Further Thoughts on Torture

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. This is what he said when host Chuck Todd asked him about detainees who were tortured and later turned out to be innocent:

CHUCK TODD: Twenty-five percent of the detainees though, 25 percent turned out to be innocent. They were released.

DICK CHENEY: Where are you going to draw the line, Chuck? How are —

CHUCK TODD: Well, I’m asking you.

DICK CHENEY: — you going to know?

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD: Is that too high? You’re OK with that margin for error?

DICK CHENEY: I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective. And our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States. I was prepared and we did. We got authorization from the president and authorization from the Justice Department to go forward with the program. It worked. It worked now for 13 years.

We’ve avoided another mass casualty attack against the United States. And we did capture Bin Laden. We did capture an awful lot of the senior guys at Al Qaeda who were responsible for that attack on 9/11. I’d do it again in a minute.

Leaving aside the fact that the Senate report gives the lie to the claim that, even from a purely Machiavellian perspective, torturing prisoners yielded anything but almost uniformly useless “intelligence” — and with the knowledge that torturing prisoners prevented no attacks against the United States — I want to draw your attention to one particular string of words in the above transcript: “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.”

Leaving aside the morally bankrupt character of that remark – which is the very definition of consequentialism – the Senate report revealed that our nation, as a result of policies authorized at the highest levels of the Bush administration, tortured innocent people — at least one of them to death — and the vice president has no regrets about that? None whatsoever??

I think it is time to say plainly what has been on the edge of a lot of people’s awareness: The previous administration committed war crimes, and there have been no expressions of remorse or regret for those crimes, even after those crimes have been revealed in all their vileness and depravity.

I think the best course would be the investigation and prosecution of every member of the Bush administration who approved these policies, up to and including former President Bush and Vice President Cheney, as well as those in positions of authority who implemented those policies.

That said, a case could be made that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, there were some regrettable actions taken in the heat of the moment, and so on — but that case should be made in a court of law by a defense attorney during a trial, perhaps during the sentencing phase.

Our nation used to take this stance when it came to the question of whether prisoners were tortured. Here is an American propaganda poster from the Second World War:

oldantitortureposter

What we do about the fact that this method became our method in the opening years of the last decade will shape our national character in important ways, both now and far into the future.

When I say, “What WE do …” I mean exactly that. We citizens have a choice before us: we can acquiesce to a new paradigm where torture becomes at least a tacitly permissible activity in certain circumstances — and given the tendency of authoritarian tactics to metastasize, we would be choosing a world where none of us is safe — or we can choose to live in a world where laws mean something, a world where the law holds accountable the president and the pauper alike. The latter possibility will only come to pass if you and I insist on it, in no uncertain terms.

It’s worth quoting legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow here. He said the following at the conclusion of a March 9, 1954 program examining the methods and character of Sen. Joseph McCarthy:

We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

“The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’

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  • Poorboy

    My God, when did people become so afraid of pain?

    Men used to march out to war not with the antiseptic and impersonal firearm, but stabbing and cutting each other with blades at close range. And still they did it. They didn’t flee, they didn’t refuse. They put their flesh to the blade commonly.

    Now no one can even imagine it in decadent Western civilization. We’ve become to insulated in our bodies and much too cozy in bodily coherence. Death is compartmentalized and the sheer physical pain which grows men balls and a spine has disappeared from the scene. Parents are told not even to hit our children even when it doesn’t draw blood. It’s a sickening display of weakness and loss of will.

    Even the State has squandered it’s monopoly on violence and coercive force and dissolved it into the soft abstract instrument of empty cash and the empty rituals of the empty eyed souls who snort dollars like cocaine and lose any ability to even will themselves to into tomorrow.

    We worship a God who had nails driven through his limbs, who was scourged, drained of all blood, suffocated, and stabbed in the heart to teach us all the supreme value of raw physical agony. And here we are a nation where most are obese, can’t go a day without sexual release, and watch television till we fall asleep at night.

    • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

      Poorboy – I’m not sure how your comment relates to torture.

      • Poorboy

        It means we need more pain to be inflicted not less on more people for more offenses starting at an earlier age.

        When the schoolmaster could whip a boy’s posterior raw with the cane, society was not so soft and lacking will.

        Torture repels us so much because we’ve turned physical pain into “the worst thing ever” and lost all tolerance for it. When it was a part of every day life the idea of the state inflicting it was unremarkable.

        • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

          That’s what I was afraid you were saying.

    • Melody

      Yikes, double yikes!
      And then this: “We worship a God who had nails driven through his limbs, who was scourged, drained of all blood, suffocated, and stabbed in the heart to teach us all the supreme value of raw physical agony.” Kind of completely misses the point of Christ’s life and death.

      • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

        It’s a shame that Jesus undercut that message by restoring sight to the blind, healing the cripples, and raising the dead. Perhaps Jesus should have blinded the sighted, crippled the walking, and killed the living.

      • Poorboy

        “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”

        God did not even spare His own innocent son the rod. Yet where has the rod gone in our society. Show me the rod. Where is the rod?

        And then people wonder why we’re in a decadent malaise.

    • Dante Aligheri

      Poorboy,

      While I agree that modern society has sanitized death and thus demeaned the dying and the aged (which is a topic for another day), by no means ought that observation be an endorsement of State-inflicted torture.

      More importantly, the redemptive value of Jesus’ death has nothing whatsoever to do with the “supreme value of raw physical agony” inflicted for its own sake. Nothing. Jesus accepted by his own free will that fate – a fate which the Father did not compel him to undergo. Indeed, the real barbarism against Jesus was inflicted by Rome, an empire sheathed in a velvet glove but veiling a fist of naked and totalitarian power at the hands of the false son of god, Caesar (been reading a lot of N.T. Wright lately). More cosmically, the Crucifixion is the wielding of all pain and death by the devil and the cosmic forces of evil arrayed against God. What the Crucifixion really is about is how that the superhuman and primal power – that naked power of torture and pain, frightening people with death – has been utterly broken by the Prince of Peace, the Man, who “opened not his mouth.” The Resurrection is the breaking of all lying powers, principalities, dominions, and thrones who operate through terror, lies, and violence – the falling of the stars and false gods who wielded the pagan nations like weapons against Israel and amongst themselves since the Tower of Babel (cf. Psalm 82) – by peace. It was those very same false gods who taught human beings how to make weapons of war and fillled the earth with so much blood and violence, according to very old Christian and Jewish traditions in the Book of Enoch. The Passion, by contrast, is the ultimate symbol of victorious peace against such political and cosmic power and violence.

      Second, the redemptive value of the Cross comes not from the amount of violence inflicted by the wrath of God but rather from Love nailed to it – which was St. Anselm’s point, the free agency of the Son and not that of a powerful Devil or a torturing Father. As Athanasius said, the redemptive value comes from Jesus’ death alone in which we participate and through whom we live his own divinized life, putting an end to our death and corruption – creating the New Adam and World. Indeed, Athanasius makes the point in his “On the Incarnation” Jesus could have died in any way – he could have died comfortably in old age – but chose to die here, freely, in such a way as to demonstrate the depth of his love and the drawing of all men to himself. It has nothing to do with violence. All of those medieval and Renaissance paintings seek merely to demonstrate the depths of despair the Peaceful Man was willing to go for us – not by any means of the wrath of the violent Father.

      Third, sacrifices were meals shared by the worshipper with God, which invoked God covenantally and meant establishing our familial peace with him, “on his holy mountain.” Jewish sacrifice as antecedent to the sacrifice of Jesus (“drained of all blood,” as you say) had nothing to do with violence or even, primarily, death. The death of the sacrificial victim was merely instrumental, according to Baruch Levine and Jacob Milgrom, to procuring the blood which is the symbol of God’s life, returned to the earth from which it came, used to cleanse and purify the Temple to maintain his presence with us. That is also why late Renaissance and early modern works started portraying Jesus’ blood in profusion – something which is not characteristic of earlier works, namely the new emphasis on his blood as divine life given in the sacraments – and the depths of his humanity in the Incarnation (cf. Miri Rubin on Eucharistic piety in the Middle Ages). Again, this early modern turn in Catholic devotions in artwork had nothing to do with reveling in violence but rather the goodness of Jesus’ compassionate humanity (as opposed to his divine identity as Christ Pantocrator and wielder of creative power, emphasized in antiquity) and the identity of the sacraments.

      In sum, Jesus’ victory over death through his death is hardly an endorsement of violence but rather God’s offer of the Lamb against all forces of totalitarian-political, social, and cosmic violence.

      • Dante Aligheri

        Lastly, I should note that one cannot cite the early ascetic, medieval, or early modern saints as endorsing torture practice either while they, perhaps overzealously, did see some value to the pain underwent. Their violence was, while possibly seen as wrong today, as I think St. Thomas Aquinas would see it as excess against moderation in all things and healthy love of oneself, precisely self-inflicted and intended for the discipline of human nature for the soul. It was not seen as a method done unwillingly against anyone but accepted as a self-discipline, like an exercise.

        I think the one commonality to all of this is, whether to Jesus or the saints, like Socrates said, “it is always better to suffer injustice than to inflict it.”

        • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

          Well said and well done!

          *Commence slow clap.*

        • Poorboy

          Well that’s your interpretation.

          For me, it’s all about the wrath of the Father.

          Christ’s crucifixion is the death the ego must die at the hands of the superego to rise again in holiness.

          Humanity and the flesh were nailed to the cross. Christ “became sin” and the Father unleashed on Sin everything sin deserved.

          In the Crucifixion man killed God, yes, but God also killed Man. We got everything we deserved.

          Yet this grace must be distributed to each generation. Yet parents now refuse to distribute it. Everyone used to know that the greatest gift a parent gave a child was breaking his will in infancy so that he might be rebuilt as a functional human being. Now? We speak of breaking wills as an evil, not a service.

          But an unbroken will is no will at all.

        • Julia Smucker

          I second Emma’s remark. Hear, hear.

        • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

          “For me, it’s all about the wrath of the Father.

          Christ’s crucifixion is the death the ego must die at the hands of the superego to rise again in holiness.

          Humanity and the flesh were nailed to the cross. Christ “became sin” and the Father unleashed on Sin everything sin deserved.

          In the Crucifixion man killed God, yes, but God also killed Man. We got everything we deserved.”

          I no longer have to wonder what would happen if someone mixed Calvinism with Freudian psychology.

  • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

    Many conservative Catholics seem to share Dick Cheney’s “The Ends Justify the Means.” I wonder to what extent they believe that.

    Let us imagine, just for a minute, that I have captured the wife of a high ranking terrorist operative. The people who bring her to me tell me that she is roughly 14 weeks pregnant. I hit her in the stomach with a heavy object to induce a miscarriage. She miscarries, and in the vulnerability and pain following the experience, she is more cooperative with my investigation. She tells me where her husband is and I am able to arrest him.

    Did I do the right thing? Would conservative Catholics defend my actions?

    • Julia Smucker

      This is using the word “conservative” in the loosest sense, of course; what it refers to in current US politics is essentially classical liberalism rebranded. I always wonder what its proponents think they are conserving.

      • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

        Oh I agree, this is one problem inherent in this kind of conversation, the language is inadequate and imprecise.

  • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

    My mom, at her job, once spoke to a man who was a part of an anti-terrorism unit. He told her that he did not know if he could ever find forgiveness for what he had to do.

    Torture is not only contrary to the respect for human dignity (as the Catechism teaches), it violates the purity of those who perform it. The Church holds up the example of St. Maria Goretti, who chose “death rather than impurity.” Perhaps the Church needs to proclaim to soldiers and those in the military that death is superior to the impurity that results from committing torture.

  • Julia Smucker

    I think it is time to say plainly what has been on the edge of a lot of people’s awareness: The previous administration committed war crimes, and there have been no expressions of remorse or regret for those crimes, even after those crimes have been revealed in all their vileness and depravity.

    I think the best course would be the investigation and prosecution of every member of the Bush administration who approved these policies, up to and including former President Bush and Vice President Cheney, as well as those in positions of authority who implemented those policies.

    I agree but would add, partly for the sake of avoiding partisan vindictiveness but more significantly because the same practices have continued and remain equally wrong no matter who is in charge, that the same should apply for members of the Obama administration and the CIA who have continued to approve these policies. Furthermore, while this may require a separate investigation, the same standard could be extended to the morally hazardous drone program that has become a chilling hallmark of Obama’s own foreign policy.

    • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

      Nothing there I disagree with, Julia.

      • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

        Me neither.