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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  • briggs

    I absolutely abhor the actions of those who ordered and carried out this torture. But to imply that our government should “rend its garments and repent” is incongruous with the American voter’s desire to rid our society of all religious moral standards. Our president has said in public several times that we are not a Christian nation. He and those who voted for him cannot have it both ways. Either we are a religious society, and subject to sacred standards of conduct, or we are secular and therefore subject only to those standards that further state interest. So choose. Either be a nation under God and apply all scriptural mandates, or be a nation not under God, and act as we choose as the situation warrants.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      You are, as my colleague Julia would say, creating a false dichotomy here. We are not a Christian nation: we are pluralistic democracy which tries, more or less successfully, to be open to citizens of all faiths and none. But saying that does not immediately imply that we can “act as we choose as the situation warrants.” There are still the constraints of mercy and justice, still the demands for human rights, all of which are grounded in the natural law (if you accept such arguments, as most Catholics do) or at least which are agreed to be prior to and not subject to governmental approval (a default position for human rights law which ignores the question of why inalienable rights are so). Or to put it another way: a secular state can still be (and should be) constrained by standards which in my opinion preclude torture.

      As for my final scriptural quote: I was not calling on the government to repent: governments can admit they have made mistakes and try to rectify them, but repentance in the narrower sense of repenting ones sins before God is the province of individuals. I was calling on Catholics to repent for our role in creating these structures of sin.

  • David, I am in complete solidarity with you on this issue. Yes, it seems this is becoming a new ‘structure of sin’. Not surprising since we have been glorifying this behavior in the media for a very long time. Do keep in mind, however, that it took great effort and courage for some who are in positions of authority (Sen. Feinstein, et al) to drag this scandal into the light. This is no small matter and may become a small beginning of the repentance/conversion process. It’s not clear to me whether the flood tide is still rising on the acceptance of torture. This creates a sense of dissonance with the image that America has of itself.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “It’s not clear to me whether the flood tide is still rising on the acceptance of torture. This creates a sense of dissonance with the image that America has of itself.”

      Well, 24 is no longer on TV, and I have not watched or read about any of the replacement shows to learn if they are as cavalier and supportive of torture. But I think you are correct in pointing to the role of the media in glorifying this, or at least giving people grounds for looking the other way. After all, when “enhanced interrogation technique” first was used, almost no one in the mainstream media challenged it. Rather, they went along, putting the word “torture” in scare quotes.

      As for the sense of dissonance: part of the American image of itself is its exceptionalism, which is fertile ground for thinking that torture is evil when done by evil-doers, but a regrettable necessity, or even virtuous when we do it. Also, while I do not know if torture every figured prominently in the cowboy mythos, but there was always the trope that when his back was to the wall, the white hat, the good guy (us!) would do whatever it took to hunt down and kill the bad buys. So it seems to me that there is plenty of room in our image of ourselves for torture.

      • ‘As for the sense of dissonance: part of the American image of itself is its exceptionalism, which is fertile ground for thinking that torture is evil when done by evil-doers, but a regrettable necessity, or even virtuous when we do it.’ You may be correct, however an alternative interpretation would be that torture is accepted in other places, but is below American standards and values. (For the record I reject ‘American exceptionalism’.)

        But I do agree that there is something in the ‘cowboy mythos‘ which really fits into the category that St. JPII described as ‘the cult of the autonomous individual’. This is America’s Achilles heel. It’s paradoxical that many in our nation have surrendered their individual consciences to the ‘great protector cowboys’ who roam as loose canons supposedly protecting our freedom.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          “You may be correct, however an alternative interpretation would be that torture is accepted in other places, but is below American standards and values. (For the record I reject ‘American exceptionalism’.)”

          This is the argument that John McCain forcefully makes when he speaks about torture. Unfortunately, far too many people seem to think torture is okay when we do it.

  • Ursula

    Nope. Sorry. It’s not so simple.

    Are these methods “torture”?

    To me that’s like asking if beheading is murder.

    Often it is, but I’d have to ask “Who is carrying this out? A private individual or a State actor? Was it a self-defense or just war situation? Was due process done? Was it proportionate to the offense or the necessity involved?”

    Catholics like to throw around talk of “intrinsic evil” a lot as if certain acts, described physically, are inherently wrong.

    But the truth is, it is not the physical act which defines species of sin, but the moral description. This is why not all killing is murder, and why not all infliction of even severe pain is torture.

    If a guy is strangling my friend and the only means I have to stop him is ramming a hot poker up inside him, I’m definitely allowed to do so under defensive principles.

    So the question in the CIA case cannot be “is this or that method or level of intensity ‘torture'” as that’s not how it works. It’s more contextual.

    I think there is LOTS to critique about what they did, but screaming “instrinsic evil!!” is no more helpful than lobeing the charge of “murder” at the death penalty.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      The problem with your argument is that you are reducing the acts to the physical nastiness alone. Though if you care to give an argument for why the physical act of “rectal feeding”, defined as the act of pureeing someone’s solid food and forcing it into the large intestine via a tube inserted into this person’s rectum, might in some circumstances be licit, I would be interested in hearing it, though I do not think it can be done.

      However, these physical acts do not exist in a vacuum: you are right, there is a context. In this case, each of the individuals had severe physical or psychological pain applied in order to break their wills, to gain their compliance and to get total mental control over them. This is torture and it is this total package that Pope Francis calls a mortal sin. We can argue whether or not it is intrinsically evil, but even if it were not, that does not mean that it is not (cannot be) a sin that is both mortal and grave in matter. However, I think the burden is on you to show why it is not intrinsically evil. To ask your other questions about who is carrying it out, is it part of a just war, etc., presume that it is not intrinsically evil, since this moral calculation can only be done for acts that are not. That is the whole point of determining whether or not something an intrinsic evil.

      To pile up evidence, the Compendium says this about torture:

      “In carrying out investigations, the regulation against the use of torture, even in the case of serious crimes, must be strictly observed: “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim”.[JP II] International juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances.”

      “Nothing could justify” and “Cannot be contravened under any circumstance” strongly suggest that torture is intrinsically evil.

      • Ursula

        It’s not that I’d deny “torture” is an intrinsic evil.

        It is. Just like “murder.”

        But not all killing is murder, and not all pain infliction is torture.

        When I inflict pain to disable someone in self-defense, for example, I am doing it to break their will to continue strangling me, etc. But this isn’t a sin; it’s the whole point of self defense.

        Method or severity wouldn’t seem to matter. Let’s say I work at a mental hospital. One of the patients has an electrode in their brain for deep-brain stimulation, controlled by a dial and able to directly stimulate the pain and pleasure/reward centers of the brain (this really exists, btw). Turn the dial to the right, increasingly great pleasure, turn it left, increasingly great pain.

        Now if that patient escapes and is strangling me or someone else, or starts on a shooting spree or whatever, I sure as hell am allowed to reach in my pocket and turn the dial towards pain until his will to keep strangling breaks. If that means going all the way to most severe (by definition the worst pain possible, directly stimulating the brain’s pain center)…so be it. That’s perfectly allowed as self-defense or defense of innocents.

        Now the State, we know, is allowed to use force in self defense by analogy. For the State, though, the threat need not be immediate or “in the moment.” In capital punishment, for example, the aggressor was subdued long before. And in a just war, though the overall war must be defensive, there are allowed to be offensive charges as part of the overall strategy (just like in self defense, if I’m being attacked, I can do more than just passively block punches. I can actively try to disable the attacker).

        The only methods that seem intrinsically wrong in the CIA thing…would be those involving lying.

        For the others, we can have a productive discussion (and I’d likely side with you) about whether due process was met, if the agents were truly acting as authorized State actors or if actually they exceeded their commission (and therefore must be judged by the standards of private individuals, not governments), if proportionality was met relative to necessity and justifying good and the certitude of effectiveness/usefulness, etc etc. The list of potential defects ethically goes on and on.

        But “instrinsically wrong” isn’t helping anything. Of course the State (and even private individuals in defense situations) is allowed to manipulate bodies and cause suffering to get people to do stuff or to stop doing stuff. The question isn’t of some magical line that can’t be crossed in that regard, but rather when it is justified.

        • Ursula

          *when it isn’t justified, THEN it’s torture and intrinsically wrong. Just like State killing is “murder” and instrinsically wrong only AFTER the question of justification. “Intrinsic wrong” is a determination that will come after the question of justification in the case of State use of coercive force, not an argument beforehand, anymore than “murder is intrinsically wrong” is an argument against capital punishment.

      • Mark VA

        Mr. Cruz-Uribe:

        I have to side with Ursula, for at least two reasons:

        (a) She has pointed to some real life examples (involving personal and national self-defense), which, common sense tells me, do have to be taken into consideration in this discussion;

        (b) You have not offered any alternatives. While my heart is with your argument, my mind is not, due to this lack. Please propose some alternatives, to guide this discussion away from abstractions, angst, and polemics, thus hopefully making it more productive.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Fair enough, I will try. However, to turn the question the other way around: what do you suppose JP II was thinking when he argued that torture is intrinsically evil?

        • ‘Fair enough, I will try.’ Go ahead if you must, but please note that Ursula and MarkVA are hanging their objections like scaffolds around the ‘structures of sin’ that you insightfully pointed out.

        • Ursula

          Personally he doesn’t strike me as a man who was particularly concerned with scholastic precision when he was in one of his “bleeding heart” moods (and I say that as someone with great respect for him).

          Church condemnations of torture (like similar condemnations of slavery) always seem to just be condemnations of a word, of a scary semantic field that isn’t given a precise definition or, when partial definitions are offered, they wind up also, strictly speaking, applying to things that no one would condemn, or which make distinctions without explaining them.

          “Torture is bad.” Goody. We all agree with that. But if that’s where you leave it, it’s sloppy theology and little more than saying something like “Boo ‘torture’!”…it doesn’t do much in the way of telling you what you’re actually allowed to do, or why you’re allowed to do some things (like my self defense from the mental patient with the deep brain electrode) but not others (doing the same thing to a guy you know beyond a reasonable dount knows where a ticking time bomb is hidden).

          If there’s no reference to proportionality or jurisdiction or the nature of due process or comparative levels of certitude…throwing “intrinsic evil” out there starts to sound like an arbitrary thought-stopping cliche.

          And I’ve noticed that, Left or Right, it’s usually used as a political bludgeon, to refer to State policies. Even though the paradigmatic case of sin is supposed to be the private individual, not a government; collective culpability becomes a murky topic. You throw “mortal sin” around as a bogeyman, but we all know your real concern isn’t the individual souls of a small number of CIA agents (why single them out and worry about their souls anymore than all the other grave sinners on earth?) Rather, you’re concerned about a perceived institutional systematic violation of “rights.” But if that’s the case, don’t invoke the language of individual morality. The two things are not comparable (as the death penalty example makes clear).

        • As Dick Cheney has proved with his responses to questioning on television, the torture that was inflicted on individuals was, too often, mindless, stupid, vengeful and futile. Generally speaking, most tortured individuals will tell the torturer what he wishes to hear, just to get it over with. Here in Egypt, we are just now learning that this country was complicit in fabricating the false “intelligence” that al Qaeda was linked to Iraq. It was provided by one al-Libbi, who was tortured here and who later died under torture. His “evidence” contributed to Colin Powell’s presentation in front of the U.N., and that “evidence” contributed to the deaths of thousands of American youth and the wasting of a trillion dollars of the taxpayers’ money. The “alternative” to such brutal, useless, degrading and stupid physical torture is MENTAL torture, in which the interrogators turn the criminals IMAGINATION against him, and let him try to figure out what his captors MIGHT do to him. There have been interrogators much cleverer than these CIA dunces, who were able to “break” a detainee within a few hours, simply by suggesting that they knew where his children went to school, and where his wife went to get her nails done on Thursdays. Obviously, if some “terrorist” has a ticking time bomb stashed some where, the interrogators may “enhance” the interrogation, but that isn’t usually the case and wasn’t the case with the CIA “enhanced interrogations.” And even when it is the case, the “terrorist” will still probably lie his way out of the situation, and the bomb will go off anyway. The kind of torture being discussed WAS “intrinsically evil” in context, because it was motivated and conducted primarily on the basis of VENGEFULNESS, as Cheney’s television interviews clearly indicate.

        • Mark VA

          Mr. Cruz-Uribe:

          Regarding the Church’s teaching that:

          “…there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”:

          I think the meaning of this statement is plain, when it is combined with the other quote you provided:

          “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.”

          The conclusion is: “Physical and mental torture” is deemed “seriously wrong”, “independently of circumstances”.

          These two quotes suggest to me the following questions:

          (a) At what point administering physical and mental discomfort becomes torture?, and

          (b) If such a line does not exist (i.e. all physical and mental discomfort is considered torture), then is this teaching asking us to accept greater physical vulnerability to our persons and to our country, for the sake of this standard?

          By the way: I would like to think about this issue from all possible angles: the rights of those accused of perpetrating evil, and our right to protect ourselves from them. I would also like to ask that we refrain from ascribing motives to one another – let’s explore this issue calmly, courageously, and rationally.

  • Sorry, Miss Ursula, but any moral theologian such as a pope has a right to call “torture” a “mortal sin” when it serves no other purpose but revenge, as almost all of the “extraordinary renditions” and the beatings and water-boardings of people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong times seem to have done. These CIA brutes tortured and KILLED indiscriminately, and, if that can’t be called “intrinsic evil,” I’d like to know what the hell can be!

    • Ursula

      But I’ve never denied that.

      What the CIA did, in all or most cases, might very well have been disproportionate, lacking jurisdiction or due process or sufficient certitude, produced useless results, and had ulterior bad motives.

      In all such cases, the pain infliction would thus be torture, and thus an intrinsic evil.

      But that’s just the thing: the logic works in THAT direction. “Intrinsic evil” is the CONCLUSION, after looking at the specifics of the context or alleged justifying logic. It is not a thought-stopping premise from the start.

      In other words, in these cases the pain infliction is intrinsic evil because (and only if) it’s wrong (for other reasons). It is not wrong “because it’s intrinsic evil.” That’s a priori nonsense.

      To say otherwise is like claiming that drugs are bad “because they’re illegal.” No. Presumably, they’re illegal because they are thought to be bad. But whether that thought holds up to scrutiny can be interrogated.

      Likewise, throwing around “intrinsic evil” isn’t an argument. It’s like saying “it’s bad and you’re not allowed to do that because it’s forbidden.” No, presumably it works the other way around: it’s forbidden because it’s bad. But we can interrogate the claim “bad” and ask why and whether it applies to all cases and whether we’re being consistent across all comparable cases.

      The CIA cases may well be unjustified and thus evil, but they’re unjustified and evil BECAUSE of some other defect. They’re not “unjustified because they’re evil.” Rather, they would be evil because (and only if) they’re unjustified.

      The “intrinsic evil” crowd has the order of moral causation here all backwards.

      • I see what you’re saying, Ursula, and you’re right, but wouldn’t you say, considering the terrible situation that prevailed and that might prevail again, to the peril of the American system of laws, that the burden of proof is on the torturers, to PROVE that what they wish to do is NOT “indiscriminate” and NOT “vengeful,” and that they must do this BEFORE torturing, or be held accountable for committing “war crimes”? In other words, isn’t it ALWAYS legitimate to hold “torturers” accountable, even after the crisis has past, in the interests of preserving a civilized society, and not allowing it to be destroyed by militarism?

  • ‘In other words, in these cases the pain infliction is intrinsic evil because (and only if) it’s wrong (for other reasons). It is not wrong “because it’s intrinsic evil.” That’s a priori nonsense.[…] The CIA cases may well be unjustified and thus evil, but they’re unjustified and evil BECAUSE of some other defect. They’re not “unjustified because they’re evil.” Rather, they would be evil because (and only if) they’re unjustified. The “intrinsic evil” crowd has the order of moral causation here all backwards.’

    I believe a few commenters’ have lost their way on this matter. Let’s talk about pain infliction for a moment. Imagine a surgeon on a battlefield without anesthesia who is forced to perform a surgical procedure that is very painful in order to save the wounded soldier’s life. Now imagine the same surgeon who performs the same very painful procedure on a healthy captured enemy combatant for a different purpose; perhaps to obtain battlefield information or do a science experiment that might prove useful; even save other lives. In each instance we are dealing with the reality of human pain. Is the first case justifiable? Can the second case ever be justified?

    In order to speak of ‘intrinsic evil’ we must be clear about what good and evil mean. Perhaps many moral decisions are clouded by not grasping some fundamental truths. A classic definition of ‘good’ is ‘acting in accord with the nature of a thing’ or ‘that which perfects and completes a thing’. We are humans, therefore to be ‘morally good’ means to act in accord with the nature of humanity; who is created in the image and likeness of God. Doing a morally good act may result in saving lives or it may result in not saving lives. A morally evil act is to act against our human nature, away from perfection and contrary to the wishes of God.

    So should the surgeon do the painful operation without anesthesia? Yes, if the moral object is to heal the wounded soldier then it is morally good if there is a reasonable chance that the soldier will survive. But the surgeon should not inflict great pain if the chances are slim for survival, rather he or she should comfort the soldier as he prepares for his journey home. Either action is considered morally good because it comports with our human nature; in this instance to care for another and effect healing if possible. (Interestingly, if this were in the jungle and a tiger were to show up, smell the wounded soldier’s blood and attack him as prey; this would not be considered a moral evil, since the tiger is acting in accord with its nature.)

    What of the second situation? Is the surgeon allowed to do an ‘EIT’, namely use what amounts to an identical ‘surgical procedure’ to draw information that might possibly be useful to save the lives of those we want to protect. No he is not, because it is intrinsically evil. Is it intrinsically evil because we’ve signed treaties on how to handle captured combatants and we should abide by our word? NO. Is it intrinsically evil because we’ve created laws to protect heinous criminals? NO. It is intrinsically evil because the moral object (the specific action involved) is to inflict grievous harm to an individual who is under our control.

    But you say, our overriding intentions are not to cause pain or harm, but to gather information, save lives, etc…doesn’t that change the moral nature of the act? No, because the means (the proximate action, the moral object) is the intentional cause of pain, human degradation, harm and much worse, all for the hope of a good result. The means are illicit. This is a classic example of what an intrinsically evil action is. Intrinsic evil refers to actions that are morally evil in such a way that is essentially opposed to the will of God or proper human fulfillment regardless of the circumstances or noble intentions. St. JPII was not soft or emotional when he preached on this subject. I’m certain that Catholic Encyclicals are highly reviewed for accuracy and clarity before being released.

    Finally, some insist that we should withhold judgment about these actions and not cry ‘Intrinsic evil’ since we don’t know whether the action are justifiable or not. This is tantamount to saying that we shouldn’t call water boarding torture since we should consider whether the interrogators true intentions were to do good by washing the prisoners face while many gallons of water accidentally dropped on them.

    • Ursula

      Again, a priori nonsense.

      You’re defining the moral object arbitrarily. I’ve already given examples (such as self-defense) where we can choose to inflict pain, not merely as a side effect, but as the very means of disabling the aggressor (direct brain stimulation wouldn’t cause any permanent damage or disable physical capacity, but it nevertheless breaks the person’s will to keep attacking you by the sheer awfulness of experiencing the quale of pain).

      The State acts in self-defense by analogy. It can kill, for example, for deterrence and retributive Justice…even long after the aggressor is subdued and locked up.

      Now you’re telling me that for some reason when I twist a guy’s arm in self-defense that’s okay, but for some reason the State can never do it under any justification.

      The whole thing just seems like a priori reasoning. “This is wrong no matter the justification.” And it’s true, some things are like that. Except, clear counter-examples prove that pain-infliction, like killing, is not one of those things. Pain infliction and killing become “torture” and “murder” only under some circumstances.

      You might argue that the CIA cases did not meet certain conditions to be just, and you’d probably be right. But the argument has to be more specific than just a claim that the fact that they deliberately caused suffering is proof enough of injustice. It’s not, as counter-examples about self-defense show. So there must be some other defect, not merely an “on its face” claim of “intrinsically evil object” defined simplistically as “deliberately causing pain.”

      • I’m sorry Ursula but I cannot agreed with either your examples or your reasoning. In reading over your comments you do make clear that torture is evil and even an intrinsic evil. Then you head on this path in saying that we can’t call these particular instances of torture “intrinsically evil” since we don’t know if the acts that constitute torture are present. And yet you agree based on what you know that you would likely call these acts torture and intrinsically evil. You’ve turned this into a ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ rationale.

        You say, You might argue that the CIA cases did not meet certain conditions to be just, and you’d probably be right. But the argument has to be more specific than just a claim that the fact that they deliberately caused suffering is proof enough of injustice. It’s not, as counter-examples about self-defense show.

        Why do you take this position? What evidence or criteria is lacking in your opinion? Your counter examples really need to be examined more closely since many of the claims that you made are seriously flawed, particularly your analysis of the use of pain. Is there some ‘intentional infliction of just pain doctrine’ that I’m not aware of? You are taking great liberties in your justification of force. In my opinion you are carrying over these mistaken assertions into the present circumstances.

        • Ursula

          Of course there is just infliction of pain.

          The State’s power includes even death, but certainly scourging and flogging were never questioned, nor a parent’s right to spank, etc. And then there is self-defense.

          All persuasion, even, involves pain inasmuch as there is a threat “if you don’t do this, you’ll be fired, etc.” Human behavioral modification is always in some sense coercive, whether by parents or the State or by friends or coworkers. We are creatures who interact with each other in the twin currencies of pleasure and pain, reward and punishment.

          So it can’t just be “deliberately inflicting pain is on its face wrong.” The moral object of torture must be delineated by more precise conditions or some essential feature other than just the deliberate infliction of pain. Rarely does a moral object have an externalistic description like that, anyway, normally it is defined internalistically, of the subject relative to himself.

        • Rarely does a moral object have an externalistic description like that, anyway, normally it is defined internalistically, of the subject relative to himself.

          I suggest this:

  • Julia Smucker

    This may sound like a somewhat frivolous comment, but on seeing the example of an individual’s taped crying as leverage against family, the first thing I thought of was The Hunger Games: specifically the scene in the book Catching Fire where the participants in the games are exposed to jabberjay birds imitating the sounds of their loved ones being tortured. This is apropos in that life imitates art and vice-versa. The series (at least the first two books; the third loses the thread in my opinion, but that’s another subject) serves as a broad social commentary on violence, especially of the state-sponsored kind, and was originally inspired by a combination of war footage and reality TV.

    On a more sobering note, there is a perverse contradiction in Tenet’s defense: right after forcefully repeating his “we don’t torture people” mantra, he invokes 9/11 and then implies a clichéd ticking time bomb scenario (which he admits he can’t prove, chalking it up to his “operational intuition”). First he denies, then he justifies.

    That this rationale is used by a self-worshiping secular state hubristically convinced of its own intrinsic goodness is comprehensible, though far from justifiable. But the most appalling contradiction of all is the outright eagerness to defend such evils, by means of all manner of semantic and moral gymnastics, on the part of those who claim the name of Christ. I can hardly imagine a more effective counter-witness to the gospel.

  • Melody

    “But the most appalling contradiction of all is the outright eagerness to defend such evils, by means of all manner of semantic and moral gymnastics, on the part of those who claim the name of Christ. I can hardly imagine a more effective counter-witness to the gospel.”
    Amen to that, Julia!

    • mradeknal

      But it’s a defense of the principle Christ Himself confirmed in the Gospel when He said of Pilate’s power to scourge and crucify Him: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

      Presumably the difference between Pilate and “the who handed me over to you” is that Pilate had legitimate state authority to do what he was going to do.

      Now, Christ was innocent, so it was still a (lesser) sin. But the implication is that, if it was a guilty party, scourging and crucifixion were powers the State has “from above.”

      Don’t make a liar of Our Lord, Julia. That’s truly what’s at stake here, and why some of us are “eager” to defend the theoretical principle over your capitulation to enlightenment liberalism regarding the State’s relationship to the body.

      • Tell me something, Mr. Adeknal, do you consider Blaise Pascal, to have been an “enlightenment liberal”? Me neither, but are you familiar with this proposition of his: “It would be better for the whole world and everything it to perish than for one child to be ravished.” There really can be no compromise between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and taison d’état. The Christian state MAY have an absolute right to punish and to wage “just war,” but it has no right to take away aperson’s humanity or his dignity–not even someone sentenced to death. Gratuitous resort to torture with no clear objective but vengeance–which is mostly what actually occurred–is, indeed, an “intrinsically evil”act and forbidden by the Christian Church.

        • Ursula

          First, the United States is not a “Christian State.”

          Second, you may be right that vengeance or cruelty for its own sake are intrinsically evil, but that’s just what is meant when it is said the moral object must be defined “internalistically” rather than physically.

          Vengeance and cruelty define a state of soul. Mere infliction of pain to get a body to do something is, like killing, something an agent of the State can do clinically or even with great personal pathos or reluctance. In itself defined externalistically it implies no necessary internal deformation of passion. There are ways it can be carried out justly.

        • How long O, Lord, how long?

          Obviously you refuse to even look up the definition of ‘intrinsic evil’. If you had you would understand one of the key features of an intrinsically evil act is that it is morally wrong independent of the intentions (good or evil) intended consequences (good or evil) of the actor; or actual consequences (good or evil) of the act itself. Even the circumstances have no bearing on the nature of the act itself.

          Ursula, in an earlier comment you say, ‘If there’s no reference to proportionality or jurisdiction or the nature of due process or comparative levels of certitude…throwing “intrinsic evil” out there starts to sound like an arbitrary thought-stopping cliche.’

          YES!…YES! That’s one of glorious features or recognizing and admitting that an act is intrinsically evil. Whether we know all the other facts is immaterial. The greatest feature is that it allows someone to stop and question what they are doing when they don’t understand the moral hazard or if they completely disagree. The intellect is easily deceived and many consciences are poorly formed: no one can claim to be perfect in this area.

          You are confusing all of this with the issue of culpability (i.e. moral responsibility) of individuals or entities. In that situation we need to know more to discern the degree of guilt or innocence involved. I may have compassion for the young girl who gives her child over to abortion or the elderly woman who gives her husband the overdose he pleads for…but the action is always evil, intrinsically so. Oh and just to be clear, the soldier who kills in war commits an intrinsically evil act and almost invariably harms himself in the process; nevertheless we do not call it murder and we do not hold him directly responsible for the killing, indeed we often award medals.

          Are you aware that the great penitential movements that grew up around the time of the Crusades were largely made up of soldiers who were ‘doing penance’ for the actions they undertook in the name of the Church? They fought their just and righteous wars under the banner of the cross…and then returned to do penance for their sins. This was the prescription of the Church for righting oneself with God after killing.

        • Ursula

          If that’s the route you want to take, there is no further discussion, which is why I said your view of intrinsic evil is a thought stopping cliche.

          Murder is an intrinsic evil. Killing is not. Torture is an intrinsic evil. Pain infliction is not.

          How is the one object distinguished from the other? Obviously it requires more than just defining the object “physically” as killing or pain infliction.

          Murder is usually defined as directly killing an innocent person. Innocent here is key, as it introduces the concept of an aggressor or criminal, self defense, and allows the State to pursue wrongdoing. It also introduces the notion of due process, but doesn’t exclude restraint or coercive action if there are certain levels of certitude pre-trial or during investigation (uncooperative people could always be ruled guilty of contempt of court, for example).

          Torture must have an additional “innocent” factor in addition to the pain factor.

        • “The United States is not a Christian States.”

          Truer words were never stated at Vox Nova, so now can we hear an end to all the pontificating regarding imposition of “traditional
          Judaeo-Christian values” regarding such things as abortion and “gay” marriage? No? Thought not! There hasn’t even been ever at this site the acknowledgement that Protestsnt marriage is not the same thing as Catholic marriage. “Traditional” and “conservative” are anything you folks say they are at any given time. You won’t for long be able to obfuscate this “torture” issue for very much longer with the hoi polloi — not with Cheney on the idiot box every night spouting vengeance. He puts your pro-torture position in the proper perspective.

        • Ursula

          Wow, Dismas. They say when you assume, “you make an ass out of you in front of me” (also how you spell it).

          You’ve just lumped me in with “conservatives” on the question of gay civil marriage and the criminalization of abortion and then screamed hypocrisy.

          Fact is, I think the fight against legal recognition of same-sex unions (under whatever label) has been absurd. It’s one thing to teach that there is a moral standard of chastity, it’s quite another to politicize this into an idea that certain households, which de facto exist as socio-economic realities, shouldn’t receive civil recognition from a secular state.

          Does the deposit of Faith say “tax benefits and immigration rights must only accrue to natural marriage?” Obviously not. These are legal constructs and could be applied to anything from “roommates” to subsidizing your relationship with your dentist.

          Now, I don’t think there is some sort of injustice or invidious discrimination in NOT giving these rights either, that’s hysteria; States are free to favor different identity groups or types of households, and there might be (or have been in the past) good socio-political reasons to insist that the sexes not be treated as interchangeable in the construction of households (though gay households will always be a small minority and won’t cause others to turn, so their recognition seems more a symptom than a cause).

          But it’s certainly not some sacrifice to Moloch to recognize them, especially if the arguments are essentially moral or philosophical rather than socio-economic (which is politic’s real sphere).

          As for abortion, I think criminalization is a rather different question than the mere fact that abortion is murder. I think it is important to emphasize that politics is realist/pragmatist, not ideological. You can’t just “vote against abortion” as if that’s meaningful at all.

          First, it needs to be emphasized that we don’t vote for policies…we vote for individuals. They may have espoused positions, but how often does a president or congressman ever implement even a fraction of their vision? Truth is, we need to vote for leaders based on character, on who we think will make good decisions on unforeseen issues that arise, not on platform issues they may never have a chance to meaningfully effect. The idea that Catholics are all bound in conscience to “vote pro-life” on everyone from the garbage commissioner on up is silly, and even the Vatican under Ratzinger admitted this.

          Second, even politicians making policy can’t just vote based on pie-in-the-sky idealism. “Abortion is bad, let’s criminalize it” means nothing without concrete actionable policy. The State has a limited amount of time and manpower and resources. Criminalizing something means committing to fully prosecute a certain fraction of cases of something in the hopes of deterring the rest. While I’m certainly not against criminalizing abortion in theory, especially post-viability, the idea that pursuing this must be a “non-negotiable” for Catholic politicians doesn’t pan out. Most bishops know this secretly, which is why most realize they cannot deny someone like Joe Biden communion.

          You can believe abortion is murder while still believing that criminalization is ineffective at stopping it (there are other countries today which demonstrate this) or that the best use of resources is in focusing on economic development and education (where each dollar spent might stop more abortion than if it was allocated for criminalization instead). That’s a prudential judgment.

          There are also privacy issues. Conservatives scoff at the “privacy” claim, but it’s a real concern when it comes to enforcement; are there going to be federal marshals in every OB/GYN appointment? Or is every miscarriage going to be investigated as a potential wrongful death? Is the State going to test each fertile aged woman each week for pregnancy so that it can track how many of those make it to term? I’m not sure that’s the best use of resources, nor that there’s the political will for it (which question conservatives ignore, as if unpopular law can just be created).

          I think criminalizing abortion might drive it underground enough to dampen the frequency by shutting down publicly advertised clinics (rather indecent things anyway), but they wouldn’t end it, there’d be more women with botched procedures, and I doubt you’ll ever see the political will to prosecute in many “sympathetic” cases (if only a fraction of all crimes are ever brought to trial, is it really best to pick on cases of rape or the mother’s life? That sounds like a recipe for a lot of jury nullification).

          So don’t pre-judge me, Dismas.

        • Mark VA


          If I read you right, you seem to be proposing that merely changing the law regarding some issue, without first addressing its cultural causes, may be a shaky proposition (i.e. it will tend to drive the issue underground). If so, then I agree with you. If I misread you, please explain.

          I would also like to hear your thoughts on the differences and interfaces among the concepts of culture, state, and civilization. Which of these is the primary working field for the Catholic Church, and how should that field be worked to make the Great Commission most effective?

        • Ursula

          That may be true Mark but I don’t think it’s really the point of my post.

          The key word is “may.” I think what political approach Catholics must support is a prudential question.

          The goal is the same, and minimizing lives lost, including the unborn fully in that determination, is definitely a part of that goal in the Catholic vision. But HOW the State accomplishes this is not set in stone.

          Politics is not idealistic nor didactic or pedagogical. The goal isn’t to express pure and orthodox principles in law. Politics is not the place for ideology.

          Politics is practical. It’s pragmatic and realist. When a State votes to decriminalize something, this isn’t to say “this thing is good or part of the good life or socially acceptable or not dangerous.” All it’s saying is “we have limited resources to divvy up, and prosecuting this doesn’t seem worth our time given that we can only prosecute so many cases, never catch many others, juries nullify others we do prosecute, and it doesn’t seem to be having any sort of deterrent effect or putting much of a dent in overall occurence, indeed criminalization may just be causing more trouble than it’s stopping.”

          I’m almost certain this is the case with drugs. Drugs are horrible, but the war on drugs is worse.

          I’m less certain with abortion. Some states (like Ireland) have seemed to have pretty good outcomes with criminalization (though maybe just because they “outsource” abortion to the UK). In other countries, criminalization has been an unmitigated disaster, with abortion becoming no less common, but resulting in maternal death much more often.

          I don’t know what side the U.S. would fall on or if there is a middle path (such as focusing on late term abortions and stand-alone clinics).

          I think there are serious privacy concerns about a “War on Abortion” and what it would mean if we treated pre-birth death exactly the same way we treat adult death (investigating cause, pursuing missing persons, requiring the registration of all pregnancies, restraining women who try to have an abortion until they give birth in shackles?)

          But either way, I don’t think this is some “non-negotiable.” Many conservative Catholics balk when Joe Biden claims he believes life begins at conception but doesn’t believe in imposing it legally. But that’s actually quite a coherent claim if he’s sincere.

          One can sincerely believe that criminalization is not effective at stopping abortion, will cause more problems than it solves, or more fundamentally that in allocating the State pie of time and resources…putting the effort and money into stopping poverty and other structural causes may simply be greater bang for every buck than pursuing controversial and non-deterrent prosecutions and driving it all underground.

        • Mark VA

          Thank you, Ursula, for your in depth response.

          My intent is not to debate, but to search for other ways to talk about these issues. I think that before we decide to support any political position, we should first understand the cultural forces shaping this or that problem, and the degree to which these forces are malleable.

          Notice this: in the past, human life was discussed thru the medium of culture. For example, utilitarianism, or “fomes peccati”, were personified in the anti-hero Don Giovanni. Greed, self-delusion, regret, thru the tales of Doctor Faustus (aka “Fist”, aka “Five”), the Flying Dutchman, or Pan Twardowski. Charles Dickens addressed the injustices of rigid class structures and their ills thru the heart warming Christmas Carol. Social satire was so ably practiced by the King of Jesters, Till Eulenspiegel.

          We, on the other hand, seem unable to raise the level of our discussion above that of politics and its endless election cycles. Also, our contemporary culture, which could raise this level, seems more interested in entertainment, propaganda, vulgar shock, and profit. It tends to ignore issues that are not profitable.

          Vox Nova states in its banner that it provides Catholic perspectives on culture, society, and politics. I say, lets focus on culture first, and then go from there.

      • Julia Smucker

        It always boggles me when people read Christ’s response to Pilate as some sort of divine mandate for anything the State might do. I see him essentially telling Pilate that he is more impotent than he realizes: Pilate reminds Christ he has the power to kill him or let him live; Christ turns it around and reminds Pilate who has had the real power all along.

        To twist his words in defense of things the Church has clearly named evils – even of ones our Lord himself *underwent*, as if his suffering somehow justified all the actions of the Pilates and Herods of our day – is the real capitulation here. How can we follow Christ and at the same time choose to take the side of Pilate?

        • ‘How can we follow Christ and at the same time choose to take the side of Pilate?’


        • Julia, yes its hard to imagine that opponents of torture, scourging, and crucifixion can pluck words out of the Lord’s mouth as they plucked the beard off his face and then use these very words to accuse his followers of calling Jesus a liar. Apparently, they overlooked this passage:

          ‘The devil led him [Jesus] up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Luke 4:5

        • ‘opponents of torture…’ should be ‘those who oppose the opponents of torture…’ Clearly not the best phraseology.

        • Julia Smucker

          One more thing I would add on the above proof-text taking Christ’s rebuttal to Pilate as a moral carte blanche for modern states, or for The State as such: if that interpretation automatically excuses every action of the US government, then by the same logic it would have to apply equally well to Nazi Germany.

          I generally hesitate to make that sort of comparison, but I only use such an extreme example to illustrate how morally perilous that line of reasoning is.

        • mradeknal

          Pilate’s power was “given from above” in a way that “the one who handed me over to you” (Judas and the Jewish Elders) did not have. What’s the distinction? The only possible way to read it is that Pilate is the legitimate State authority and Judas and the Sanhedrin were not. That’s the only difference between them.

          This is not a carte blanche. Christ is innocent, and so what Pilate does is still a “lesser sin.” The government can’t hurt the innocent. But it can the guilty (by whatever just process of determination).

        • Julia Smucker

          You still have not explained how “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” translates to “Any punishment inflicted by any government, however inhumane, is divinely ordained.” (Or do you think this interpretation applies uniquely to America?)

          Or how any follower of the gospel can part with the disciples at the foot of the cross to join the floggers.

  • Tanco

    And so the bishops will say nothing, for they want their dripping and bread. euouae. Amen.

    • Mark

      Ugh. Tanco: the ae at the end of euouae ALREADY stands for “Amen.”

      You’re commiting the liturgical equivalent of saying “ATM machine.”

      • Tanco

        Thanks for the correction. My bad, though it is kind of funny. I stand by my assertion that many of the bishops won’t say anything about immoral torture because they only care about their status and wealth.

        • Ursula

          Or maybe it’s because their job is only to teach the principles, not to sit in judgment on the individual cases of its prudential application (except in the confessional or in a session of spiritual direction)

        • Tanco

          Ursula [December 25, 2014 2:03 pm]: Here I must strongly disagree. Yes, the bishops are shepherds and teachers of their flocks in matters of faith and morals. However, their role as instructors of the faith also impels them to speak up when their nation has engaged in evil and injustice. There is no better exemplar of steadfast Christian instruction in the face of evil and injustice as Pope Francis, who has criticized everything from predatory capitalism to the evil of ISIS to the inadequacies of the curia. If the bishop of Rome can stand with unflinching courage against evil and injustice, should not his brother bishops do as well? Rather, not a few bishops stand mute before the politicians from whose troughs they smack their lips.

  • Ursula probably disapproves of the canonization of Archbishop Romero–because of his “political” involvements.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Speculative…let her have her say if she wants to.