Rhetorical creep

A reader writes:

Dear God what have we come to? Once abortion is cast into the fiery dustbins of history from whence it came, will torture take its place as the next grave evil threatening our livelihood and well-being?

What do these guys not get about Gaudium et Spes 27, CCC 2297, the bull of Pope Pius SVII, St. Nicholas I’s ninth-century condemnation, the Sacred Tradition handed on by the apostles, etc…?

I just don’t get how anyone could justify torture, ever. Period. I mean, isn’t it obvious that it’s bad to intentionally inflict pain on another person?

We learned that in Kinder…wait…we didn’t even have to learn that! That intuition came built-in at birth.

FWIW, if there’s anything the last six years have taught us, there are dozens and dozens of ways to rationalize evil. Most Catholics never give the question of torture a thought, I’ll wager, so their easy assumption that “It’s probably okay sometimes: you know, to save New York and stuff” is about all the farther the thought ever goes, just as the average Catholic would say they oppose abortion–but still think it should be legal and wouldn’t blame a woman in a tough spot for having one. Our mind do not naturally want to dwell on such matters, so we make quick summary assessments and move on. Here’s a fairly average quick summary judgment from just the other day:

I think I am against [torture] but with this one exception: if I have a choice between saving say, 5 million lives in a nuke-contaminated Chicago or being able to say, “but at least we didn’t waterboard that guy,” I am inclined to think I would go for torture. The 5 million might still die, it’s true, but at least I won’t have to answer for standing idly by and watching it so that my morals might remain intact. I will take the chance that my moral failing in that instance will simply join my other moral failings in life, and then God and I will work that stuff out.

The refreshing thing about this post is that it is blessedly free of the normal mealy-mouthed rubbish about “enhanced interrogation” anywhere in this apologia for what the author frankly calls “torture”. Nor is there the intelligence-insulting pretense that waterboarding is not torture, much less waterboarding 183 times. There is just the straight-up statement that in a tradeoff between torturing some goon and saving five million people, we should go ahead and torture, normative Church teaching about it being intrinsically immoral be damned. And there is the equally refreshing and plain suggestion that only people with preening moralistic pride and no sense of proportion could possibly have a problem with approving such a supposedly clear moral choice.

I like that. You know where you stand.

Only here’s the the thing: such rhetoric does not stay still over time. While Catholics have been quibbling over the meaning of torture for the past four years, reluctant to admit that they are, in fact, defending torture, non-Christians like Charles Krauthammer, unfettered by the need for squaring torture with the circle of Catholic doctrine, have been frank about their insistence on the moral imperative of torture since 2005:

Let’s take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He’s not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

No beating around the bush here. No definitional mickey mouse games about “What O what is torture?” Not even the fine-tuned jesuitical sophistries about whether torture is gravely evil. Just the refreshing and straight forward claim that we must do evil (“terrible things”) that good may come of it. He was, then, where the Catholic torture defenders are finally admitting they are now. And (note carefully) he expressly says that you should torture, not if you are absolutely certain your victim has the info, but if you have “the slightest belief” he might.

But that was four years ago. How has Krauthammer progressed in his thinking? Well, he is certainly still four-square in favor of torture. However, now his rhetoric has changed. Forget a million innocents. Just one will do:

An innocent’s life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy.

So we’re no longer even talking about the War on Terror. Just ordinary police investigations for kidnapping or conspiracy to murder. If you have “the slightest belief” that torture might turn something up from your interrogation suspect, then torture away.

So where does this instantly lead the moment our head clears from the visions of a new 9/11? To the obvious conclusion that, if you don’t have the suspect in your grasp, you should be torturing his family members to a) find out where he is and b) (once you have established contact with him) make sure he understands you mean business if he won’t cooperate, of course. When his little girl starts to scream and beg for mercy over the cell phone link, he’ll get the idea.

You will naturally object that torturing wives and children to get information is unjust since they are innocent. But, as Fr. Harrison has explained to us, while torture for punishment is intrinsically immoral, torture to “obtain information” is still (just barely possibly) legitimate. And that’s all most Catholic torture defenders have needed to conclude that torture is just fine to save lives: a “prudential judgement” according to some figures in Catholic media.

But, even if we don’t worry your head about Fr. Harrison’s fine-tune parsing of the Tradition and just go for Krauthammer’s straight up claim that brutal practicality means you have to do evil to do good sometimes, you still arrive at the same point: since you have to do “morally poisonous” things in order to defeat evil, what’s one more morally poisonous thing?

Now, perhaps you are troubled by the notion of torturing a little girl in order to save one life? Okay. Forget saving a single life. Get back to that beloved “save New York” scenario, with its common denunciation of moral idiots who can’t see that saving five million people is worth the cost of torturing (and maybe accidently killing, oops!) one person. Make that trade and, to quote the Anchoress: Surely, you “won’t have to answer for standing idly by and watching it so that [your] morals might remain intact”? Surely, you “will take the chance that [your] moral failing in that instance will simply join [your] other moral failings in life, and then God and [you] will work that stuff out”?

So go ahead, you moral idiot! Torture the kid if you have “the slightest belief” it will save those lives. You’re not vindictive! You’re not doing it for punishment, but to save innocent lives! What’s one screaming child, begging for mercy, in the grand scheme of things?


Some time ago, Zippy wrote a piece called “Sinning by Hypotheticals“. No small part of the “torture debate” is that it urges and encourages Catholics to dwell on ways in which they might sin gravely while assuring their consciences that they are courageously making the “hard choices” while pantywaists are wringing their hands about moral niceties. That is, it is to tempt people to approving of grave evil. The very first response to the Anchoress’ apologia for torture was from a troubled soul who is tempted to conclude, “I’m willing to concede that sometimes, a grave evil is necessary.”

The exact theological description of somebody who is struggling with that thought is “temptation”. It is obvious she does not *want* to conclude this (because her Christian training, particularly if she is a Catholic) includes the absolute insistence that this is a lie. But the scenario, as presented, tempts her to believe this lie.

She continues:

What scares me is the ideological creep. I think very few people would object to the nuclear holocaust scenario. What scares me is that more and more people seem to be clamoring for more strenuous methods to save a far smaller number. And where does that sliding scale stop? Two thousand years ago, the Sanhedrin turned over a suspected terrorist, already responsible for a riot outside the temple in Jerusalem, for torture and execution because to not do so would be to risk Roman wrath against all of Israel. Look, now, how we view them.

She does well to resist the “ideological creep” and may God guide her away from the snare. The Holy Spirit is at work in that resistance.

For what is being proposed, once you get past the cinematic appeals to pure emotion with the hairy thug and the ticking bomb about to destroy the glittering city, is indeed the logic that it is necessary for one person to die that a whole nation may not perish (as Caiaphas adroitly put it). Of course, the Anchoress doesn’t mean for it to go there. She says, “I don’t want to kill the guy I’m torturing. But I want to save 5 million lives.” And so, no doubt, she does. She also doesn’t mean for it to go to torturing innocents. But here’s the thing: In closely tailored hypothetical scenarios like Krauthammer’s and the Anchoress’, your victim is always the brutish SOB that nobody will miss. You don’t want to kill him of course, because you are the Good Guy. And the reason he is your victim is because he’s the guilty guy.

But in real life, there is no necessary correlation between the guilt of the torture victims and the amount of useful information torturing them might yield. The Soviets could, no doubt, point to lots of times torturing the families of suspects (real murderous criminals, I mean, not mere political prisoners) yielded useful information PDQ. But, despite what were no doubt good intentions on the part of many a dedicated enhanced interrogation practitioner, quite a number of innocents died once the state concluded that the Need of the Many outweigh the needs of the few.

That’s thing about all this: ideas have consequences. Once you embrace “let us do evil that good may come of it” there’s no final limit. Like all the devil’s Faustian bargains, it seems promising at the time, but payoff’s a bitch.

"Our focus must be to remove Trump. To do so, Republicans capitulators must first be ..."

The Catholic Both/And
"But what even are "normal circumstances?" Is it having one kid? Two kids? Three kids? ..."

“They Didn’t Get to Design our ..."
"Well we are never going to see eye to eye... By the way, I have ..."

“They Didn’t Get to Design our ..."
"I wish I could give this many hundred up-votes it deserves!"

Christianism vs. the Parable of the ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment