, and a crowd cheer for her in doing so?
Sarah Palin was one of the last Republicans on the national stage I actually supported, mainly because I believed that she was that rarity, a truly Christian, conservative, pro-life, Republican party woman who would help shape the party in years to come.  Boy, was I wrong.  There is nothing pro-life at all about a rabid support of torture.  There is nothing Christian about cheering for waterboarding or comparing it to baptism.  There is nothing conservative about the kind of warmongering that leads to approving of torture in the first place.  That leaves "Republican party woman," and frankly there's nothing in any of that that would be worth supporting.

So I regret having supported her, just as I regret having believed that Republicans actually offered a substantially different choice to voters (as compared to Democrats) instead of being the other side of the same filthy coin, minted by oligarchs, circulated by sycophants, and duly rendered to Caesar.  It's becoming increasingly clear that we serious Catholics are politically homeless in this culture of death and destruction, and that both major parties only tolerate us as long as we're willing to stifle our Catholic consciences and give them our votes.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Just war, Syria, and Captain America syndrome

With the possibility of strikes against Syria by our own government in mind, let's take a look at what the Church actually teaches about war (and I thank the reader who suggested this).  Here, first, is the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2307 The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.105
2308 All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.
However, "as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed."106
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. 

The CCC then goes on to discuss the rights of countries to defend themselves and the right of competent authorities, in a just war situation, to compel their citizens to come to the nation's defense.

How does any of this relate to what's going on right now in Syria, and our justification for becoming involved?

This is not an area in which I have any expertise, but just seeing things as a Catholic laywoman, I would have to say that no case for intervention in Syria falling within the just war principles has even been made.  In fact, the more I look at that list of criteria, the more I think that the tendency of America in recent years has been to stop at principle #1: the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain...  Once we've focused in on that, it's full speed ahead, at least in the recent past.

What's interesting about that is that I think that this tendency on the part of the American people to support wars when we see people in distant nations suffering under the cruelty of tyrants is, in fact, a good thing--even a noble thing.  It's the kind of thing the people who brought us this movie recognized when they portrayed the pre-Captain America version of Steve Rogers as the kind of guy who would stand up to bullies, even when he was no match for them--which made his transformation into a capable hero all the more satisfying.

But in the real world, the calculations we have to make before we enter a war don't stop with the knowledge that someone is being an unjust aggressor and hurting the innocent (and the questions which have been raised about just exactly what is going on in Syria indicate that we don't really know for sure that either side can claim innocence or the moral high ground here).  Even if we knew for a fact that Assad was inflicting damage on his nation that was going to be lasting, grave, and certain, we would still have to consider the other points: is there no other way to end this conflict?  Can we win? Will our entry into this fight produce greater harm than if we stayed out--especially given that last consideration about modern warfare and its ills (especially the tendency to target civilians disproportionately)?

Those aren't the kind of questions we should consider only after committing to action--they are the questions we must consider before committing to action.  Our national impulse to wish to help when people are suffering is a good thing, but it's also something that--in the real world--is far too easy to manipulate by those who have more cynical or more political or less pure motives to want to go to war.

(Cross-posted at And Sometimes Tea)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A nation of spies

News from the police state:

WASHINGTON (AP) - The National Security Agency has been collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top secret court order, according to a report in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

The order was granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25 and is good until July 19, the newspaper reported Wednesday. The order requires Verizon, one of the nation's largest telecommunications companies, on an "ongoing, daily basis" to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.

The newspaper said the document, a copy of which it had obtained, shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens were being collected indiscriminately and in bulk, regardless of whether they were suspected of any wrongdoing.

The Associated Press could not authenticate the order because documents from the court are classified.

Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden said Wednesday the company had no comment. The White House declined comment and referred questions to the NSA. The NSA had no immediate comment. [...]

Under the terms of the order, the phone numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as are location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered, The Guardian said.

The broad, unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is unusual. FISA court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets. NSA warrantless wiretapping during the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks was very controversial.

And more:
A robotic bird created for the U.S. Army for use as a miniature spy drone is so convincing that it has been attacked by hawks and eagles, according to researchers.

The Robo-Raven, as the solar-powered, remotely piloted surveillance aircraft is called, was designed and built at the University of Maryland’s Maryland Robotics Center — an interdisciplinary research establishment in the university’s A. James Clark School of Engineering. The center posted a video of a test flight this week.
The endless "war on terror" has created a nation of spies and spy technology that can and will be used against the innocent someday.  Meanwhile, even your DNA isn't safe from unwarranted search and seizure:
A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that police may take DNA samples when booking those arrested for serious crimes, narrowly upholding a Maryland law and opening the door to more widespread collection of DNA by law enforcement.

The court ruled 5 to 4 that government has a legitimate interest in collecting DNA from arrestees, just as it takes photographs and collects fingerprints. Rejecting the view that the practice constitutes an unlawful search, the majority said it was justified to establish the identity of the person in custody. [...]

The dissenters were three of the court’s liberals plus conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who amplified his displeasure by reading a summary of his dissent from the bench.

“The court has cast aside a bedrock rule of our Fourth Amendment law: that the government may not search its citizens for evidence of crime unless there is a reasonable cause to believe that such evidence will be found,” Scalia said from the bench.

In his dissent, Scalia wrote that the majority’s attempts to justify the use of DNA as an identification tool “taxes the credulity of the credulous.” He added, “Make no mistake about it: As an entirely predictable consequence of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national DNA database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason.”

So you don't have to be guilty of a crime to have your DNA or phone records collected by the government, or to be spied on by a robotic bird: you just have to be an American.  Which should make all Americans who don't particularly wish to live in a nation of spies and the spied-upon just a trifle uneasy.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The toll of endless war

An Army staff sergeant will plead guilty to murder to avoid the death penalty following an Afghanistan war atrocity:
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is scheduled to enter guilty pleas to charges of premeditated murder June 5 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, said lawyer John Henry Browne. A sentencing-phase trial set for September will determine whether he is sentenced to life in prison with or life without the possibility of parole. The judge and commanding general must approve a plea deal. [...]

Bales, an Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., slipped away from his remote southern Afghanistan outpost at Camp Belambay early on March 11, 2012, and attacked mud-walled compounds in two slumbering villages nearby.

Most of the victims were women and children, and some of the bodies were piled and burned. The slayings drew such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan. It was three weeks before American investigators could reach the crime scenes.

Bales was serving his fourth tour in a combat zone, and the allegations against him raised questions about the toll multiple deployments were taking on American troops. For that reason, many legal experts believed it that it was unlikely that he would receive the death penalty, as Army prosecutors were seeking. The military justice system hasn't executed anyone since 1961.

Why are our troops still in Afghanistan?  Why do we keep sending American soldiers to conflicts where the objectives are unclear and the exit strategy nonexistent?   When will we ever realize that the toll of endless war exacts too great a price on our own soldiers and on increasing numbers of innocent victims?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Boston bomber should not be put to death

Earlier this week, Thomas McDonald wrote that he could see the possibility of a just decision to pursue the death penalty in the case of the surviving Boston bomber:
In the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, we need to consider other issues, however.

Is it possible he will ever get out? Given his age and our short memories, yes, it’s possible.

Is it possible he will be a danger to the public if he is imprisoned for life? Given his motives (radical religious fundamentalism acting in a global war against American citizens and interests), it seems quite obvious that he could be.

It’s too early to tell whether the death penalty will be pursued, and whether Catholics should support it if it is pursued. It’s still an open question for me, but I think as the story and case comes to light, Catholics should be able to learn what they can and make a prudential judgment about the support for, or rejection of, the application of the death penalty.

We do well to reject the death penalty whenever we can. Doing so promotes a wider culture of life and exercises the most powerful witness to God: mercy.

But there may be times when its application is in the good of society, if only to protect society in a way life in prison cannot. The Boston bombings may be one of those cases.

I appreciate the thoughtful tone of what McDonald writes here--this is not some kind of "death penalty cheerleading" which we have, sadly seen from some Catholics.  But even at the time that I read this post it was already seeming as though it might not be at all necessary to execute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and the more information that comes out--though as always what the media tells us and what's really going on may end up varying rather widely in the end--the more it seems as though the possible justifications for a morally sound use of the death penalty are absent in this case.

Remember, here's what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the death penalty and the use of force to protect society from aggressors:
2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.
2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.67

2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.NT
Now, let's look at the situation we have here.

First, it cannot be said enough that both Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother Dzhokhar committed crimes of unspeakable evil, and that their actions were clearly those of unjust aggressors whom the state has an absolute duty to stop.  That lethal force was used to stop Tamerlan who had not only a gun but (reportedly) explosives and who was clearly not planning to surrender peacefully was clearly a just thing to do.

Having said that, though, we have to consider that the younger brother, Dzhokhar, was apparently actually unarmed at the time of his capture (which makes one wonder about why the poor homeowner's boat had to get so terribly shot up).  Had the police used lethal force in their capture of him without even attempting to ascertain that he was, in fact, unarmed, it would be objectively unjust (even if, on a subjective level, we can understand that emotions were running high and fears that the second Tsarnaev brother might not only be armed but wearing a suicide vest were pretty rampant for a while).  But should lethal force--that is, the death penalty--still be considered a morally valid option in his case?

The question is not, remember, whether Tsarnaev is guilty of gravely evil acts that left innocent people dead and more innocent people seriously wounded--he is.  It is also not a question of how much under his brother's control he was, how much he has cooperated with authorities (or whether he has, now that he has been read his rights, stopped answering questions for the time being), or even whether he and his brother did plan further attacks--at least, those questions are going to be very interesting to law enforcement, but they don't by themselves answer the key question for Catholics pondering the morality of the death penalty in this case.  And that question is this: is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, himself, so serious a continuing threat to human life and safety that society can only be justly protected if he is put to death?

If the younger Tsarnaev brother had been the one in charge of things, if he had been the one who might have active ties to terrorist sleeper cells, and if law enforcement officials could show that he did, indeed, present a continued threat to the lives and safety of innocent people by the mere fact that he continues to breathe and have a heartbeat even if he spends the rest of his life behind bars, we might be able to answer in the affirmative.  But every single thing that has been revealed so far has shown that the Tsarnaevs acted alone, that the older brother, Tamerlan, was the one with radical ties and suspicious travel, that even so there's no evidence that Tamerlan had an active relationship with a terror cell full of people who will continue to carry out his plots.  In other words, the Tsarnaevs were, in the words of Mark Shea's tongue-in-cheek headline, a couple of Chechen losers, not the shadowy masterminds pulling the strings of a vast network of would-be killers.

So executing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev can't really be argued from the standpoint of the necessity of public safety and protecting human lives, with leaves us with this part of the Catechism quote above: "If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person."

And it is almost impossible to see how--barring some sort of gross negligence on the part of those responsible for his eventual incarceration--nonlethal means would not be sufficient to protect America from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.   Provided, then, that there is no sudden twist in our information which proves that the younger Tsarnaev brother really was calling the shots at the head of some vast network of killers and will continue to occupy that position behind bars, which seems almost as unlikely as CNN reporters refraining from publishing wild speculation as fact, I am confident as a Catholic saying that the surviving Boston bomber should not be put to death.