Tortured Theology

Tortured Theology May 5, 2014

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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