Friday, February 26, 2010

Catholic vs. Catholic on torture

Mark Oppenheimer of the New York Times has an interesting piece today looking at Marc Thiessen's views on torture--and the views of his Catholic opponents:

While Mr. Thiessen points out that the church does not forbid specific acts, his antagonists say the church’s guidelines are hardly nebulous. The blogger Andrew Sullivan has noted that the Catechism condemns “torture which uses physical or moral violence.”

The philosopher Christopher O. Tollefsen, in an essay attacking Mr. Thiessen’s views in the online magazine Public Discourse, points to the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor. There, Pope John Paul II wrote that there are acts that “are always seriously wrong by reason of their object,” including “whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity.”

The belief that waterboarding is morally or physically violent seems to unite all the writers who have criticized Mr. Thiessen, a group that includes the conservative blogger Conor Friedersdorf; Mark Shea, who edits the Web portal Catholic Exchange; and Joe Carter, who blogs for First Things, a magazine popular with conservative Catholics. [All links in original--E.M.]

It's interesting to see that the debate over Marc Thiessen's views is spreading beyond the Catholic blogosphere. The deficiencies in Thiessen's arguments, and most particularly his misreading of the principle of double effect and the Just War theory, need to be made visible. While in some senses this may simply seem like yet another internal Catholic debate, this goes beyond the typical "Catholic vs. Catholic" framework; to the extent that Catholics and others are influenced by Thiessen's claims that "enhanced interrogation" is perfectly aligned with Catholic moral teaching, those claims must be addressed.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is it better to suffer evil than to commit evil? {Part II of II}

In {Part I}, I argued that the apparently permanent nature of some sufferings could be answered by the religious ideas of resurrection or reincarnation. I also said that I thought that an answer could be given without relying on religious doctrine.

To do so, however, I need to approach the question from the other side.

What does committing evil do to us?

It is important to recall that the human person is most him- or herself when loving or receiving love. Again, this is not merely romantic love - though romantic love is a true and noble expression of love. Every form of love calls on the whole of a person, body and intellect and emotion and appetite, to seek the fulfillment of the whole of another person. This is even true of proper love of oneself, because the fulfillment of oneself involves loving others.

Now, an evil act is an act that is contrary to another's fulfillment. It may be directed at an individual or a group. It could do direct damage, or it might just present an obstacle. But what makes it evil is that it opposes someone's fulfillment.

This is an active opposition. People make mistakes, which end up hurting others, but these are not moral evils because they are actually contrary to our intentions. Also, no one person can bring total and perfect fulfillment to anyone - not even to oneself. So there is no absolute obligation to do every good that is possible for every person one encounters.

However, there are some cases where a deliberate witholding of a necessary good thing, like witholding first aid from an injured person when there is no one else to help, does constitute an evil act: a sin of omission, in traditional language.

So, in order to commit an evil act, a person has to act contrary to love; that is, he or she has to act contrary to his or her own fulfillment, as well as contrary to the fulfillment of another. (This, by the way, is why the Catechism says that "Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart.") Every evil act damages or even destroys both one's relationship with another and one's ability to relate to other people. It damages one's ability to love.

Why committing evil is worse than suffering it

So, it seems that both the worst kind of suffering and the worst kind of committing evil lead to the same result: a person is incapable of loving, and therefore is incapable of living a fully human life.

But the inability to love that results from suffering evil comes from the obstacles placed in one's way. A person is denied the opportunity or the practical ability to love.

A person who commits evil strikes at the root of love itself: he or she "hardens his or her heart" and twists his or own faculties of loving. So, even when the opportunities arise and the person has the practical ability, he or she does not have the moral ability to love.

Moreover, this is not only the result of the worst acts of evil. It results from the smallest injustices and the slightest sins of omission. These extend, like cracks in a windshield, through the whole depth of one's life, weakening one's moral resolve, and - if left unchecked - will eventually lead to a complete break-down of one's moral life.

Even in this life, even if there is no resurrection, I submit that this is a worse fate than suffering evil, including suffering death.

"Then who can be saved?"

Now, I am not suggesting that any of us are morally perfect. We all have "dings" in our moral "windshields". We all have the responsibility to keep the cracks at bay as much as possible. For Catholics, at least, this includes recourse to the mercy of God through the Sacraments, prayer, and penance.

But this also means that, Catholic or not, we have to be aware of and guard against anything that might add a new kind of moral damage. It seems to me that the issue of torture - disgused, as all temptation is, by a great good: national self-defense - is exactly a way to attack our moral integrity where it is as yet undamaged.

Those who rightly stand up for the dignity and the rights of the defenseless, especially the unborn in the womb, allow their very ability to love the basic dignity and rights of every human person to be smashed by allowing torture into their moral lives.

Of course, it is far worse actually to torture someone than merely to defend the State's torture of someone. But creating such justifications in one's mind still chips away at the basis of love which is the core of human happiness and good. It is a small evil, but a dangerous one nonetheless.

If left unchecked, it will destroy everything that we love, and our very ability to love. Nothing can justify that loss.

Is it better to suffer evil or to commit evil? {Part I of II}

This is the main question of Plato's Republic, and he answers unequivocally that it is better to suffer evil than to commit evil.

This moral principle is a foundation stone of Western culture, accepted universally by Jew and Greek and Christian alike. And there are similar arguments made in Indian and Chinese philosophy as well, even if they did not achieve quite the same dominance there.

Now, one of the justifications that some give for permitting or even promoting torture is essentially that it is better to commit evil than to suffer it. Their argument is a direct rejection of this foundational principle.

But, since I'm not one to take a principle just because it's old, I thought I'd explore just why it is better to endure evil than to commit it.

What makes me happy?

Does anyone not want to be happy? Isn't happiness exactly what we're after when we ask, "Is one thing better than another?" Don't we really mean, "Which will make me happier?"

Nor are we just talking about individual happiness: justice in a society is, among other things, what allows the members to pursue happiness and to be happy together.

And happiness is not simply pleasure. We grow tired of pleasures, even if we move from one to another. Happiness is not merely a state of well-being. Such states come and go. Neither is happiness an emotion. I myself have felt very sad at the same time as knowing deeply that I was happy. Indeed, sometimes the certainty of happiness comes in times of pain, of sickness, of sorrow - exactly because we can see that what we have is worth any of these other things.

So, what is it that we have?

St. Thomas defines happiness as the knowing possession of the good. Nice and abstract, that definition. What he means, in 21st century terms, is that we both have what is good for us, and we know that we have it.

And what is good for a human being is whatever makes us to be more human, to be more ourselves. As Christians, we say, it is to be who God made us to be, and to answer his call. In a word, what is good for humans is Love.

What does suffering evil do to us?

Now, if the goal of life is to love, then what are the obstacles to that? What can keep us from being happy in this full sense?

Already, I've mentioned that physical or emotional pain cannot take away happiness. They cannot prevent us from giving or receiving love. But I've said elsewhere that torture can break a person's will, can damage his or her ability to think clearly, to use reason - essentially, to be human.

This state of brokenness can sometimes permanently render someone incapable of loving in the full sense. The mind may never recover, or the ability to empathize may be damaged beyond healing.

Another kind of permanent suffering is death. A dead person cannot act in any way, so cannot love or be happy.

Obviously, the Catholic doctrine of resurrection to life with God answers that neither of these sufferings are truly permanent. For that matter, Plato's notion of the transmigration of souls and the similar idea of reincarnation prevalent in some Eastern religions give essentially the same answer.

But I think they can also be answered in a way that atheists could accept, without recourse to specifically religious belief. This post is already too long, though. So I will finish the argument in a post tomorrow.

Here's {Part II}!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Marc Thiessen--breaking codes like breaking people

Marc Thiessen interview with the Heritage foundation's The Foundry:

Be sure not to miss the part where he equates President Obama's decision to stop using "enhanced interrogation" methods with a fictional scenario in which Neville Chamberlain boots Churchill out of office and stops the attempt to crack Nazi codes. Right--because breaking codes is exactly the moral equivalent of breaking people.

From the "No, really?" files

Guess what? More people approve of "enhanced interrogation" than torture:
WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- U.S. adults are somewhat more accepting of "enhanced interrogation techniques" than they are of "torture," a poll released Tuesday indicates.

More than half, 55 percent, of those surveyed by Angus Reid Public Opinion said terrorism suspects should not be tortured. But 57 percent said "enhanced interrogation techniques" are acceptable.

For the poll, 1,010 adults were surveyed online Friday through Sunday. Half were asked about "torture" and half about "enhanced interrogation techniques."

While 30 percent of the first group said torture is never justified and 25 percent said it should be rare, 21 percent said it is justified most of the time and 13 percent, always justified. In the second group, 26 percent said enhanced interrogation is justified always; 31 percent, most of the time; 19 percent, rarely, and 15 percent, never.

And if we renamed things like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and the like "involuntary suspension of physical autonomy to aid investigations" I bet more people would approve of that than they would of torture, too! Amazing, right?

In not-quite-good news, though, the same poll finds that a whopping 49% of those asked disapprove of waterboarding. Wonder what would have happened if the pollsters had asked, instead, whether people approve of "enhanced involuntary anaerobic face-washing?"

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reductio ad Republicanum

There's a kind of argument made for the use of torture which is specifically partisan, and in regard to which it may be straining the word to call it an "argument" at all. In essence, the argument goes something like this:

1. Sure, torture is evil. Torture is also defined as a) something which causes permanent physical damage--but not *everything* which causes permanent physical damage, and b) something which by definition only our enemies do.

2. Here in the real world, real people (real men, especially) know that sometimes to make omelets you have to break eggs. War is messy. People die, sometimes a lot of them. So anything short of killing a person in war is actually highly benevolent and kindly, if we just look at it properly.

3. During times of war, national security takes precedence over starry-eyed moralizing about the good and evil of roughing somebody up, waterboarding him, or forcibly keeping him awake for 96 hours or so. Real people (real men, especially) get this. Those who have our country's best interests at stake get this. Patriotic Americans get this.

4. There are two political parties. One of them is composed of enemies of the state, who in any perfect society would be waterboarded (or worse) themselves for their traitorous opinions, non-existent morals, and love of abortion. Ours is not a perfect society, alas, and this party is presently in charge of things, double alas. This party lacks the intestinal fortitude to do what must be done, and is, instead, so lost to all sense of patriotic duty as to arrest terrorists and charge them with crimes instead of merely detaining them and beating the unnecessary expletive out of them in the enhanced interrogation version of data mining.

5. But the other political party is composed of true patriots and heroes who also get how important it is to national security to be able to waterboard and otherwise robustly interrogate foreign terror suspects (and perhaps other enemies of the state, if that whole inconvenient Bill of Rights thing didn't get in the way). These patriots and heroes are pro-life (unless the baby is the product of rape or incest or a potential threat to the life of the mother, or is an embryo who is more valuable in a capitalistic sense if we kill her and harvest her stem cells, etc.), pro-family (except for the politicians who live on the coasts and have to vote for gay stuff or face the loss of their legislative careers), and pro-God (or so they assure us every election year). They are also the only ones we could possibly trust when it comes to dealing with terrorists, and if they say they need tort--oops, enhanced interrogation--to fight the Global War on Terror then by golly it's the duty of every patriotic American to see that they have the right to choose it legally. Enhanced interrogation must be safe, legal, and...well, let's not say "rare," because we don't want to tie the hands of our patriotic political heroes, right?

6. And since 1-5 are practically self-evident, then it remains that anyone, especially any Catholic, who questions any of this must be a secret anti-Catholic liberal pro-abortion commie pacifist pig-dude.

Like I said, it's a bit of a stretch to call this an argument. But judging from the comment boxes here, it's the one that seems to come up the most often.

I know there are Catholics seriously wrestling with this issue who have not fallen prey to the reductio ad Republicanum; it must be as frustrating for them as it is for us that the discussions here keep veering in the "reductio" direction. But bear with us, and keep posing serious and intelligent questions. There really is a difference between asking, say, "To what extent can coercion that is not torture legitimately be used, if at all?" and asking, "So, you pro-abort closet Obama-worshiper, how many American lives will have to be lost in the next terrorist attack to make you happy?"

Monday, February 22, 2010

Just not "24" enough

News today that terror suspect Najibullah Zazi has entered a guilty plea in New York City:
Terrorism suspect Najibullah Zazi (nah-jee-BOO'-lah ZAH'-zee) has pleaded guilty in New York City to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

The 25-year-old former Denver airport shuttle driver also pleaded guilty Monday to counts of conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country and providing material support for a terrorist organization.

He faces a life prison sentence without parole in the plea deal.

But surely, if he'd been whisked away to a secret detention cell and waterboarded a couple dozen times, things would somehow be better. Right?

Because we can't have terrorists arrested, read their rights, and charged with crimes in the ordinary fashion--that's just not "24" enough.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Lord, who is my neighbor?"

On this site, we take the perspective of the Catholic Church. We don't deny that there are other perspectives to take. We simply try to articulate what the Catholic Church teaches on the matter of torture, and to discuss why she teaches as she does.

As with every other matter, the Church's teaching on torture is based on the commandment of our Lord, Jesus Christ. My favorite statement of the command is in the Gospel according to St. John: "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another."

But today, as I'm reading through our comments, I keep thinking of the scene in the Gospel according to St. Luke in which the young student of the law questioned our Lord. Jesus turned the question back on him, and he replied ... well, I'll let the text speak for itself:
There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read it?"

He said in reply, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself."

He replied to him, "You have answered correctly; do this and you will live."

But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

Jesus replied, "A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, 'Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.' Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers' victim?"

He answered, "The one who treated him with mercy."

Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

We know the story so well that we tend to forget what it says. When asked for an example of the love which he commands us, our Lord gives us a story of enemies. When asked to define "neighbor," Jesus does not tell us who we have to treat well, but rather what we have to do to be worthy of the title "neighbor": we must treat others with mercy.

It saddens me that we are so bound by fear - and remember, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4.18) - that we cannot ask how we can love our enemies. Rather than asking, how far can we go in torturing terrorists, why don't we ask, What does it mean to love terrorists?

It obviously does not mean to agree with them, or to hand our lives or our country over to them. But I think it does mean that we recognize that they are people, just as we are.

I think it means that, when we capture them on a battlefield or in the act of committing a crime, we look for what they are trying to accomplish and what they want. This is not so that we can just give them whatever they want; but rather so that we can understand the object of their attacks on us, and take action ourselves either to stop those attacks or to defend ourselves more effectively.

I think it means actually entering into relationship with them, as individuals and as members of a culture, a people. In other words, seeing them as something more than simply a threat.

This will take time. It will mean that we will have to look at the world through a different lens than we're used to. It will mean that we will have to accept that we may be wrong in some places.

But it will also mean that we will actually move toward genuine peace. It will mean that the security we gain is true and lasting security. It will mean that we can grow in trust, instead of only growing in fear.

Posts about why waterboarding is torture

The invaluable Zippy has a blog post here with links to a whole series of posts about why waterboarding is torture. Well worth the read!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A strange passage

Joseph Lawler of The American Spectator is answering Andrew Sullivan's posts suggesting, like Morning's Minion of Vox Nova, that the U.S. Bishops have an obligation to address Marc Thiessen's public defense of torture on EWTN.

Lawler makes good sense, to me, on the specific topic of denying Thiessen communion, or even threatening to do so: the situation is not analogous to Catholic politicians who publicly and materially (via votes for funding, etc.) support abortion. Whether Thiessen's own bishop might want to have a chat with him about his rather clear misunderstanding regarding the principle of double effect or Just War theory, say, is another matter.

But then Lawler says:

Sullivan assumes that Church teaching is crystal clear on the moral gravity and permissiveness of torture, but in fact it's not. As far as denying communion or issuing public reprimands go, there is a very high bar to clear -- the action in question must be intrinsically wrong, meaning gravely wrong in every situation, and it must be recognized as such in authoritative Church teaching.

The Catechism addresses torture in general very conclusively:

Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.

Sullivan notes this passage and takes it as establishing torture as intrinsically evil, but there's a key possible exception to this rule: the Ticking Bomb scenario, which is omitted in the list of situations in this quote. It is possible that a Catholic in good conscience could interpret Church teaching as unclear or not settled in these circumstances -- such an argument is here. [Links in original--E.M.]

Is it just me, or is that passage extremely strange? If torture were merely gravely morally evil but not intrinsically evil, would it not still follow that no mere circumstances could make it suddenly morally acceptable? And how would any Ticking Bomb scenario change the morality of using torture against a person--would it not still be a grave (and sinful) violation of that person's human dignity?

What am I missing here?

"But it's not like they're human!"

I hate to keep drawing parallels to the abortion arguments, but it seems that many of the reasons given for permitting torture rely on the same excuses given for permitting abortion.

For example: they're just terrorists; it's not like they're human beings!

The clearest statement came from Greta:
As to whether or not terrorist are human, I think most would say they gave up their humanity when they sign on as terrorist. We as human can choose to treat them humanely, but that is our choice.
But the comments on recent posts have the same implication: we don't have to treat them humanely! They're terrorists, after all! Innocent lives - i.e., real human lives - are at stake!

And yet, from a Catholic point of view at least, it is not the innocence of the unborn child that merits protection; it is the very fact of being human.

The same reasoning holds true of the guilty. This is why even the Bill of Rights protects guilty and convicted criminals against "cruel and unusual punishments."

Note that I am not saying that we cannot fight against our enemies, or protect the U.S. against attacks, or punish the guilty.

I am saying that we must not use cruelty to do so. We must not demean or dehumanize our prisoners. We must fight fairly.

Why? Because any attempt to do so only demeans and dehumanizes us. It is literally impossible to control another person's will; all we can do is break it. But in order to break another person's will, we have to break our own connection with the reality that this is a human person, one like myself, one called to be a member of the same Body of Christ as I am. This is one whom God loved - and loves - so much that he sent his only begotten Son. We have to attack the very thing that we claim to defend: the right to integrity, to protection from attack, to respect and moral freedom.

If we are willing to give that up, then I don't see what there is worth fighting for at all.

A very serious post. Very. Serious. Very.

Is this torture?

I leave it to your wise and noble judgment.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The "But we waterboard our own troops!" objection

Mark Shea has a terrific post up today answering the objection that if waterboarding is torture, then we would be forbidden to train our troops to resist the technique. Excerpt:
With respect to your question, asking if "waterboarding" is torture is sort of like asking if "sex" is rape. Precisely the same physical actions can, in different contexts constitute radically different acts. A man can have sex with his wife and it can be an act of love. A man can force his wife down onto the bed against her will and it can be the gravely immoral act of rape. In the case of military training, the whole point of subjecting people to waterboarding is to *build them into better and stronger men*: to humanize them. In waterboarding prisoner, the whole point is to terrorize the prisoner, dehumanize him, and break him down into something like a frightened animal. That's part of the double-think involved in justifications for waterboarding and other forms of torture. On the one hand, we are told is "really works" because it has the victim begging in no time. On the other, we're told it's not torture.

There's a whole lot more--go read the whole thing!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tom has a great post - updated with pictures!

It's entitled, "What does pro-life mean?" and it gives a great sense of how a Catholic views torture in the context of other life issues.

UPDATE: Tom has given me permission to reproduce his excellent graphic illustrating the Catholic understanding of the Fifth Commandment: You shall not kill. Click for the full image.
Back to our blog post, already in progress...

The money quote:
I propose, then, that for an organization, social program, political platform, etc., to be legitimately called "pro-life," it is necessary and sufficient that
  • it advocate a correct position on at least one of the above issues; and
  • it advocate an incorrect position on none of the above issues
(Individual Catholics, of course, are to hold correct positions on all the issues, and advocate for them as prudence dictates.)

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.

Opposition for the sake of proposition

In the comboxes, some have implied that taking a stand against torture makes one anti-American, pacifist, pro-terrorist, pro-abortion, and so on.

I expect that those who have studied Aristotelian logic will understand that these conclusions do not follow. To those who have not, I recommend starting with the Square of Opposition.

In any case, it seems to me that there are a few main accusations being made here. Others (such as Red and Mark and Tom and Zippy) have pointed this out before, but I think a reminder is not uncalled for.

  1. Guilt by association - The implication is that because many so-called liberals with pacifist or pro-abortion views also set themselves against U.S. policies of torture, that we also must be taking on the entire spectrum of liberal views and advocating against such basic Catholic teachings as the inviolability of human life.
  2. Supporting the terrorists - Because we refuse to support the torture of prisoners, this is said to imply that we are willing to permit terrorists free access to our country, to our persons, and to our property; perhaps we are even supportive of the terrorists' goals and hope for more attacks. After all, torture is seen to be a necessary weapon in this "new kind of war."
  3. Hatred for America - The U.S. government has approved these techniques, and therefore to criticize them is to take a stand against the U.S.A.
  4. It's not really torture anyway - The claim is that we have defined "torture" in too broad or open a manner, so that government and military forces are denied the necessary tools to do their job without being constantly accused of "torturing" someone.

However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, supported by other papal and magisterial documents, condemns torture in every case.

So, I would answer that we stand against torture, not as if it were some isolated policy decision, but because it is contrary to the good of the human person, both individually and socially. The United Nations defines torture as

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, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. (UN Convention against Torture)

Moreover, Article 2.2 of the same document notes that

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

Since the United States of America is a signatory to this convention, it's reasonable to say that the U.S. government, and the U.S. as a whole nation, holds itself to the standards expressed here.

The Catholic Church describes torture in a similar manner, and provides similar prohibitions in its Catechism (as noted on this blog's sidebar). So any Catholic, whether American or not, must stand by these principles both personally and as a church body.

Both the Catholic Church and the UN Convention base this prohibition on the idea of the dignity of the human person. This dignity is understood as a principle of natural law, and therefore applies to every human person under any condition or situation.

The notion of human dignity insists that every human person, simply by the fact of being alive, has the power to think and choose and act, has a value greater than any property, and therefore has the right to exercise these powers and to be treated with respect by others.

Torture is prohibited exactly because the suffering it imposes directly attacks a person's inherent value as well as their powers of thought and choice.

As to the specific allegations:

  1. Guilt by association - Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. It makes no sense to disagree with someone when he or she is right simply because most of the time he or she is wrong.
  2. Supporting the terrorists - The foundation of this argument is that torture is necessary to prosecute terrorists or to defend the country against terrorism. But all research to date demonstrates {PDF} that torture is completely unreliable as a form of interrogation or intelligence-gathering. For example, torture has not led us to the capture of Osama bin Laden. Moreover, other methods of pursuing terrorists and defending the country seem to be sufficient.
  3. Hatred for America - The U.S. has itself signed the UN Convention against Torture, so taking a stand against torture cannot be taken as an anti-American position. Moreover, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to speak freely on matters of political and social importance, including critique of government policies.
  4. It's not really torture anyway - This site has consistently taken definitions and descriptions of torture from published and authoritative sources. It has provided first-hand accounts that particular techniques, such as waterboarding, constitute "severe pain and suffering" and thus meet the definition.

In short, we are only anti-torture because we are pro-life, pro-America, pro-human dignity.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Dirty hands

Britain has been forced to reveal some secret information about torture at Guantanamo Bay:

Britain's government on Wednesday disclosed once-secret information on the treatment of a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who says he was tortured in U.S. custody, losing an extended court battle to keep the material classified.

Judges rejected the government's claim that revealing the information would damage U.S.-British intelligence cooperation.

The information disclosed consisted of a summary of U.S. intelligence information given to British spy agencies about former detainee Binyam Mohamed's treatment during interrogations by the Americans in May 2002.

The paragraphs read in court disclosed that he was subjected to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" including sleep deprivation, shackling and threats resulting in mental stress and suffering.

Ethiopia-born Mohamed was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and says he was tortured there and in Morocco before being flown to Guantanamo Bay. He was released without charge last year. [...]

The seven paragraphs summarize a U.S. account of Mohamed's treatment given to British intelligence before he was interviewed by a British MI5 agent in May 2002, the High Court disclosed last year.

Mohamed's lawyers had long claimed the secret paragraphs prove he was mistreated and that the U.S. and British governments were complicit in his abuse. They have been fighting for access to the documents, along with The Associated Press and other news organizations.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the rights group Liberty, said a "full and broad" public inquiry into British complicity in torture is needed in light of the information contained in the newly released paragraphs.

"It shows the British authorities knew far more than they let on about Binyam Mohamed and how he was tortured in U.S. custody," she said. "It is clear from these seven paragraphs that our authorities knew very well what was happening to Mr. Mohamed. Our hands are very dirty indeed."

If British hands are dirty just because they knew about the torture taking place, how dirty are ours?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

More links

To add to Robert's post below, I was delighted to discover that Zippy Catholic has been blogging again and in particular has been addressing Marc Thiessen's book, Courting Disaster. Two must-read posts from Zippy:

As a Catholic moral theologian, Marc Thiessen makes a great Republican speechwriter


Courting Inanity

Go and read!

Some quick linkies

On the whole Marc Thiessen kerfuffle, there are many stories on his sound rebuttal by Matthew Yglesias. Here are a couple that crossed my inbox:
A choice quote from Sullivan:
Thiessen is correct when he says that
Few Americans really believe that the United States employed the same techniques as the Spanish Inquisition, or Nazi Germany, or the Khmer Rouge.
They cannot believe that because it does not square with their whole concept of America. What they don't fully understand is how radically Bush and Cheney and Thiessen assaulted the core idea of America in their period in office.
Sullivan correctly points out that moral truth (to say nothing of historical truth) does not depend at all on the number of people who believe it.

Now, if only he would apply that reasoning consistently... but that's another topic.

Regarding President Obama's rhetoric of abstaining from torture, The Seminal points out yet another Bush-era policy-maker that Obama is appointing to his own administration.

And, on the pop culture front, there seems to be hope that the "Saw" series of torture-as-entertainment flicks may be calling it quits. I can only hope and pray this is true.

Also, apparently someone has written a stage play entitled "Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them." If anyone in St. Louis happens to see this, I'd love to know more about it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Enhanced parenting?

Father "waterboards" daughter for refusing to recite the alphabet:

A soldier waterboarded his four-year-old daughter because she was unable to recite her alphabet.

Joshua Tabor admitted to police he had used the CIA torture technique because he was so angry.

As his daughter 'squirmed' to get away, Tabor said he submerged her face three or four times until the water was lapping around her forehead and jawline.

Tabor, 27, who had won custody of his daughter only four weeks earlier, admitted choosing the punishment because the girl was terrified of water.

Not a compelling argument

When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called "Underwear Bomber," was arrested, howls of outrage came from many on the right. What? We read this guy his Miranda rights? We put him in jail? Now he would never talk--he wouldn't, without the threat of "enhanced interrogation," ever be inclined to cooperate with the United States Government. No, he would sit in prison for years if necessary, closemouthed and silent, laughing at us for not having the intestinal fortitude to torture the truth out of him.

Well, now he's talking, and you'd think that this would be embarrassing for the pro-waterboard crowd. It's not--not for Marc Thiessen, anyway, who argues that by not waterboarding Abdulmutallab, or at least using some methods of enhanced interrogation on him, we wasted five whole weeks:

The mishandling of Abdulmutallab’s questioning is an intelligence failure of massive proportions. And it highlights the problem with the Obama administration’s approach to terrorist interrogation. The administration’s approach is built on a law-enforcement model unsuited for the challenges of the war on terror. Here is why:

In law enforcement, interrogators generally question terrorists after an attack (or in the case of Abdulmutallab, an attempted attack) has occurred; their goal is to extract a confession in order to secure a conviction. In such circumstances, patience is a virtue. The wheels of justice turn slowly, and interrogators have all the time in the world to build rapport with the criminal, or use the plea bargaining process to get him to talk.

But in a time of war, speed is of the essence. Interrogators must get information from the terrorist quickly, before an attack occurs. Their goal is not to secure a conviction; it is to stop the terrorists from striking in the first place. In such circumstances, patience is not a virtue; patience can be deadly. And time is on the side of the terrorist withholding the information. The longer he drags the interrogation out, the better the chance that he can buy enough time for his comrades on the outside to carry out the attack or at least cover his tracks. His incentive is to hold out as long as possible, and then to provide nominal or outdated information, so he can appear like he is cooperating when he is in fact lying to cover up the important details as long as he can.

This is pretty amazing. Thiessen is arguing that in wartime we can suspend the regular rules in order to interrogate quickly; he's also arguing that all scenarios are ticking time bomb scenarios. He's arguing that even someone like the Underwear Bomber must necessarily be privy to so much crucial information about imminent attacks that we simply can't afford to wait five weeks for him to decide to start cooperating with law enforcement. In a sense, he's arguing that even if a terror suspect doesn't, in fact, know anything at all outside of the plot he was attempting to carry out (which, from what I understand about how terror cells operate, might actually be the case), we have to inflict pain first and--fail to apologize later.

Compare that to what seems to me to be a much saner view:

White House critics had been complaining for weeks that the administration's decision to try Mr. Abdulmutallab in civilian court, to read him his Miranda rights and provide him a lawyer was a typically soft-hearted liberal capitulation to terrorism. Once Mr. Abdulmutallab was read his rights, they claimed, he stopped cooperating and robbed the U.S. of any chance of gaining useful intelligence from him that could be used to disrupt other plots.

Apparently not so. News reports this week say Mr. Abdulmutallab has resumed cooperating with authorities, in part because his interrogators worked hard to establish a psychological rapport with him and in part because they had the good sense to enlist his family in efforts to convince him to talk. Mr. Abdulmutallab's father, a wealthy banker in Nigeria, had contacted the American embassy there last year to warn officials his son was drifting dangerously into radicalism. No doubt the father's presence here helped persuade the young man, described as lonely, isolated and deeply insecure, to value his family ties over those to al-Qaeda.

Since then, Mr. Abdulmutallab reportedly has identified his handlers in Yemen and others involved in the plot, as well as provided information that led to the arrest last week of 10 people linked to a terrorist cell in Malaysia. That's exactly the kind of actionable intelligence officials need in order to save American lives.

But would Mr. Abdulmutallab's parents have been so willing to help if the United States had thrown their son into Guantanamo and commenced waterboarding him? Probably not.

We're told time and again by pro-waterboarding types that we have to be willing to torture, at least a little bit, because it "works." Apparently, bringing someone's family in to talk sense to him can work, too. Marc Thiessen says we can't afford to wait five weeks to get intelligence information from a suspected terrorist, that it's worth setting aside our moral principles to use enhanced interrogation right away. For those of us wrestling with the morality of this issue, that's not a very compelling argument.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

No more anonymous comments

I'm sorry to have to do this yet again, but it would seem that some people who love to post anonymously in order to be trolls on this blog have started to figure out that I'm not policing the comment boxes 24/7.

I've taken down some troll posts from today, and have returned comments to Google/Open ID accounts only. People who think they are very brave about the need to torture terrorists have a tendency to run away like naughty children when they are asked to sign a name (or even a web identity) to their childish screeds.

If you do not have a Google/Open ID account and cannot or do not wish to get one, but would still like to comment here, please feel free to email me at redcardigan (at) gmail (dot) com, and put "Comment for blog" in the subject heading. Then send me your comment along with the post title for the post where you want your comment to appear, and I'll post it for you. Unfortunately the controversial nature of this blog's posts means that leaving anonymous comments open would require full-time moderation of the comment boxes, something that nobody involved with this blog has the time to do.

I know one other option would be to set up the comments so they won't even publish until a moderator has approved them, but frankly I dislike the way that process interrupts the flow of legitimate conversations. So we'll do this for now, and perhaps a better option will be available eventually.

Thanks for your patience!

Gods, heroes, and superstars

While reading Aristotle's Nichomachian Ethics, my jaw hit the floor when he said that the gods are beyond justice. Justice only applies to humanity.

But then, as I was thinking about what Red calls "comic book apologetics" and I've expanded to include TV and movies as well, I realized that we still tend to think that way.

We expect that there are some denizens of the universe whose superiority exempts them from the normal laws of morality that govern us mere mortals.

Even in real life, we tend to equate power with authority. Despite all we know about the abuses of power, we almost automatically give the benefit of the doubt to the rich, the famous, the powerful.

It's wrong for me to sleep with my subordinates at work, but it's okay for David Letterman. I shouldn't endanger innocent civilians in a car chase, but it's alright for Jason Bourne. Nobody should flee the scene of a crime ... except maybe Spider-Man.

And torture is always wrong for an ordinary joe like me, but it's alright for GI-Joe ... um, I mean, for the U.S. Army and the C.I.A. But then again, aren't all the recruiting commercials set up like superhero movies?

Still, there's a part of me that wants that kind of freedom. I get excited watching it, reading it, thinking about it. I think, If I had power like that, I'd be the greatest hero in the world! Everyone would admire me and love me, and I'd always get the girl in the end!

Okay, I don't literally think those words; but those are the sorts of feelings that bubble up in me. I have a desire to be a hero, and I don't think I'm alone in that. I'm sure that's one of the reasons that action movies are so popular.

One of the revolutions of Christianity, though, is that no one - not even God - is beyond ethics. We can actually ask, "How can God be all-powerful and perfectly good?" God IS justice, and goodness, and right. God is not beyond them, in the sense of not being restricted by them.

And if not even God is beyond justice, then none of us are. Not the President of the United States, not the officials who ordered and condoned abusive interrogations, not genius movie directors, and for that matter not even fictional characters.

We are, all of us, bound to seek what is good, right, and true. We are, all of us, bound to avoid whatever is evil. Even at the cost of our lives. No exceptions.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Research on interrogation techniques?

Quick link to a story from The Sydney Morning Herald: Interrogators will do 'research', not torture

First off, not sure if the headline is quite accurate: seems they'll be researching methods of interrogation, not interrogating.

Second, I have no idea whether to hope for clear confirmation that there are better ways to interrogate prisoners, or to fear new justifications for abusive techniques.

In any case, it's fodder for prayer.

Friday, February 5, 2010

New Sidebar Link--America's Catholic Bishops on Torture

In the sidebar you can now find the USCCB's study guide on torture, titled "Torture is a Moral Issue."

I found quite a few things from a cursory reading of it interesting. Here's an example:

How important is it to label a reality accurately—to call it what it is? Some commentators believe that by avoiding the use of certain terms in discussions of disturbing social realities, we actually avoid dealing with these realities themselves.

The use of “sanitized” or “evasive” terminology and “skewed definitions” in discussions of the handling of prisoners in the current combat against terrorism has a way of keeping torture itself from coming into full view, the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition suggested, in a 2006 submission to the U.N. Committee Against Torture. TASSC called it “highly deceptive” for government officials to use such language.

Father Bryan Massingale, a Catholic moral theologian who teaches at Jesuit-run Marquette University in Milwaukee, also has called attention to the terminology sometimes used in discussions of major social realities, including torture. In a July 2007 speech to the Roundtable Association of Diocesan Social Action Directors, Father Massingale said, “Consider some contemporary euphemisms, that is, how we describe social reality in ways that disguise and misrepresent it to dull our awareness of injustice. We speak of ethnic cleansing instead of genocide; of gated communities instead of racially segregated neighborhoods; of neutralizing the enemy instead of killing; of downsizing instead of unemployment; of domestic surveillance instead of spying; of corporate restructuring instead of profit maximization; of enhanced interrogation techniques instead of torture.”

Enhanced interrogation techniques: This terminology, cited above by Father Massingale, undoubtedly represents the euphemism most frequently cited by commentators on the contemporary use of torture. And the second most frequently cited euphemism for torture is surely “the extraordinary rendition” of prisoners, meaning that the United States or its allies sends a prisoner into another nation’s custody for interrogation. Often, commentators point out, it is well known that these other nations practice torture.

But any terminology that waters down the reality of torture, or that masks its reality, may be a euphemism. Thus, “sleep management” might replace “sleep deprivation,” forcing prisoners to sit or stand in “stress positions” might mean forcing them to assume cruelly punishing postures for long periods.

Sometimes severe forms of interrogation are labeled “abuse,” rather than “torture”—apparently out of a sense that “abuse” somehow sounds less cruel. Some might say that a certain interrogation technique is “tantamount” to torture, as if to suggest that it is almost, but not quite, torture. And some commentators consider even the term “waterboarding” euphemistic—a term that they say does not fully call to mind the reality of a simulated drowning.

How much of Catholic support for torture really depends on the uses of euphemisms for torture which deny that torture is really taking place? How are these euphemisms like those used to justify abortion: product of conception, termination of pregnancy, choice, etc.?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What do the survivors think of torture?

A fascinating essay in today's Christian Science Monitor looks at what survivors of torture think of the torture debate:

Americans with no experience deceive themselves about torture. A friend told me that when the US tortured people it was somehow more humane.

But talk to torture victims at the annual gathering of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) and they tell you that torture, whatever its guise, is always immoral.

In the early 1980s, Miguel was held prisoner for four years by the Marcos regime in the Philippines. “Torture is always wrong,” he says. “It uses terrorism to try to destroy terrorism. The torturer becomes the terrorist. You think you establish order by breaking the law.” [...]

Perpetrators of torture share a common rationale: national security. “They tell you torture keeps your families safe and secure,” says Miguel.

What about the Israeli argument – that torture can thwart a suicide bomber, or the American version: “What if Islamic terrorists planted a suitcase-sized nuclear bomb in New York City?”

I put that question to torture survivors. One asked, “Why torture anyone? Wouldn’t you be better off finding an imam ... to sit with the prisoner and let him persuade a suspect it’s morally wrong to take innocent lives?”

Of the dozen survivors I interviewed, people from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, each said torture doesn’t work. In 2008, Mary from Uganda was beaten, gang raped, and terrorized in prison. Her crime? Being a member of the opposition party. “When they torture you, two things happen,” she says. “First they make you crazy. Next, you believe you’re going to die, so there’s no point in confessing.”

Read the whole thing here.

All the hypothetical situations in the world can't compare with the voices of people tortured by unjust regimes, who know what they are talking about. From their perspective, torture is always wrong, and torture doesn't work. They're in a position to know what they're talking about.

Hey, Red, let's not forget TV apologetics!

So the first episode of the last season of "Lost" came on last night. I haven't watched it yet, so I don't know if it contains any scenes of Ben torturing Jack or Sayid torturing Sawyer or Kate torturing ... I don't know, Hurley?

But I will know, as soon as I get some time alone with my DVR. Then I'll get the information out of it.

Oh yeah, I know what buttons to push.

Then there's always "NCIS." That's one of my dad's favorite shows, and I often watch it with him when I'm having dinner at his place. Man, that Gibbs really knows how to put the screws to the bad guys without, you know, leaving scars that can be traced back to him. Although in the last episode I watched, Ziva was getting a little soft about breaking and entering without a warrant. What's up with that?

Also a big fan of "House" because he's not afraid to push the envelope of medicine to find The Truth. One tough dude. He doesn't let anyone push him around, and he doesn't care how much it hurts the patient - even if it kills the patient - as long as he gets the answer he needs.

My favorite, though, has got to be "Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit." Violence with a consistent undertone of sexual perversion. Now that's what I call a show for Americans. I mean, a show that they advertise with a scene of Stabler asking his cohorts in crime-fighting, "What's your favorite form of torture?" - how can you go wrong?

It's not like watching this stuff makes me think that violence is normal, or even sometimes right. Sure, I'm not as shocked as I used to be by it, and yeah those old episodes of "Magnum P.I." and "The A-Team" look pretty mild by comparison. But it's not like it really affects me.

It's just TV, after all.

And by the way, those fast food commercials don't really make me hungry, either. I mean, I was hungry already, right?

Oh yeah, and pornography doesn't stir up my libido at all. What? What's wrong with appreciating the human body?

Anyway, back to TV: any clear-sighted thinker can see the difference between what's real and what's absurdly unrealistic on those TV shows. I mean, at least I don't poison my mind with that evil "24"!

Comic book apologetics

One of the things I've noticed in my encounters with Catholics who either a) aren't sure waterboarding is torture, b) aren't sure torture is evil, or c) both, is that they're rather fond of concocting ridiculously implausible or downright impossible scenarios in a game of "gotcha!" aimed at those who say that torture is evil and that waterboarding is torture.

An example of this is going on in the comments below this post. Here's what the anonymous poster originally had to say:


what would you do if a terrorsist group had your children captive with the threat of being killed, and you had one of those terrorists in your possession and he knew where your children were but he wasn't telling.

What would you do to that terrorist?

My response:

Well, Anonymous, since I'm a 5'2" tall woman who is only in shape if we consider "round" a shape, I certainly hope I'd have the good sense to hand the terrorist over to the proper authorities.

Having done that, I would then duck out to the nearest retail department store's dressing room (since phone booths are no longer even remotely private) and change into my secret superhero costume, at which point I would apply my broad array of superpowers to rescue my children, thwart the terrorists, solve health care and save the economy before returning to my disguise as a mild-mannered and out-of-shape Catholic blogger.

Which is about as likely as my children ever winding up in the hands of terrorists in the first place.

The conversation continues, and at present the anonymous poster is quite distressed, because no one who has engaged him has, apparently, the proper male reproductive organs (his criteria for a qualified answer, not mine) to give him the answer he apparently thinks is the only one that makes sense, which is that of course any decent Catholic God-fearing red-blooded American would not only waterboard such an impossibly fictional creation, but also rape him, burn off his fingers or genitals, make an incision in his abdomen and allow trained vultures to feast on his living entrails, dismember his five-year-old in front of him, or whatever else was necessary to force this expletive deleted to give up the location of my or anyone else's innocent children (because of course Al Qaeda is known for their habit of kidnapping the children of almost completely unknown Catholic bloggers and rigging them up to the Ticking Time Bomb/Doomsday Device of the hour).

That the anonymous poster apparently imagines all of these horrors taking place in my innocuous suburban living room is, I'm afraid, an appeal to the worst side of my sense of humor. I'm looking around wondering where exactly we ought to put the torture-table, and whether the cat would mind his climbing tower being pushed aside to make room for a sinister collection of the instruments of torture, and whether my statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary ought to be relocated lest it become spattered with the blood and bile of this helpless fictional evil dude whom the anonymous poster is so terribly certain I'd torture mercilessly given half the chance.

The sad thing is that the logic here is so twisted. It goes like this:

1. Sure, in our safe everyday world, we have the luxury of saying that torture is evil.
2. But out there in the real world, real men, with real-man reproductive parts, are torturing the expletive deleteds who want to kill us all, saving our lives by the countless thousands, and in their place we'd do the same thing.
3. Therefore, torture must not be evil. Because we wouldn't want to do it if it were.

The truth is that morality is never determined by what we would or would not do or want to do in various bizarre hypothetical situations. It's not even determined by what we would or would not do in various real-world situations. To take a very obvious example, a whole lot of people violate the sixth commandment through acts like fornication or adultery. Others would like to violate this commandment this way if given the chance. But saying, "Hey, but what you do if you were stranded on a desert island with a beautiful and uninhibited supermodel who was terribly grateful to you for saving her life?" doesn't in any way make fornication (or adultery, as the case might be) any less morally evil, even if the person being asked the question would have to admit that under those circumstances chastity would be a pretty difficult struggle.

And if some terrorist group had my children, and I'd somehow managed to track down one of them and kidnap him all by myself and then called Mark Shea and Sean Dailey and Tom at Disputations and a half-dozen other anti-torture types to come on over and help me out, I can't say for certain that all of us would virtuously avoid treating the terrorist inhumanely. Heck, just kidnapping the guy and not calling the police would already be a couple of major sins, not to mention extremely reckless and quite likely to put my children in graver danger, etc. But scenarios like that properly belong in comic books, where the impossibly evil is fought triumphantly by the superhumanly good on a daily basis.

The trouble with Doomsday Weapon/Ticking Time Bomb/Innocent Kidnapped Children scenarios is that they want to bend the real, every-day rules of morality on the grounds of absurdly impossible situations--and then to keep the kink in the morality in situations that are normal and everyday. But that's making Eve's old bargain with evil, seeing it as situationally good so long as we can convince ourselves that God didn't really mean what He said about good and evil. It's a game people play every day, with issues ranging from abortion (where the impossible scenario might a single mother of four for whom another pregnancy would be fatal who has been raped by an HIV-positive criminal and who is now carrying anencephalic twins) to torture (where the many variations of the Jack Bauer ticking-time-bomb world-about-to-end scenarios will make perfectly sane and rational people insist that if the only way we can get the terrorist to talk is by murdering his two-year-old in front of him, why, then, we owe it to humanity to do exactly that).

But the most Real Man Who ever came among us asks, " For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?" That question doesn't become any less relevant just because we've concocted a ridiculously impossible comic-book scenario in which we must commit a terribly grave sin in order to save the world.

UPDATE: Greater thinkers than I have covered this ground before; go and read!

A Real Bomb

Certain Challenges

Hypothetical Sin and Pure Evil

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 ( 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 ( 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

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 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 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 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).