Separating the wheat from the chaff in the Great Torture Debate …
Who could be a part of the Coalition for Clarity? — That’s a good question, particularly when reviewing various attempts at “clarity” from the vast array of prominent Catholics who have weighed in on the subject.
Consider the following candidates …
Catholic Answers is one of the largest lay-run apostolates of Catholic apologetics and evangelization in the United States, founded by Karl Keating and host to such leading lights as Catholic author and radio host Patrick Madrid and Mark Brumley (CEO of Catholic publishing giant Ignatius Press).
A keyword search for torture on their website turns up precious little. Their most extensive treatment of the issue appears to be a formal response by Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S. on the subject of The Church and Torture (This Rock Fall 2006) — reprising his arguments in Living Tradition (“Torture and Corporal Punishment as a Problem in Catholic Moral Theology: Part I – The Witness of Scripture” | Part II. The Witness of Tradition and Magisterium), Harrison concluded that “in spite of initial appearances, we should not read article 80 of John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor as being intended to settle the whole question with a condemnation of all severe and intentional infliction of pain as intrinsically evil.”
Last year, Deal Hudson (former editor of Crisis magazine and founder of InsideCatholic.com) proposed the question:Is Torture One of the Church’s Non-Negotiables?? — Deal to my knowledge remains ambivalent (or perhaps reflective) on the question.
- In June 2004, Catholic Apologist Jimmy Akin examined the Catechism‘s statements on torture and ventured the following:
The Catechism‘s discussion of torture (CCC 2298) focuses significantly on the motive that is being pursued in different acts of torture. If it means us to understand that having a particular motive is necessary for an act to count as torture then it might turn out that some acts commonly described as torture are in fact not torture–just as some acts commonly described as stealing are not actually the sin of stealing, such as taking food to feed one’s family during a time of starvation when the person who initially had the food has plenty. The same might turn out to be true of torture (i.e., not everything that looks like torture would be the sin of torture).
For example, the Catechism’s list of motives for torture does not mention the use of physical pressure to obtain information needed to save innocent lives. It thus might turn out that it is not torture to twist a terrorist’s arm behind him and demand that he tell you where he planted a bomb so that it can be defused and innocents can be saved. Certainly the kind of things that Jack Bauer may do on 24 are very different morally from the kinds of things that happened in Soviet prisons.
I would be disinclined to go the route of saying that torture is not always wrong. I think that the Church is pretty clearly indicating in its recent documents that it wants the word “torture” used in such a way that torture is always wrong. However, I don’t think that the Magisterium has yet thoroughly worked out all the kinds of “hard case” situations one can imagine and whether they count as torture.
Different churchmen would probably answer the hard case questions differently, some reflexibly shying away from any use of significant physical or psychological pressure, and others holding that the need to prevent an imminent terrorist attack trumps any right a terrorist might otherwise have not to have pain inflicted on him, so that applying physical pressure in such cases might not count as the sin of torture.
- In October 2006, Jimmy Akin expressed his “doubts about torture” and asserted that “[having] briefly chatted with Mark about the matter, my impression is that his position is within the permitted range of Catholic moral thought on this, though his is not the only position within the permitted range of Catholic moral thought.”
- Finally, in November 2006, Jimmy embarked on a thoughtful three-part exploration of the subject (See: Part I: “Defining Torture: An Initial Exploration” | Part II: Proposing a Definition | Part III: One more Thought — he arrived at the tentative conclusion that torture amounted to “the infliction of a disproportionate amount of pain”, which subsequently led to the (tentative?) conclusions that — with respect to one particular method of coercion — “waterboarding is torture if it is being used to get a person to confess to a crime”; “it is torture if it is being used to get information out of a terrorist that could be gotten through traditional, less painful interrogation means,” and “I would not say that it is torture if it is being used in a ticking time bomb scenario and there is no other, less painful way to save lives.”
Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus
Responding to articles by Alan Dershowitz and Andrew C. McCarthy favoring “controlled, highly regulated, and responsibly accountable conditions” in which torture would be permitted, Fr. Neuhaus insisted on the necessity of “drawing the line against torture” (First Things October 2004):
There is a temptation to place terrorists beyond the pale of humanity. But every human being, no matter how radically he has debased himself, is a child of God, created in His image and likeness. …
The usual instance cited by proponents of legalized torture is that of the “ticking time bomb.” The scenario is that we have in custody a fourteen-year-old girl who, we have reason to believe, knows where a nuclear bomb is planted in the heart of a city, a bomb timed to explode within hours. Surely, it is argued, in such a circumstance torture is justified in order to get information that will save many thousands of lives. No, it isn’t. Leave aside the counter-arguments that maybe she does not know, or that information exacted by torture is unreliable. When it comes to defining circumstances justifying torture or to the regulating of torture, the course is slippery and steeply sloped. We dare not trust ourselves to torture.
Torture as defined in international agreements to which the U.S. is party—outrages against human dignity, humiliation, degradation, mutilation, the threat of death—is never morally permissible. Admittedly, a measure of coercion, both physical and mental, is inevitably involved in most interrogation. The very fact of being in custody and under threat of punishment is a form of coercion. The task is to draw as bright a line as possible between such coercion and torture, and to forbid the latter absolutely. The uncompromisable principle is that it is always wrong to do evil in order that good may result. This principle is taught in numerous foundational texts of our civilization and is magisterially elaborated in the 1993 encyclical of John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor. We cannot ask God’s blessing upon a course of action that entails the deliberate doing of evil.
It’s unclear whether “The Coalition for Clarity” is a distinctly Catholic organization. If not, they might take the following candidates into consideration:
Victor Davis Hanson
Back in December 2005, the military historian and former classics professor wrote in favor of the McCain amendment prohibiting the inhumane treatment of prisoners (“The Truth About Torture”). Though expressing concern about “castigating our misdemeanors, while mostly ignoring the felonies of real barbarians” and “that once we try to quantify precisely what constitutes torture, we could, in the ensuing utopian debate, define anything from sleep deprivation to loud noise as unacceptable. Indeed, we might achieve the unintended effect of only creating disdain for our moral pretensions from incarcerated terrorists”, he ultimately concluded support of the amendment was a risk worth taking:
… because it is a public reaffirmation of our country’s ideals. The United States can win this global war without employing torture. That we will not resort to what comes so naturally to Islamic terrorists also defines the nobility of our cause, reminding us that we need not and will not become anything like our enemies.
Tom Donnelly and Vance Serchuk
In the flagship publication of the neoconservative movement, Tom Donnelly and Vance Serchuk of the American Enterprise Institute argued for One Code to Rule Them All (Weekly Standard October 3, 2005) — expressing skepticism towards “the Pentagon’s ‘just-trust-us’ mentality” and insisting that “Congress owes it to America, our allies, and our soldiers to set clear standards for the treatment of detainees” by strict adherence to the regulations of the Army Field Manual as a uniform standard for interrogations.
Foreign policy specialist and prominent neoconservative Michael Ledeen MIGHT qualify, depending on who you ask. On one hand, if you believe the spin of Mark Shea, Ledeen once argued that “your son should commit cold blooded murder of surrendering prisoners in order to keep the quota of captured prisoners down. He’ll make an excellent murderer and war criminal and do his nation proud”. On the other, Ledeen himself came out rather forcefully against detainee abuse in 2004:
Maybe the temperature of the rhetoric has cooled enough for us to address the most important aspect of the debacle: Torture and abuse are not only wrong and disgusting. They are stupid and counterproductive. A person under torture will provide whatever statements he believes will end the pain. Therefore, the “information” he provides is fundamentally unreliable. He is not responding to questions; 99 percent of the time, he’s just trying to figure out what he has to say in order to end his suffering. All those who approved these methods should be fired, above all because they are incompetent to collect intelligence.
Torture, and the belief in its efficacy, are the way our enemies think. And remember that our enemies, the tyrants of the 20th century, and the jihadis we are fighting now, are the representatives of failed cultures. Our greatness derives from the superiority of our culture, and we should, as the sports metaphor goes, stick with what got us here.
To my knowledge, National Review contributor John Derbyshire was among the first conservatives to speak out against torture in November 2001: “I’ll go along with some clever manipulation of a suspect’s hopes and fears: But rubber truncheons? Electrodes? Pliers? Razor blades? Blocks of ice? Not in my name, no. Am I an absolutist on this? Yes, I am.”
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Responding to Mark Shea’s enthusiastic plug for the CfC, one poor sap remarked:
“Torture is intrinsically evil.” Not hard to agree with.
The more difficult question is, what is torture?
(In other words, here we go again …)