A Tortured Poll and the Caiaphas Principle

A deeply disturbing poll has just come out from the Rasmussen Reports, the respected public opinion research organization. They report that “Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day.”

This confirms to me that our Church and other religious leaders need to do a much better job in catechizing our people about the intrinsic evil of torture, and the utter unacceptability of consequentialist ways of thinking. Consequentialism is the mischievous notion that the end justifies the means. In this case it means the idea that our government should do “whatever it takes” to obtain information from terrorism suspects, even if that means torturing them.

Last year, there was an absolutely appalling poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the well-respected research center. It revealed that most evangelical Protestants, and most Catholics, including most who attend Mass regularly, stated that they approve of the use of torture. What is especially disturbing to me is that the Pew poll didn’t allow for a wiggle-room discussion over whether things like waterboarding are actually “torture”. It openly asked people about torture — yet 62% of evangelicals, 51% of Catholics, and 54% of all weekly church-goers approved of its use.

Let’s review some important points about God’s law, as proclaimed in the teaching of the Church. The Catechism 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. (2297)

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. (2313).

This leaves no room for consequentialism — our Church clearly defines torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners as intrinsically evil, and forbids them unequivocally.

Just so it’s clear, there’s really no question that waterboarding is torture, or at the very least that it is “contrary to the law of nations”. Here is how torture is defined in the Convention on Torture, which, as a treaty ratified by Congress, is the law of the United States:

[A]ny 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… 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.

Indeed, at various times in our history, our government has consistently held that anyone who waterboards a prisoner during wartime is guilty of a war crime. Our military specifically forbids the practice.

Even if you thought that waterboarding didn’t qualify for that definition, any “aggressive interrogation technique” that falls short of that definition would still be forbidden by the Convention on Torture — and thus by American law, “the law of nations”and the teaching of the Church — if they constitute:

cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture… 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.

Remember, waterboarding consists of continuously pouring water into the mouth and nose of a bound prisoner, so that he feels as if he is drowning and can’t escape — “inhumane”, at the very least.

I understand the impulse that leads people to support “aggressive interrogation techniques” — it’s a natural combination of fear and anger. I was in Manhattan on September 11, so nobody needs to tell me about that. But we are obliged to obey God’s law, even when we are sorely tempted to take the apple from the tree and define good and evil for ourselves, even when we’re terrified that an attack is imminent.

I call this temptation “the Caiaphas principle”, after the story of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin in John’s Gospel, Chapter 11:

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and… 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, even if somebody has to suffer” — is the classic expression of the wicked idea that the end justifies the means. It is not acceptable Christian behavior, no matter how understandable and tempting it may be.

We cannot do evil so that good may come of it. As Christians, we have to be better than that.

Comments are closed.