In response to my blog post the other day on torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques”, I had an interesting series of emails with a good Catholic man who strongly disagreed with my position, in good faith. I thought the email exchange was interesting, and, with his consent and with some mild editing to remove personal information and comments, and to clarify a few points, I decided to share it with you.
The first email I received:
I do not agree that VP Cheney’s remarks about Enhanced Interrogation are disgusting as you say. In my opinion, Enhanced Interrogation is NOT Torture. Torture is the prolonged and continuous application of pain and suffering to a human being just for the fun of it or to punish the person. Enhanced Interrogation is not meant to punish, but the goal is to get information about a terroist’s evil deeds which could kill or injure fellow Americans. My advice is not to let the liberals triangulate you and our Catholic Church on the important saving methods and means we have in the use of Enhanced Interrogation. Be honest. If someone had your son or daughter hidden somewhere, would you allow the police or army to use Enhanced Interrogation techniques to find them?
Here is my response:
Sorry, but I have to disagree on this one. I’ve looked at the report of the International Red Cross, as well as the CIA Inspector General’s report, and the “enhanced interrogation techniques” are indeed disgusting to me. They also fall squarely into the conduct forbidden by the teachings of our Church and by the laws of the United States.
The Catechism specifically states that “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2297)
The UN Convention Against Torture (which is the law of the United States, since Congress has ratified the Convention) defines “torture” as follows:
Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.
Any act that falls short of that definition may still be prohibited by law, in that they may constitute “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture as defined in article I, when such acts are committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity” (Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture).
That’s the law, but it’s really the moral question that I’m getting at. I’m very disturbed by the general reliance on consequentialist arguments, and the dismissal of moral norms as irrelevant during wartime. If there are no moral considerations about appropriate interrogation techniques, then it’s just a matter of “what works”, and there is no basis for any moral or ethical standards whatsoever — it’s a “free fire” zone for doing anything to people when we believe they have information that we want. That is apparently is Vice President Cheney’s position, since he clearly thinks that neither moral principles nor positive laws have any binding force when our government wants to extract information from somebody. I find that attitude to be appalling.
You’ll notice that I ducked his first question, about what I would do if it were my own children. He didn’t let me get away with it, and came right back at me. Here’s what I got back in reply:
I am determined to convince you of my position on Enhanced Interrogation techniques based on the following 2 elements, which are related to justice and “just war” reasoning.
1) “Be honest. If someone had your son or daughter hidden somewhere, would you allow the police or army to use Enhanced Interrogation techniques to find them?” Most people would have a very clear conscience under justice or “just war” reasoning to agree with the above.
2) ‘The Catechism specifically states that “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2297)’ The above quotation from the Catechism mentions confessions, but it does not mention “extracting information from enemies for purposes of saving lives.”
Again, please reconsider your position based purely on justice or “just war” reasoning.
Good, hard arguments. So I sent this:
1. I don’t know what I would do under those circumstances. I hope that I would be virtuous, but I am weak and sin often under normal circumstances, so I have no confidence that I would do the right thing under stress.
But here’s the important point — my personal weaknesses can’t be the measure of the moral law. In other words, I can’t define evil downwards to my level (see Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 — they tried it and look where it got them!). God is the only one who defines the objective moral law. Otherwise we’re in the “dictatorship of relativism”, as Pope Benedict called it.
Pope John Paul wrote about this in Veritatis Splendor (it’s a long quote, but worth it):
104. In this context [the intersection of human freedom and the divine law] appropriate allowance is made both for God’s mercy towards the sinner who converts and for the understanding of human weakness. Such understanding never means compromising and falsifying the standard of good and evil in order to adapt it to particular circumstances. It is quite human for the sinner to acknowledge his weakness and to ask mercy for his failings; what is unacceptable is the attitude of one who makes his own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy. An attitude of this sort corrupts the morality of society as a whole, since it encourages doubt about the objectivity of the moral law in general and a rejection of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions regarding specific human acts, and it ends up by confusing all judgments about values.
Instead, we should take to heart the message of the Gospel parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (cf. Lk 18:9-14). The tax collector might possibly have had some justification for the sins he committed, such as to diminish his responsibility. But his prayer does not dwell on such justifications, but rather on his own unworthiness before God’s infinite holiness: “God, be merciful to me a sinner! ” (Lk 18:13). The Pharisee, on the other hand, is self-justified, finding some excuse for each of his failings. Here we encounter two different attitudes of the moral conscience of man in every age. The tax collector represents a “repentant” conscience, fully aware of the frailty of its own nature and seeing in its own failings, whatever their subjective justifications, a confirmation of its need for redemption. The Pharisee represents a “self-satisfied” conscience, under the illusion that it is able to observe the law without the help of grace and convinced that it does not need mercy.
105. All people must take great care not to allow themselves to be tainted by the attitude of the Pharisee, which would seek to eliminate awareness of one’s own limits and of one’s own sin. In our own day this attitude is expressed particularly in the attempt to adapt the moral norm to one’s own capacities and personal interests, and even in the rejection of the very idea of a norm. Accepting, on the other hand, the “disproportion” between the law and human ability (that is, the capacity of the moral forces of man left to himself) kindles the desire for grace and prepares one to receive it. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” asks the Apostle Paul. And in an outburst of joy and gratitude he replies: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! ” (Rom 7:24-25).
2. Just war theory really is not a help to supporters of “enhanced interrogation”. Traditional just war theory deals with both jus ad bello (going to war) and jus in bello (how to conduct the war). I think a Catholic can easily hold the position in good conscience that our war against Islamists is justified (I believe so, as well). But, once entered into, how we conduct the war must comply with the objective moral law. The Catechism talks about this too:
2312 The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.” [Citation to Gaudium et Spes 79]
2313 Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions.
Hope that helps to make my position clear.
The issue of torture is not an easy one, because it can conflict with a very powerful obligation on the part of our government to protect us. This is exactly the kind of discussion that needs to take place, but, sadly, it is not. Our media discussions of this issue are completely dominated by pragmatism and consequentialism — “does it work”? Many thanks to my correspondent, who raised good, solid questions based on his Catholic faith.
It is up to all Christians to inject moral considerations into this debate. Indeed, it is a specific duty of Catholics to bring the Gospel to the debate. There is no part of life that is beyond the reign of God. But nobody will hear about God’s will unless we talk about it.