Torture and Truth

The debate is currently raging in the public square over the revelation that the Bush Administration authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” against suspected terrorists in American custody. Many Catholics are also arguing about this issue, or are confused about what it’s all about.

While one can always argue about whether a particular technique is “torture” or not, why would we ever want to go anywhere near that boundary line? Suffocating with water? Beatings? Prolonged hanging by the arms? Confinement to tiny spaces for extended times? How can we justify doing anything close to these things?

The justifications offered for these harsh and brutal practices are almost invariably consequentialist (we need the information for the common good, so anything goes), and are deeply rooted in utilitarianism (using a person for our ends). In either case, it is something that Catholics should shun. In no way is it compatible with the fundamental principle of moral theology, which Pope John Paul II called the “personalistic principle” — people are ends in themselves, and are to be loved, not used as means to some other end. Nor is it any way in keeping with anything from the mouth of the Lord about loving one another.

Once we let consequentialism in the door, there’s no other destination but the abortion clinic and Planned Parenthood. Utilitarianism leads to the house of prostitution, the cloning clinic and the exploitation of workers. We need to beware those paths — that way passes through the gate to destruction.

I know a little about coercion and interrogation from my days as a prosecutor, so I’m particularly sensitive about torture. We routinely put heavy pressure (never physical, but moral and emotional) on people to try to “turn” them against others. It was consequentialist (we would routinely make false threats and assurances) and utilitarian (we used these people to “get” others, even though it was dangerous to them — it was not unknown for witnesses to be murdered). We saw it as being necessary for us to make the cases against people who were even worse than those we were using.

In a pragmatic, utilitarian way, we were right. But in a deeper sense, we were wrong.

It doesn’t matter if what we did “worked”. What mattered was the degrading effect of it on us — we became users. The power it gave us over other people was intoxicating, to the point that they ceased being people to us — they were pawns in a game we were playing.

It was totally incompatible with our Christianity, and is one of the main reasons I left that life.

You can see this degrading effect in the tone and language of the apologists for “harsh interrogation” — full of anger, vengeance and hate, indifferent to the victims, who, while being practitioners of terrible evil, are still children of God. You rarely hear any hint of the fact that even wicked, evil people are made in the image and likeness of God, and are entitled to be treated that way. Everyone is degraded by torture — the victim, who is treated as sub-human, and the torturer as well, who behaves beneath his human dignity.

Jack Bauer is not a Christian role model. Jesus is.

We Catholics have to be different.

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