The Moral Wounds the Torture Report Reveals

The Moral Wounds the Torture Report Reveals December 17, 2014

Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a redacted version of the 500+ page  executive summary (in PDF) of its mammoth report on the CIA’s use of torture in the decade after 9/11.  My colleagues Matt and Nathan have already responded to this report, but  I want to add my own reaction and sketch what I see are some of its broader implications.  But to do that, I want to be clear about what the report said and the moral grounds for judging its contents.

According to the report, the CIA engaged in torture.  Period, end of discussion:  no prevarication is possible.  Though current and former members of the CIA continue to refer to “enhanced interrogation techniques”  (or use the doubly euphemistic acronym “EIT”) there can be no doubt that what was done constituted torture.  If you cannot take the time to read the whole report, there are endless bullet point summaries on line (see, for instance, here and here).  To briefly recapitulate:  the CIA conducted  waterboarding, anal rape (again euphemistically referred to as “rectal feeding”–a procedure with no medical justification), sleep deprivation, stress positions, mock executions, psychological intimidation and threats against family members, including threats of murder and rape.  For me, personally, amidst these grotesque tales of horror, one example ripped at my guts:  buried in a footnote on p. 16 of the report, listed among examples of innocent detainees, is

Nazir Ali, an “intellectually challenged” individual whose taped crying was used as leverage against his family member.

As many readers know, I have an adult son, Nicolas, with Down Syndrome.  The sadism on display here in this one, laconic comment, is incalculable.  The moral status of what was done is also clear.  Pope Francis said it bluntly:

To torture a person is a mortal sin, a very grave sin.

Pope John Paul II, quoting Gaudium et Spes, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendour argued that torture is an intrinsically evil act:

These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”. The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit. (VS 80, emphasis added)

I quote this passage at length as it preempts the many arguments made by the people defending torture that it was necessary and therefore licit, or as Jonah Goldberg put it in a recent column,

I think the taboo against torture is important and honorable, just like the taboos against killing. And just like the taboos against killing, sometimes the real world gets a veto.

What are the consequences of these sinful acts?  Certainly, we have damaged the victims in ways that it will take years to heal.  Torture creates lasting scars on the psyche that cannot be undone overnight, and perhaps not ever.   The harm done to them and their families cries out to heaven.

But beyond these hundreds of individuals, what are the moral wounds to persons and to society, caused by the sin of torture?  I am motivated to frame the question in this way by an editorial in America Magazine last April entitled Healing Moral Wounds.  This article discusses the  moral injuries suffered by those in combat that “result[] from a violation of what a person considers right or wrong, and it provokes grief, shame and alienation.”  This is an important and useful idea.  We have no idea how far it extends among the men and women (though I suspect mostly men) who committed these  brutal acts, sometimes, as the Senate report documents, against their better judgement.   (See for example, p. 43 of the report, documenting urgent queries from field agents regarding the legality of torture.)  So among us, perhaps your neighbor (especially if you leave in Metro DC) or in your church, is a man who served in the Iraq War but is vague about what he did:  the details are classified so he cannot discuss them with anyone, but they gnaw at his soul.

But the moral wounds extend beyond the actual torturers.  What is the moral damage done to the individuals who ordered torture done, mandated ever harsher techniques, sought post-facto legal rationalizations, and lied about it to Congress and the American people?  (For the lies:  beginning on p. 462 the Senate report meticulously contrasts testimony by then Director Hayden with what the CIA stated in its own documents.  Or, watch George Tenet deny the truth on 60 Minutes in 2007:

At 1:03 he repeatedly exclaims “We don’t torture people!”)  In these people we see the embodiment of C.S. Lewis’ description of the greatest evils in the modern world:

The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. (emphasis added)

But I think the greatest moral wound has been to the social fabric, the collective moral conscience of our nation.  We have grown jaded and now accept torture.  There was a flurry of news reports and abit of indignation when the report was released, but the Sunday talk shows were reserved for those defending the status quo (Dick Cheney was particularly chilling)  and it has now pretty much dropped out of our collective consciousness as reported by the mainstream media.  Unless retiring senator Mark Udall carries through on his threat to read the entire report into the Senate Record (a narrow loophole in the secrecy guarding the report), I suspect very little more will be said.  Almost certainly, no one will be prosecuted by the United States, not even among the low level operatives who committed the actual torture.  The only possibility for legal action is if another country (such as Spain) claims universal jurisdiction and issues arrest warrants that will be served if the accused ever travel abroad.

This lack of accountability will stir no outrage because a large majority of Americans support the use of torture.   According to a Washington Post / ABC News Poll, in response to the “All in all, do you think the CIA treatment of suspected terrorists was justified or unjustified?”  59% of respondents answered “justified” as opposed to 31% “unjustified”.  The numbers are even worse for those who identified as Catholics:  66% to 23%.  Only a plurality of those polled, 49% (45% of Catholics) even believe that what was done “amounts to torture.”  Most Americans now regard torture (at least when we do it) acceptable, or at least a regrettable necessity.

In this we see in action the creation of a structure of sin.  Evil has the power to perpetuate itself by making itself part of our normal, daily lives.  The Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine puts it very well in its discussion of sin and its consequences:

The consequences of sin perpetuate the structures of sin. These are rooted in personal sin and, therefore, are always connected to concrete acts of the individuals who commit them, consolidate them and make it difficult to remove them. It is thus that they grow stronger, spread and become sources of other sins, conditioning human conduct. These are obstacles and conditioning that go well beyond the actions and brief life span of the individual and interfere also in the process of the development of peoples, the delay and slow pace of which must be judged in this light. The actions and attitudes opposed to the will of God and the good of neighbour, as well as the structures arising from such behaviour, appear to fall into two categories today: “on the one hand, the all-consuming desire for profit, and on the other, the thirst for power, with the intention of imposing one’s will upon others. In order to characterize better each of these attitudes, one can add the expression: ‘at any price”.  (Compendium 119)

Our nation has been crippled by structures of sin in the past:  slavery, genocide, racism, abortion and the death penalty have all been inscribed into our national identity, and even those which are supposedly extirpated, such as racism, have left a residue of evil that still afflicts us.  Here, with torture, we have actually seen a structure of sin created before our eyes.   This is not to say that the United States never tortured before:  one need only look at Vietnam or the School of the Americas to see that we have supported and used torture in the past.   But in the past it had been part of what Zizek refers to as the “obscene underbelly of the law“:  the collection of unwritten (and often unspoken) practices that exist parallel to the written law, officially forbidden but nonetheless allowed.   Publicly, we condemned torture and punished it:  obviously Germans and Japanese after WWII, but also Americans when their crimes became notoriously public.

But now we publicly accept torture.  We may dress it up in euphemisms—enhanced interrogation techniques, rectal feeding—and reject the use of the word torture, but the practices themselves are now publicly defended and their practitioners hailed as “patriotic Americans.”  (See the statement by Obama in response to the Senate report.)  Already scarred, we have wounded ourselves again.  The blood on our hands is our own.

I am at a loss as to how to respond.  I can continue to speak out against torture:  an easy position to take when ensconced among liberal academics.  But even if I press, I doubt my pastor or our deacons will preach about it, and I predict that nothing will appear in my local Catholic newspaper.   The strong stance against torture taken by our bishops will go unheard and unheeded.

I wanted to conclude with something from Scripture, particularly something that would turn our eyes to the expectant hope which is the Incarnation.  But even though it is Advent, in my mind I keep returning to a reading from Lent:

“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Rend your heart and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,  and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings  for the Lord your God.

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast,
 call a sacred assembly. Gather the people,
 consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders,
 gather the children,  those nursing at the breast.

Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber.
Let the priests, who minister before the Lord, weep between the portico and the altar.
Let them say, “Spare your people, Lord.” (Joel 2:12-17a)


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