The Caiaphas Principle

Former Vice President Richard Cheney gave an interview the other day, in which he was asked about torture. I’m sorry, the preferred term appears to be “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Throughout the interview, the former Vice President defended the use of torture by American authorities, on the grounds that it “worked”.

Remember, we’re talking about such “techniques” as repeatedly pouring water in prisoners’ throats and noses to bring them to the edge of death by drowning (also known as “waterboarding”), subjecting them to protracted exposure to the cold to induce hypothermia, extended sleep deprivation that lasted for days, threatening to disfigure or kill them (for example by threatening to use a power drill upon them), repeated brutal physical beatings, hanging them by the arms until their shoulders dislocated, confining them in small boxes, threats of grievous violence (including rape and murder) against their wives and children. A number of prisoners were killed during the course of these “interrogations”. All suffered physically and psychologically. One can only imagine the effect on those who inflicted these torments or witnessed them.

These “techniques” were used under the authority of legal guidelines adopted by the United States government. Yes, our government authorized such disgusting and degrading things to be done to human beings in custody. That’s horrifying enough, but some “interrogators” went even beyond those guidelines, and did things to prisoners that were specifically prohibited.

With that context, here is the key exchange between the television interviewer and the former Vice President:

Chris Wallace: So even these cases where they went beyond the specific legal authorization, you’re OK with it?”
Vice President Cheney: I am.

Stop for a moment and consider that statement. Here is a man who took the oath of office as Vice President to uphold the Constitution and to faithfully discharge his duties. Implicit in that oath is that he swore to obey the law and to enforce the law. And here he is, boldly stating that he had no problem, not just with the degrading and disgusting torture of prisoners, but with appalling actions that went even beyond those permitted.

As a Christian, I find this intolerable. Regardless of how evil one may judge these prisoners to be, they are still human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. It is a gross violation of their human dignity to treat them this way. And it is degrading to the human dignity of all those who committed such acts, or who justify them.

The teachings of our Church are clear:

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)

Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself… are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator. (Gaudium et Spes 27)

Here’s what is so upsetting to me, and so dangerous. Many people — good people who love God and love their country — are defending the torture of prisoners, on the grounds that the methods “worked”, that they “saved lives”, that they “defended our country”.

That may or may not be true, but it is entirely irrelevant.

In John’s Gospel, Chapter 11, we read:

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.”

The Caiaphas Principle — “do whatever it takes” — is the classic expression of consequentialism, the wicked idea that the end justifies the means. It is not the standard for Christian behavior. We cannot do evil so that good may come of it. Remember, Caiaphas is not the hero of the story.

Here’s the lesson to powerful people, and indeed to everyone. If it’s evil, it doesn’t matter if it “works”. It endangers your soul and corrodes your character. Don’t do it.

Comments are closed.