Tonight We’re Gonna Party Like It’s 1984

Last week, we started looking at the broad movement we have seen among conservatives (including Catholics) over the past several years to excuse, minimize, defend and champion the use of torture by the US government in the “War on Terror”. Among Catholics, in particular, the conversation has taken place at multiple levels, since the Catholic torture defender has to not only address it as a crime, but as a sin. Given Church teaching which describes torture as gravely and intrinsically immoral (cf. Veritatis Splendor 80), this is a particularly difficult project, given this plain language:

Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. 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; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator".

But plenty of voices have been found (typically on the Right) to attempt it, and Catholics have more often taken their cues from secular sources than from Catholic ones. Indeed, Catholics support torture by a greater percentage than does the ordinary population.

The most extensive attempt by a theologian to probe whether Pope John Paul II really meant it when he said that torture was intrinsically immoral was that attempted by Fr. Brian Harrison (here and here). What is remarkable is the distinction between what Fr. Harrison actually concluded and the ways in which his conclusions have been ignored, garbled, misconstrued and, well, tortured by Catholic torture defenders (a typical and broad cross section of whom can be heard in the comboxes on my previous article).

The key point Fr. Harrison makes is this:

Thirdly, there remains the question – nowadays a very practical and much-discussed one – of torture inflicted not for any of the above purposes, but for extracting life-saving information from, say, a captured terrorist known to be participating in an attack that may take thousands of lives (the now-famous ‘ticking bomb’ scenario). As we have noted above, this possible use of torture is not mentioned in the Catechism. If, as I have argued, the infliction of severe pain is not intrinsically evil, its use in that type of scenario would not seem to be excluded by the arguments and authorities we have considered so far. (John Paul II’s statement about the "intrinsic evil" of a list of ugly things including torture in VS #80 does not seem to me decisive, even at the level of authentic, non-infallible, magisterium, for the reasons I have already given in commenting above on that text.) My understanding would be that, given the present status questionis, the moral legitimacy of torture under the aforesaid desperate circumstances, while certainly not affirmed by the magisterium, remains open at present to legitimate discussion by Catholic theologians.

Fr. Harrison’s logic is summed up here:

If you compare what the 1984 UN Convention against Torture (of which, for what it's worth, the Holy See is a signatory) and the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church say about torture, you will find they offer the following purposes of intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering as constitutive of torture:

UN Convention

Catechism

"obtaining...information"

"obtaining...a confession"

"extract confessions"

"punishing...for an act he...has committed"

"punish the guilty"

"intimidating or coercing"

"frighten opponents"

"any reason based on discrimination"

"satisfy hatred"

Fr. Harrison suggests that the drafters of the Catechism, "while generally following the Convention's proscriptions, deliberately decided not to do so on [the] particular point" of torture for obtaining information. Because it looks to Fr. Harrison "like a deliberate decision on the part of church authorities, rather than a mere oversight or coincidence," he regards the morality of torture for obtaining information to be an open theological question.

Now, in a purely abstract universe, Fr. Harrison’s slender thread of speculation might make for a fascinating theoretical discussion (bearing in mind that it is predicated on a fantasy scenario, much like theologian Dan Maguire might hypothesize that, assuming an incest victim with a tubal pregnancy and an anencephalic baby, “the moral legitimacy of abortion under the aforesaid desperate circumstances, while certainly not affirmed by the magisterium, remains open at present to legitimate discussion by Catholic theologians.”)

But we don’t live in a purely abstract universe. We live in a universe in which Fr. Harrison’s conclusion that torture might, just might, not be not intrinsically immoral (given an incredibly remote hypothetical situation) was instantly pressed into service by Catholic torture defenders to mean “John Paul II didn’t really mean torture is intrinsically and gravely immoral. In fact, torture is basically okay, as long as it’s done to bad guys to get information and not to be sadistic”. All over the Catholic blogosphere, Fr. Harrison’s remote speculative opinions (seconded by no magisterial authority of which I am aware) were instantly elevated by torture defenders to something like an official response to a dubium from the CDF. Result: While Rome was reiterating its opposition to the torture being inflicted in the real world and archbishops were pointing out obvious truths like the fact that the use of torture by Americans was “a more serious blow to the United States than Sept. 11” because “the blow was not inflicted by terrorists but by Americans against themselves", American conservative Catholics were, in percentages greater than the general population, continuing the project of trying to square the circle and declare, not remote hypothetical ticking time bombs, but the real tortures authorized by the Bush Administration to be compatible with Catholic teaching.

Given that, two things are worth noting: First, it could well be argued that, instead of asking “What do we do if we are an action hero in a ticking time bomb fantasy?” Fr. Harrison’s pastoral energies might have been more wisely expended asking, “Is it right or good for conservative Catholics to whip themselves into a frenzy of fear over remote hypothetical time bombs instead of attending to the very real fact that Caesar is, at this hour, engaging in acts that may very well be described as war crimes, as well as gravely and intrinsically evil? Why encourage a near occasion of grave sin by cultivating fantasies that tempt us to ignore the clear and obvious teaching of the Council and the last two Popes on the sinfulness of torture?”

The second thing worth noting about the popular distortion of Fr. Harrison’s conjectures is this:

Let us grant Fr. Harrison’s remote speculation that torture to obtain urgent life-saving information is okay (some Catholics dilate on this speculation to claim that it cannot be torture at all if it is inflicted against terrorists, and carefully replace the word with “enhanced interrogation”, but we will not quibble over that since Fr. Harrison himself uses the word “torture”). What then?

Following Fr. Harrison’s lead, the average Catholic torture defender grants that it is wrong to use torture to "punish the guilty" or “satisfy hatred” (since the Catechism actually spells that out). We are usually very carefully told by the average Catholic torture defender that the only thing legitimating torture is "obtaining life-saving information". Similarly, defenders of torture in secular conservative media constantly remind us that they are not motivated by some thirst for vengeance, but are simply arguing in favor of "doing what it takes" to get the information necessary from the extremists who want to kill us and disrupt the fabric of society. In the words of Charles Krauthammer:

Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking. Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it? Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

Krauthammer later modifies his scenario from torturing to save a million people to torturing to save one person. What he does not modify is his conviction that “if you have the slightest belief” that torture will get you the information to save lives, you have a moral duty to torture. And Catholic torture defenders nod enthusiastically at this while essentially ignoring or explaining away the words of the Council, John Paul II and the Catechism as irrelevant, wrong, quixotic, or foolish.

"I completely agree!" says the post-Christian efficiency expert in the Ministry of Safety of the not-too-far-off Security State, "Therefore, we will be rounding up the wives and children of all extremists suspected of possessing life-saving information and subjecting them to waterboarding, cold cells, and stress positions in front of the suspects. Bless my soul, even the most dangerous extremist sings like a canary when his little girl starts screaming and begging for mercy."

At this point, the Catholic torture defender--who has been laboring to assure us that waterboarding, cold cells, and stress positions are not torture, that the extreme demands of war mean we should look the other way even if they are, and that doing it "purely to obtain life-saving information" is certainly okay—is taken aback. He stammers, "But the wife and children are innocent!"

To which the post-Christian efficiency expert from the Ministry of Safety replies calmly, "So what? This isn't about punishing anybody, as you yourself say. It's about getting necessary life-saving information in the most efficient way possible. It’s a known fact that men who would otherwise die as martyrs will tell you everything they know to save those they love. Why do you think John Yoo said all those years ago that the President could, if he thought it best, authorize crushing a nine year old boy's testicles? And…” here the efficiency expert smiles a warm and reassuring smile, “we're not even talking about crushing testicles, of course. We aren’t barbarians. We’re just talking about a little harmless "dunking" as Vice President Cheney once called it. It's safe, legal, and rare.”

At this point, the post-Christian efficiency expert looks troubled. A cloud crosses his brow and small tears glisten in the corners of his eyes. He swallows hard and looks at the Catholic torture defender.

“You know,” he says, his voice quavering a bit, “it hurts me when you say ‘the wife and children are innocent’ in that tone of voice. Because what you are actually saying is that the real reason we employ our techniques on them is because we want to punish them or somehow satisfy our hatred of them. I'm wounded deeply by your suggestion! Haven't you been listening to yourself? You yourself just told me that enhanced interrogation to "punish the guilty" or “satisfy hatred” was wrong. So why are you suggesting I am immoral? I may not be a religious man, but at least I don’t sit in judgment of others! I don’t process enhanced interrogation patients through our facility to punish them, but to save lives—because, old-fashioned as I may sound, I love this country and I want to defend it! We at the Ministry of Safety are above such barbarous vengefulness as you suggest! We aren't interested in punishment here. We're just interested in getting the life-saving information we need as efficiently as possible. Indeed, I think that if you have the slightest belief that waterboarding the child of an extremist will get you the information to save a million people, not only is it permissible to do so, it is a moral duty. And thanks to your invaluable assistance in deploying Catholic moral theology in defense of just that, we can—by subjecting the children of extremists and other threats to the social order to enhanced interrogation for life-saving information! I’m not a religious person myself and I don’t believe everything you do (I’m pro-choice myself), but your point about only doing enhanced interrogation to obtain life-saving information is dead on. Hey! And you have to admit it works!”

“Oh! And by the way,” he continues, “I thought you should know that the newest directives from the Ministry of Safety have placed your brother and his family on our Extremist Watch List since he is on record as having criticized abortion providers, the Transportation Safety Administration, and several government leaders during our ongoing war with Eurasia. Given the history of endangerment to human life from domestic terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh, abortion clinic shooters like Eric Rudolph, and various other clear and present threats to national security, your brother and his wife and children are to report to the Ministry’s enhanced interrogation facility immediately and divulge the life-saving information we suspect they might have. I trust you will deliver the message—and mind that you and your family not be seen in the company of suspected fifth columnists in the future. Also, I trust that if our interrogations of your brother and his family yield unsatisfactory results, you and your family will divulge whatever other life-saving information you have on your brother, should we need to chat in the future."

At this point, the post-Christian efficiency expert from the Ministry of Safety turns to the Catholic defender of “enhanced interrogation” (like Zerah the Scribe turning to the stunned Judas Iscariot in Jesus of Nazareth), and says warmly, “You’ve been of invaluable assistance to us. Come and see me when all this is over. I’d like to stay and talk more, but I have an appointment with a patient in Room 101.” Then, almost as an afterthought, he hands the Catholic torture defender thirty coins stamped with an image of Big Brother and heads down the hall to where the children are screaming.

Copyright 2009 - Mark P. Shea