Tortured Theology

Here’s a little piece I just wrote for Intercollegiate Review on “Tortured Theology“, exhorting conservatives (and particularly conservative Christians) to at long last give up their rationalizations for what the Church clearly teaches is gravely and intrinsically immoral. It’s not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing. Win/win.

Speaking of which, had an interesting FB conversation this weekend hosted by the very smart Mark Brumley and centering around this piece by Todd Aglialoro over at Catholic Answers, looking at the perennial question of whether waterboarding rises to the level of torture or not.

It is, I think, an honorable but ultimately wrong-headed attempt to address the issue. It’s honorable because I think Todd is obviously trying his best to think with the Church, something I can’t always say I think about people in these discussions. And trying to think with the Church is pretty much all God asks of us. So I salute him for that.

But at the same time, I think the piece suffers from a fault in its premises that dooms the thought process from the start. It’s something I tried to express last week in response to the piece by Ramesh Ponnuru that was about another aspect of our culture of death: the death penalty. His argument boils down to this: Why not inflict the death penalty? Because we don’t have to.

Seems sensible enough, and yet as I noted, from the death penalty to just war to torture to gun rights (and over on the progressive side of the aisle, with abortion) Catholic moral theology in pop culture pretty neatly divides into two camps. One asks “How can we do the right thing with as little violence as possible?” and the other, in one way or another, asks “When do we *get* to use violence?”

So, for instance, in the ramp up to the war in Iraq, just war teaching was treated not as being obviously ordered toward making war as difficult as possible, but as a series of hoops to jump through which, if you cocked your head right and pretended hard enough sort of gave a pretence of justice so that we *got* to go to war. The death penalty discussion is conducted in the same way. Why do we only focus on the safety of the community? Doesn’t retributive justice mean that we *get* to execute the criminal. Hey, if ensoulment doesn’t happen till the fortieth day, don’t we *get* to kill the fetus before then? When do I *get* to shoot an intruder and under what circumstances? If we *get* to kill people in war, why don’t we *get* to torture them? The image that comes to mind is not of a surgeon struggling desperately to keep from amputating a limb if any other course of action can be found, but of a greyhound straining at a leash, longing to be set free to run toward the goal of inflicting violence as soon as possible and to the limits it is allowed to do so.

It seems to me that that this is exactly what undergirds the entire discussion of whether waterboarding “rises to the level” of torture. Under what circumstances do we *get* to waterboard?

And yet, Catholic moral theology *never* proceeds from the notion that we should seek to see how close we can get to mortal sin without quite committing it. Indeed, in other arenas, to even ask that question is to already reveal a profoundly wrong-headed approach to moral reasoning. The man who asks his gym buddies how much physical intimacy he can have with his hot secretary before it’s technically adultery betrays a profound understanding of his obligation to love his wife.

Asking how close we can get to torturing prisoners likewise betrays a profound understanding of our equally God-given obligation to love our enemies.

Here’s the deal: Mr. Aglialoro’s admittedly provisional conclusion is this:

Since the Church does not specifically address it, how should we morally evaluate something like waterboarding, which is the practice of imposing discomfort on someone with the intention of eliciting proportionately important (e.g., life-saving) information to which one has a right in justice? To put it concretely: You know where there’s a bomb that’s going to detonate and kill innocents. I have a right to know that information. What means can I use to get it from you?

Catholic principles of self-defense say that one may use even lethal means to protect one’s life or the lives of innocents in the face of an unjust aggressor (CCC 2263-2265). It seems to follow, then, that in the same circumstances non-lethal corporal means are at least in-bounds. For is not a person who intentionally withholds life-saving information an unjust aggressor? Even if his aggression is by omission.

Note that: we *get* to kill in war, so why shouldn’t we *get* to torture?

But, in fact, the Church’s teaching is much more nuanced. Essentially, it concedes that killing happens in war, but that the goal is not killing, but the surrender of an enemy. So if you can neutralize an enemy without killing him, do so. That’s why we take prisoners at all. And so, even though a prisoner remains a potential danger (since he can, after all, try to kill his captors and escape, revealing valuable intel to the enemy) the Church *still* commands that prisoners be treated humanely. You don’t *get* to kill a prisoner. And you don’t *get* to kill a combatant. You *have* to kill a combatant sometimes. You never have to kill or torture a prisoner, and if you can avoid it, you should. The principle of minimal violence always holds. Harm and kill only when you have to.

But what about the ticking time bomb? Prescinding from the fact that ticking time bomb scenarios are fantasies from TV shows calculated to gin up support for the use of torture, the reality is this: the ends do not justify the means. So Torture does not become Not-Torture depending on the ends you seek.

Here’s a thought experiment. A deer hunter hears a rustling in the bush. He knows there are other hunters in the woods. Will he escape guilt if he fires into the bush and says “I just wasn’t sure it was a hunter, so I started blasting. Sorry I killed your dad, kid.” No. He is under an absolute obligation to *know* he is not committing mortal sin before acting.

Likewise, the Catholic who is just not sure a fetus is a human person is absolutely obligated *not* to abort.

And the person who is unsure whether waterboarding is torture or not is absolutely obligated not to support or inflict it.

And trying to show it absolutely is not torture is hugely difficult and, in fact, impossible. You have the enormous weight of common sense, international law, and US jurisprudence against you. You have the ghastly documentation of the CIA’s own internal memos.

“We understand that water may enter – and accumulate in – the detainee’s mouth and nasal cavity, preventing him from breathing.”

“An unresponsive subject should be righted immediately.”

“One of the weirdest details in the documents is the revelation that the agency placed detainees on liquid diets prior to the use of waterboarding. That’s because during waterboarding, “a detainee might vomit and then aspirate the emesis,” Bradbury wrote. In other words, breathe in his own vomit. The CIA recommended the use of Ensure Plus for the liquid diet.”

“In our limited experience, extensive sustained use of the waterboard can introduce new risks…Most seriously, for reasons of physical fatigue or psychological resignation, the subject may simply give up, allowing excessive filling of the airways and loss of consciousness.”

In short, as Steven D. Greydanus puts it, “In other words, waterboarded captives actually became so exhausted and crushed that they LET THEMSELVES DROWN.”

If that’s not torture, nothing is torture. And if it is torture our orders as Catholics are clear: The prohibition against torture may never be contravened, according to Benedict XVI.

The biggest tragedy in this whole debate is that it is simply assumed that torture “works”. But in fact, the data points overwhelmingly to the fact that torture (including waterboarding) is not only evil, but stupid and counter-productive. It’s stupid for conservative Christians in a rapidly de-Christianizing culture to support because Obama is still outsourcing torture and has made it clear that he arrogates to himself the power to indefinitely detain and even murder anybody on earth, American citizen or not, he deems to be a national security threat. And if the victim turns out to be innocent, Obama simply declares him to be a terrorist after the fact. All it would take would be a serious bloodbath from a trigger-happy militia group or a Timothy McVeigh, and people like Cliven Bundy, Palin, Hannity, and their supporters might find that the state deems them to be worthy of torture—a thought that never seems to cross their minds.

It’s also stupid because when you get past the rhetoric of political demagogues who shout that opponents of torture want the terrorists to win and our troops to die, you discover that actual Army interrogators loathe the zeal for torture by Know Nothing civilians and politicians who get all their information from TV fantasies. That’s because it yields lousy intel that sends law enforcement on wild goose chases because the victims say anything to make the torture stop. It reduces, not enhances, national security. It also renders real criminals immune from conviction because evidence obtained under torture is inadmissible. It is what Communists, not Americans, do. And it places our troops in grave danger because it is they who will be subject to rape and torture themselves if captured, and it is they will be left to hang for carrying out the orders of politicians like Palin who command them to torture. There’s a reason the Army Field Manual forbids it and a reason we have historically prosecuted our own troops for doing it, including waterboarding.

Mr. Aglialoro maintains a certain agnosticism about whether waterboarding rises to the level of torture. The practical outcome of that agnosticism, like that of the surgeon who is unsure the fetus is a baby or the deer hunter who is unsure that’s another hunter in the bush, is clear: Do not waterboard, abort, or shoot.  The goal is not to find out how much violence you *get* to do, but how to do the right thing with as little violence as possible.

And if you are still somehow absolutely certain, in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary that waterboarding is not torture and is harmless, then bear in mind the first thing that torture regimes always figure out: that if you can’t get a confession (true or false) out of your victim, then the thing to do is to apply your tortures to his wife and children.  A man who will die a martyr will often say anything to stop the screams of his little girl.

“But the children are innocent!” you say.  So what?  This is not about guilt or innocence, remember?  Nobody is being *punished* here, right? We’re not torturing because we are vindictive monsters. This is just about using what you yourself insist is a *harmless* technique to get information quickly and efficiently.  If terrifying little girls does the trick, then torture regimes will do it in a heartbeat.  That’s what is being argued for when we start down that dark path.  That and much, much more.

And, by the way, if you think it can’t happen here, it already has: we threatened and tortured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s little boy and girl. Amazingly, some torture apologists look at that and say, “Big deal. We scared them with bugs!”

Parents: lemme ask you: if your neighbor snatched your 7 year old kid and held him against his will in his garage, terrifying him with insects, how long do you think that neighbor should be in prison? We are not at war with children. But the school of moral theology that begins, not with “How can we do the right thing with as little violence as possible?” but with “How much violence do we *get* to do?” has a genius, abundantly documented in human history, for finding that there is no limit to the violence God will bless.

The instruction of the Church with respect to prisoners is clear. It is not “drown them and hope it’s not torture.” It’s treat prisoners humanely and do your interrogation respecting that. And as real interrogators point out, that’s not only right, it’s smart and it works.

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  • Archaeopteryx

    You’re right that if one is not sure about the answer to a moral question, one should err on the side of caution. However that does not mean one should not seek to definitively answer the question, if for no other reason than to get the other side to shut up about it.

    Assuming we can get to a point that at least (most) everyone agrees that torture is wrong, ‘Is waterboarding torture?’ is still a valid question to answer if just to get people to stop asking whether or not it can be used.

    This is, ultimately, the same as when the Church declares a dogma. A Catholic can ask the Church ‘Is the Holy Trinity a thing?’ or ‘Why is the Holy Trinity a thing?’; he cannot get into a debate with the Church over whether the Trinity is real, because the matter has been settled.

  • Eve Fisher

    Sadly, according to the Stand Your Ground laws, the rights of the person holding the gun trump the right of anyone in the bushes: it is always the victim’s fault who, because they were shot dead (or waterboarded, or anything else), are presumed guilty.

    • sbark

      I think your view of the stand you ground laws is exactly backwards of the intent of the law. I think the intent of the law is to say that people are sometimes put in very difficult circumstances where they need to make instant decisions about their safety and possibly their families safety. The law doesn’t assume that the victim is guilty. It only recognizes that the other person wasn’t necessarily setting out to murder someone. Catholic moral theology recognizes that a person who commits an evil act may not bear full culpability. These laws attempt to give the same recognition legally.

      • Eve Fisher

        “By their fruits shall you know them.” And that may be the intent of the law, the results are very different. What it has done is create an environment in which people are shooting first and asking questions later. A Billings man shot a seminary student who was his houseguest when the guy went into the garage to make a quiet phone call; the Florida man who shot teenagers whose music was too loud (he claimed they were armed; they weren’t); a woman knocked on a door to ask to use the phone in Florida and was shot in the chest. Fear is now reason enough to kill someone – even if the fear is totally unjustified or just paranoid. On top of that, the results have been pretty racist. According to the Urban Institute, in Stand our Ground states, white-on-black homicides are 354 percent more likely to be ruled justified than white-on-white homicides. In cases with black or Hispanic victims, the killings were found justified by the Stand Your Ground law 78 percent of the time, compared to 56 percent in cases with white victims. Women, even white women, are almost never accorded Stand Your Ground rights, even though the idea of a woman defending herself is one of the arguments that was/is used to establish SYG laws. (Is it that women just aren’t supposed to shoot men, no matter how afraid they are?). There are already laws that allow leniency with regard to intent – manslaughter in its multiple levels of culpability, from voluntary to involuntary. The SYG laws, however, are a return to vigilante justice – or, in many cases, vigilante injustice.

        • KM

          The Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa shows another instance of what you mention. In that case Pistorius killed his [white] girlfriend, claiming that he thought she was an intruder.

          Then there’s the case of Byron Smith in Minnesota who killed two [white] unarmed teens who broke into his home on Thanksgiving. Instead of just maiming them in self-defense, Smith went way beyond that point and killed them with multiple fatal shots. He was thankfully convicted of murder in that case. Of course Sean “definition of insanity” Hannity is defending Smith.

          The SYG laws offer a horribly convenient way to justify killing people, usually minorities and women. The U.S. violent crime rate has been declining over the last two decades, yet we’re becoming even more afraid and turning into a nation of scared wussies. It defies logic.

          • Eve Fisher

            I know – I don’t understand the increasing paranoia among the SYG people, but then I don’t watch Fox News, or listen to Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, etc.

    • SparcVark

      I’m not sure where you get your view of “Stand your ground” laws – they govern some of the technical details about when a person is allowed to legally claim self-defense.

      In order to lawfully use lethal force (like a firearm) in self-defense, a person has to meet a number of legal criteria. They must not be the aggressor in any confrontation, they must have a reasonable fear that they are about to suffer immediate harm, and the use of force must be in proportion to the threat. Some states also legally obligate people to retreat from the confrontation, *if* this is possible. A majority of states, “stand your ground” states, do not. This simply means that not retreating from a confrontation when possible does not automatically disqualify you from a legal claim of self defense. If you were legally the aggressor, or you used disproportionate force, you can still be convicted.

      • Eve Fisher

        I go by the results of the SYG laws, which have created an environment in which people are shooting first and asking questions later. A Billings man who shot a seminary student who was his house guest when the guy went into the garage to make a quiet phone call; the Florida man who shot teenagers whose music was too loud (he claimed they were armed; they weren’t); a woman knocked on a door to ask to use the phone in Florida and was shot in the chest. And then there’s Trayvon Martin with his hoodie and Skittles v. Mr. Zimmerman and his gun. Fear is now reason enough to kill someone – even if the fear is totally unjustified or just paranoid. On top of that, the results have been pretty racist. According to the Urban Institute, in Stand our Ground states, white-on-black homicides are 354 percent more likely to be ruled justified than white-on-white homicides. In cases with black or Hispanic victims, the killings were found justified by the Stand Your Ground law 78 percent of the time, compared to 56 percent in cases with white victims. Women, even white women, are almost never accorded Stand Your Ground rights, even though the idea of a woman defending herself is one of the arguments that was/is used to establish SYG laws. (Is it that women just aren’t supposed to shoot men, no matter how afraid they are?). There are already laws that allow leniency with regard to intent – manslaughter in its multiple levels of culpability, from voluntary to involuntary. The SYG laws, however, are a return to vigilante justice – or, in many cases, vigilante injustice.

        • SparcVark

          “Fear is now reason enough to kill someone – even if the fear is totally unjustified or just paranoid.”

          I don’t see how stand your ground laws have any effect on this perception. Of the cases you cite, none are actually affected by stand your ground laws – according to the defense presented in the George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn (loud music) cases, they were not able to retreat. George Zimmerman claimed he was on the ground with his head being slammed into concrete, Michael Dunn that he was being threatened with a shotgun.

          The other two cases involve people in their homes, and even states that recognize a duty to retreat have an exemption for one’s own home.

          “The SYG laws, however, are a return to vigilante justice – or, in many cases, vigilante injustice.”

          I simply don’t see how this is the case, since stand your ground laws do not alter the legal requirement that self-defense be used against an imminent threat, and can only be legally used by someone who is not the aggressor.

  • Christine Chase Sacchi

    “One asks “How can we do the right thing with as little violence as possible?” and the other, in one way or another, asks “When do we *get* to use violence?” ”

    An argument which assumes the worst possible motives in another party or group is an argument that starts out weak. Your best points are made later in the piece. But why challenge readers to make it to the end in this way? Legitimate concerns by well intentioned people about societal and personal safety should not be dismissed as blood lust.

  • Dave G.

    A good article, but again, it’s that ‘when do we *get* to use violence’ assumption. Once more, I’m not convinced that is the only alternative attitude people have in debating the question. Here’s what I think of when it comes to guessing what people *really* mean in these discussions:

    “Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.”

    If that’s true, then when people say there are those who may not be arguing that way, then it should be our approach to back up and work it through and find out what they’re really meaning before going forward.

    • sez

      I don’t think anyone is actively thinking ‘when do we “get” to use violence’, but some have this as their unspoken, underlying attitude. Fallen human nature, and all that. People with that tendency are easily swayed by politicians, et al, who promote waterboarding. Mark’s efforts to highlight this unspoken attitude can help people see more clearly what they might not have detected in their own hearts.

      • Dave G.

        I would say that’s a thin line between saying someone isn’t actively thinking it, but I’m sure it’s their underlying attitude. At that point, how do we know it’s not us imposing that reading because of our own perspectives?

        • sez

          Consider the value of the warning. To those who are supporters of waterboarding, Mark’s terse and pointed question ‘when do we “get” to use violence’ forces some introspection. As one who has been converted by this type of reasoning, I can’t see any harm in making someone really think about why he’s eager to harm another human being. Getting people to re-evaluate their position – to better understand the underlying values – seems like a worthy thing to do. Wouldn’t you agree?

  • Mike

    Water boarding is torture otherwise they wouldn’t’ve wanted to use it but is it the same as burning someone alive or cutting off their legs? no, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t torture. Is torture wrong always? Intrinsically it is a wrong a very very bad wrong. But if this is torture-light, how light is it? And is it useful, what does it accomplish, what can it accomplish? If it is “light” why would it put the fear of pain in people’s minds which is the idea behind torture. If it isn’t “light” it is really really bad and we shouldn’t use it. Seems like a no win for torture advocates.

  • Kevin J. Bartell

    I don’t know if you’ve seen this, Mark. I only stumbled on it by accident. But it hit home with me harder than any philosophical/theological argument could have (and I already believed the Catechism).

    http://www.lauramcalister.com/2014/05/01/o-were-you-there-when-they-waterboarded-my-lord/

  • JM1001

    “[Torture] yields lousy intel that sends law enforcement on wild goose chases because the victims say anything to make the torture stop.”

    This is true in more ways than one. Check it out:

    The simple fact is you can’t reliably separate the gold from the dross that torture yields. “He had us chasing the goddamn geese in Central Park because he said some of them had explosives stuffed up their ass,” one FBI counter-terrorism agent said in frustration.

    So, torture literally leads to wild goose chases.

  • Eve Fisher

    When Joan of Arc was threatened with torture, she said, “Truly, if you were to tear me limb from limb and separate my soul from my body, I would not say anything more. If I did say anything, afterwards I would always declare that you made me say it by force!”

  • Jem

    And with perfect timing, the Vatican agrees with the UN that under international law child abuse is a form of torture.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/06/vatican-defrocked-priests_n_5275889.html

    The CIA admit to waterboarding three suspects. The Vatican admit to 3400 confirmed child abuse cases in the last ten years.

    Cue the people who say it’s ridiculous to call child abuse torture? Let’s remember Mark’s words:

    ‘Mr. Aglialoro maintains a certain agnosticism about whether
    waterboarding rises to the level of torture. The practical outcome of
    that agnosticism, like that of the surgeon who is unsure the fetus is a
    baby or the deer hunter who is unsure that’s another hunter in the bush,
    is clear: Do not waterboard, abort, or shoot. The goal is not to find
    out how much violence you *get* to do, but how to do the right thing
    with as little violence as possible.’

    • Heather

      Of course child abuse is torture, of the vilest kind.

      When someone who is in a position of authority within an organization, be they a teacher, coach, clergy member, scoutmaster, or whatever, abuses a child or anyone else, they are engaging in a gross violation of the authority placed in them. They are doing something that they are not in fact allowed to do. If there is a culture of entitlement, secrecy, or whatever that makes it more likely to happen, then that is a problem that needs to be addressed. It still does not mean that it is happening with official sanction.

      People generally don’t talk about the necessity and effectiveness of child abuse or “almost-abuse,” how we should give our children hell to show others we mean business, and debating over how much brutality and neglect you can get away with before it technically becomes a crime. (Well, maybe the loons who subscribe to “To Train Up A Child” and similar.)

      So I fail to see the connection here. The torture debate isn’t talking about people who violate the rules and do unspeakable things. It’s about what the rules are supposed to be in the first place.

      Unless you are just trying to imply that “The Vatican” officially endorses the torturing of children.

  • Jonk

    “Catholic moral theology in pop culture pretty neatly divides into two camps. One asks “How can we do the right thing with as little violence as possible?” and the other, in one way or another, asks “When do we *get* to use violence?””

    I have to ask: why are the people who apply the latter question to the state’s use of violence in solving problems of justice heretics? It’s a little different, I suppose, because the folks focused on using the state as the primary agent of justice never even ask the former question; they just assume that because they’re doing the right thing, the violence is justified.