Against torture, against the state

Against torture, against the state April 23, 2009

In response to Blackadder’s very fine post on torture today, a reader rightly responded that if torture is always immoral then we should not care whether it works or not. Debating the question opens us to the possibility that if torture did work, then we might have to accept the morality of torture. These are important questions, but I think these debates sidestep another important, but neglected, dimension to the issue of torture.

The fact is, torture both does and does not work. It seems increasingly evident that, despite the dishonest claims of torture apologists (such as the ones BA cited in his post), it simply does not work in terms of gaining information, “keeping us safe,” etc.

But there are deeper realities at work here, deeper justifications for torture that are often hidden and always insidious. As William Cavanaugh discusses in his book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ, torture does in fact “work” as part of the technology of the authority of the state. Torture is a liturgy in which the power of the state to do whatever it wants to whomever it wants is sacramentalized. The fruits of this sacrament are fear and arrogance. The u.s. military government may not be extracting useful information from the victims that “keeps us safe,” but the claim that it is and the debates surrounding this claim only serve to distract attention from the real way torture works: exerting violent power over the bodies of human beings.

Honestly, I’m not sure we will completely get rid of torture until we get rid of the nation-state. The state simply cannot exist without perpetuating itself through violence, including the violence of torture. What the Church can do — in addition to demanding an end to torture — is to make an unwavering preferential option for the victims of torture. It can do this by keeping their names and their stories visible, by reminding ourselves of the inherent violence of the state, by continually exposing and telling the truth about this violence, and by refusing to consider any justification for this inherently evil domination of human life. It is through such a preferential option for the victims of violence that the possibility of a resurrection of a state-less world might become irresistible to followers of the tortured and risen Christ and to all people of good will.

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