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Clarity on Torture

This editorial from Gilbert magazine, published by the American Chesterton Society, deserves reproduction in full for its call for clarity in condemning the torturous methods employed by our government and its armed forces. It is also a helpful reminder that there is little to be gained by winning a war if one becomes as bad as the evil defeated.

Those who see abortion as an evil are often frustrated by those who attempt to justify abortion by vague arguments about “choice” or even more practical arguments about exceptions for rape or incest, or the health of the mother. But many of these same people lose their moral clarity when the subject is torture. Suddenly they are the ones bringing up exceptions and parsing definitions.

There is so much confusion over this issue that in a recent TV interview, a prominent Catholic journalist let a former Bush Administration speechwriter, also a Catholic, grossly misrepresent Catholic teaching in a shameful apologia for torture.

Let us re-establish clarity. Torture, whether physical or psychological, is a barbaric, savage act, not justifiable under any circumstances, and unworthy of a civilized society.

But don’t take our word for it. For those readers who are religious, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began calling for America to cease torturing prisoners more than a year ago. American Episcopal bishops agree, as do other Protestant denominations. For our Catholic readers, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “I reiterate that the prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstances.” The Catholic Church draws no distinction between physical and psychological torture.

For those readers who aren’t religious, we turn to U.S. law and international law, where torture is, without exception, condemned. Not one state or municipal law enforcement agency permits it. The Army Field Manual, which regulates interrogations by the U.S. military, prohibits torture. So does the Geneva Convention—a treaty to which both the Holy See and the United States are signatories. None of these institutions or documents draws any distinction between physical and psychological torture either. For all, torture is torture.

When Catholics and Protestants agree, and when religious and secular institutions agree, that torture is an offense against human dignity and that those guilty of it should be thrown in jail, may we not agree that perhaps it is immoral? Do we really need to get into the nuts and bolts of what constitutes torture?

Yes, we do. Most will agree that taking a power drill to a man’s shoulder or pulling out his fingernails with pliers for punishment or to extract information is torture. But when the subject is waterboarding, clarity vanishes again. Some consider waterboarding to be mere psychological torture—which, as we’ve already established, is morally indistinguishable from physical torture.

But waterboarding is not a harmless dunk in the tub, as former Vice President Dick Cheney once likened it, and it is not psychological torture. In waterboarding, a subject is strapped to a gurney. His feet are elevated slightly above his head. A cloth is draped over his face. And water is poured on his face so that it enters his nose and mouth and flows into his lungs. CIA interrogators are instructed to pour the water immediately after a detainee exhales, to ensure he inhales water, not air. They use their hands to “dam the flow” of excess water from a detainee’s mouth. And detainees who are scheduled for waterboarding are put on a liquid diet, to minimize the risk of death should they inhale their own vomit.

This procedure became official American policy in our so-called War on Terror, but it was not always so. Waterboarding has been condemned by the United States government since at least 1898, when American soldiers were court marshaled for waterboarding prisoners during our occupation of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War. In World War II, we hanged Japanese war criminals for waterboarding American and Allied troops. In the 1980s in Texas, a sheriff and three of his deputies were convicted by the Justice Department for waterboarding prisoners to extract confessions.

And yet, there are those exceptions: American security is at stake. If waterboarding saves even one life, isn’t it worth it?

If torturing a terrorist suspect saved a city from destruction, or if it saved even one life, it would still be a barbaric, savage act, unworthy of a civilized society. If expediency were enough to justify an immoral act, then abortion would be justifiable.
G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1916 that people who purport to defend civilization against barbarians undermine their cause when they resort to barbaric tactics. “The more we insist that the terms must be our terms, the more do we weaken ourselves if the methods are their methods.”

During World War I, when some in England demanded that German soldiers captured on English soil be denied humane treatment, Chesterton countered, “Such small revenges are unworthy of the dignity of indignation. They are also futile and inconsequent.”

Our whole hope of getting a monster killed and not scotched depends upon our keeping fresh the original human horror at its monstrosity. It may be illogical, but it will certainly be natural, if that horror is somewhat dulled if, by the end of the war, everybody seems to be fighting with pretty much the same weapons.

When you torture, you turn the victim into a hero, for there is more honor in defying a torturer than in being a torturer.

“A kind of courage can exist in a merciless and unmagnaminous soldier, as it can exist in a merciless and unmagnaminous wild pig,” Chesterton wrote. “But it does not happen to be the kind of courage that our brethren have died to keep alive.”

—Sean P. Dailey for the editorial board of Gilbert Magazine
This post was published on Sunday, June 6th, 2010 4:48 pm. It has been categorised under Church Military and been tagged under , .
Comments
  1. 8 June 2010
    10:04 am

    I believe a clear definition, as opposed to examples, of what Sean considers torture would help with his argument.

    His comparison of abortion and torture falls flat because he doesn’t provide a definition of what he considers torture. We know that a pregnancy terminated by choice equals an abortion. The definition of abortion provides the moral clarity and circumstances do not change the truth of that definition. What he describes, incorrectly in my judgement, as hypocritical exception-making and definition-parsing and seems to equate with abortion-apologist rationalizing, I see as people making an honest attempt to determine the definition of torture. And with no consensus on a definition there is no path towards eradicating it from the arsenal.

  2. 8 June 2010
    2:40 pm

    Dailey hardly provides clarity! Fr. Brian Harrison provides a much better analysis of Church teaching here:
    http://bit.ly/awe8oO

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