Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Parsing the Catechism on torture

As nearly everybody who has taken part in this discussion knows, the Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses torture here:
2297 Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. 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. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.
There has been a lot of parsing of the Catechism’s definition by those people who think that we should be able to use physical and moral violence against our enemies, and are trying to come up with a justification for that.  One of the most commonly used justifications is this one: “The Catechism never says we can’t use ‘enhanced interrogation’ methods to get important information in a ticking-time-bomb or similar scenario, so that must be allowed, right?  It must not count as torture.”

The people who make this particular rationalization fall into two basic errors.  The first error is to assume that this thing called “enhanced interrogation,” whatever it might be, is not the same thing as torture, whatever that may be (and we probably can’t really figure it out, so it doesn’t matter anyway).

The second error is to assume that “obtain information from a prisoner” is a separate category from the things listed in the Catechism’s definition.

Taking the first error, the question we might ask the defender of “enhanced interrogation” is this: by what means do you “enhance” the interrogation?  Do you ask more questions?  Do you ask questions for a longer period of time than is customary?  Are you shining a bright but non-painful light in the prisoner’s face to make it harder (theoretically, anyway) for him to lie to you?

If the person defending “enhanced interrogation” is being honest, sooner or later he will have to admit that what he means by “enhanced” is the infliction of some sort of pain or suffering.  But you cannot directly and intentionally inflict pain and suffering without running afoul of the Catechism’s prohibition against physical or moral violence.  And no method under discussion, including waterboarding and sleep deprivation, fails to be an act of physical or moral violence (or, in some cases, both).

Now, I know that some defenders of “enhanced interrogation” like to pretend that the word “extreme” comes in the Catechism’s definition before “physical or moral violence.”  They argue that some degree of physical or moral violence must be permissible when you are dealing with prisoners, and that thus the Catechism must mean to bar extreme acts of this kind.  Prisoners, after all, sometimes have to be put into handcuffs; sometimes they refuse to comply with legitimate orders and have to be restrained, even forcibly, and so on--so “enhanced interrogation” can’t be wrong.

The problem here is that while prisoners do indeed undergo various things as a result of their incarceration, those things are not direct and intentional, but a legitimate response to various circumstances that can arise in a prison setting.  A prisoner being moved from one prison to another may have to be handcuffed, and he may even be kept awake longer than usual in the process, but there is no direct intent to harm him, nor is harming him seen as a means to some ulterior purpose.  If he should lash out and try to escape, and physical force must be used to subdue him, that force and any unintended harm it may cause will end as soon as the prisoner is once again secure.  The difference between these things, and drowning a man who is handcuffed and strapped to a board, unable to move and completely in your power, should be evident.

As to the second error, the argument goes like this: “Nowhere in the Catechism does it say that you can’t use physical or moral violence to make someone give up information he is unlawfully withholding from you.  If you have a terrorist in your power, and he knows where the Ticking Time Bomb is and/or how to disable it, you have the right to hurt him in order to make him tell you what he knows.”

But the Catechism does say that you can’t use torture to extract confessions.  So let’s look at this hypothetical situation:

Good Guys: Tell us where the TTB is.
Suspected Terrorist: I don’t know.  I’m not a terrorist.
Good Guys: Tell us where the TTB is.
Suspected Terrorist: I don’t know!
Good guys: Tell us where the TTB is!  Or we’ll kill you this time!
Suspected Terrorist: All right, all right!  It was at Location X last I heard.  But they know I’ve been captured.  They’ve probably moved it by now...

Suppose the Good Guys now rush to the location and do not find any Ticking Time Bomb.  What does that mean?  Either:

A: The suspected terrorist lied under torture,
B: The suspected terrorist did not lie, but the TTB has been moved, or
C: The suspected terrorist is innocent and not even a terrorist at all.

Now--even if the Good Guys do find a TTB at the location, there are possibilities:

D: The suspected terrorist is a terrorist and told the truth.
E: The suspected terrorist is not a terrorist but overheard others talking about the TTB.
F: The suspected terrorist is totally innocent and his desperate lie by an amazing coincidence turned out to be the actual location of the TTB.

Even granting that “F” is highly unlikely, it is not impossible--and no matter what the outcome actually is, whether it is A, B, C, D, E or F, the effect of the torture has been to extract a confession, an admission of guilty knowledge, which the Catechism is quite clear you may not morally do!

So, no, even in a Ticking Time Bomb scenario you are not allowed to inflict physical or moral violence on a prisoner in your power to make him talk, because anything he says will be a confession, and quite possibly a false one (whether he is guilty or not).  The Catechism says you can’t do this, that this is, in fact, an immoral act of torture.

Starting from the principle that torture is intrinsically evil and that you may not directly and intentionally use physical or moral violence to inflict pain and suffering on prisoners regardless of what they are suspected of doing is the only way to safeguard the intrinsic human dignity not only of prisoners but of all of us.  There is no loophole to allow waterboarding or sleep deprivation or any other unjust act.  The sooner Catholics stop parsing the Catechism looking for such loopholes and accept the plain meaning of the words, the better it will be for us all.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Torture, First Things, and that honorary degree

Not long ago, a hapless young man called me from my alma mater, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

I say “hapless,” because I had been dodging their telemarketing calls.  But as the calls increased in frequency, I realized that I would have to answer one sooner or later, because I once worked in the telemarketing office at Franciscan myself--so this hapless young man was the one on the other end when I at last picked up the phone.

I hated that job.  As I explained to the young man on the other end of the phone, telemarketing at Franciscan was the one job that made me think going back to cleaning restrooms for work/study would be preferable.  At least the restroom job was only physically dirty--telling cloistered nuns that their five dollars a year in spending money would be put to good use to help students, when in fact students like me who relied on heavy financial aid were becoming rarer and rarer while the nuns' spending money would go to help build the fancy new (back then) athletic center was dirtying my soul.  I got out as soon as a new job opened up, and I never looked back.

I also explained to the young man on the phone the other night that as a Catholic homeschooling family living on one income there was no way our own daughters could afford the $32,000 a year FUS now charges for students, and I’ve personally come to see it as morally problematic to let young people saddle themselves with fifty to a hundred thousand dollars in debt for a college education, even if that education is well-grounded in Catholic morality--so, no, I wouldn’t be contributing money that I knew perfectly well would go for new buildings or an expansion of the Austria program (I never went to Austria, myself) instead of helping scholarship kids.  What I didn’t tell him was that I no longer believe that an education at Franciscan University of Steubenville really grounds its graduates in Catholic morality.

I myself struggled with the Church’s teaching against torture when the issue first came up.  Gradually, thanks to the patience of people smarter and better educated than I was, I came to see that, no, we’re not allowed to hurt people who are completely in our power no matter how much we might justify it or wish to do so.  One would think that a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, a college that prides itself on its pro-life ethic, would not find it hard to understand that drowning people or depriving them of sleep to the point of hallucinations or otherwise harming them is morally evil.  But in casual conversations with fellow Catholic FUS grads, I found more than a few of of them willing to condone torture, to rationalize it, to insist that “pouring water on someone’s face” isn’t torture--and, hey, even if it is, terrorists are Bad Guys so they deserve it.  Against this backdrop, it wasn’t all that surprising--though quite horrifying--to realize my alma mater had awarded an apparently unrepentant torture apologist--ex-CIA director Michael Hayden--an honorary degree.

This was disheartening enough.  But J.D. Flynn’s recent piece in First Things (which I attempted to comment on, but my comment was apparently rejected) (UPDATE: my comment is there; I apologize for missing its approval) is even more so.  Flynn dances all around the issue of torture and comes up with the “heroic” conclusion that really, if Franciscan University were to revoke Michael Hayden’s honorary degree, it would somehow lose an opportunity for heroic witness to the value of human life:
Nevertheless, I’m not yet inclined to sign the petition asking that Mr. Hayden’s honorary degree be rescinded. I don’t know, as some have said, that the University should “repent” or denounce Hayden. By nature, I am uncomfortable with the idea of a post-facto denunciation. But Mr. Hayden is of little help to those who, like me, are inclined to counsel prudence. He disputes certain elements of the report, but his basic line of defense seems to be that barbarous acts were more effective than the Senate report admits. The utility of immorality is really not the question. The matter of the degree is a prudential judgment for the administration, and I trust that, if need be, the university will disavow his behavior with clarity. Disavowal, though, is probably the least important thing Franciscan University can do right now.
My admiration for Franciscan University comes down to her willingness to live the vocation of a prophetic witness. When it was commonly misunderstood, she witnessed to the power of the charismatic renewal. When it was openly mocked, the university witnessed to the authority and wisdom of Ex corde ecclesiae. And for more than forty years, she has witnessed to the dignity of every human life, created in the image of God. [...]
Even without commenting on the Senate report, Franciscan University might immediately offer a strong statement affirming real Catholic principles of just war, human dignity, and universal human rights. In the spirit of St. Francis, Fr. Scanlan, and Pope St. John Paul II, she could condemn the consequentialist practice of torture, by any administration or agency, and propose something far greater.
So: it wouldn’t be a good idea to rescind Mr. Hayden’s degree, and FUS doesn’t need to bother with disavowing his behavior, but in keeping with FUS’s tradition of pro-life witness, the university should issue a statement.  On just war, human dignity and torture.  But not mentioning the Senate report, or anything like that, for reasons which Mr. Flynn doesn’t mention, but which probably have to do with the potential of making the University’s Republican-voting donors uncomfortable.

Issuing such a statement would, in Mr. Flynn’s words, be “prophetic witness” in keeping with the University’s proud pro-life traditions.

Well, okay, then.

I’m not denigrating Franciscan University’s proud pro-life traditions.  My alma mater’s witness to the sanctity of human life and the evils of abortion are good things, and things that the University can justly be proud of.  But such a weak, milquetoast response on the evil of torture is not anything prophetic or much of a witness at all.  Mr. Flynn admits that he himself isn’t really sure where the lines should be drawn regarding torture, though I give him credit for accepting that waterboarding is torture.  The problem is that if you’re still trying to draw lines around torture, you are not that different from the person who thinks first-trimester abortions are okay--such a person is asking, “But when is it okay for me directly and intentionally to get rid of the contents of the womb?” and the torture-line-drawing person is asking, “But when is it okay for me directly and intentionally to harm the prisoner who is wholly in my power?” The answer to both questions is quite simple: Never.

It’s not all that different from my boss in the telemarketing department telling us work/study students who were doing telemarketing to stress whatever the person on the other end of the phone wanted to hear: if they want to believe that their money will go for scholarships, why, what’s the harm in that, especially when as far as you know some few dollars of it might actually go there?  But when you are (as I was, at the time) aware that the whole goal of the telemarketing department in our day was to raise money to build the kind of gym facility that the wealthy parents simply expected their kids to have access to--well, pretty soon your hopeful optimism about scholarships starts to sound like lying.  Which is another intrinsic evil, and one no Catholic university should condone, let alone encourage.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


Following our usual Gaudete Sunday tradition, we decorated and put up the trees today (yes, trees; the girls each have a little one in their rooms).  By “we,” I mean my awesome daughters, who had the trees up and ready for decoration while Thad and I did some Christmas shopping this afternoon.

Hatchick grabbed this awesome shot of Smidge admiring the shiny new scratching post in the living room:

Happy Gaudete Sunday! :)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

I am against torture. And drone strikes. And abortion, too.

I keep seeing various conservative Catholics out there who are defending torture who are insisting that the release of the information about the CIA’s torture practices is just political, that those of us who insist that torture is intrinsically evil didn’t care about Obama’s drone strikes, and that we’re probably not all that pro-life, either.

I invite anybody who thinks I’m not pro-life to do a blog search under the word “abortion.”  Your results list will be huge, so I’ll be patient.

Now, as to drone strikes: I’ve objected to those, too:


and here

and here, for example.

Let me just reiterate: I think that most, if not all, drone strikes fail to abide to the principles of Just War theory, in particular the ideas of proportionate means and no disproportionate civilian casualties.  While it might be possible to support a limited use of drones on the battlefield against legitimate military targets, I’m not convinced that in the real world a moral use for these machines of death is possible.

In truth, many of the means of modern warfare are problematic for the serious Catholic.  This may be why, in part, several of the most recent popes have spoken out so strongly against so many wars.  When the evils left in the wake of a modern war are graver than the injustices the war sought to correct in the first place, it behooves all of us to consider carefully not only whether a particular war is just, but whether it is justly conducted and justly resolved as well--and if there is no confidence that it may be justly conducted or justly and equitably resolved, there are grave questions about whether the war itself is just in total.

Having said that, the thing that concerns me more here is the knee-jerk partisanship (of which I was at one time as guilty as anybody) which seeks to defend, excuse, or rationalize torture because Our Guys did it, while condemning drone warfare because Their Evil Guy is responsible. The danger here is that if one of Our Guys is the next president and makes use of both torture and drone strikes in the prosecution of wars that do not meet the Just War criteria some may find themselves arguing in favor of drone strike, too--so long as Our Guy is the one ordering them.

That this is wrong, and dangerously so from a moral perspective, ought to be clear.  The morality of actions like torture and indiscriminate civilian casualties does not depend on whether there is an “R” or a “D” after the name of the president.  Catholics should know better than this, and we should hold “Our Guys” even more accountable when they commit, support, or justify acts that are, in clear Catholic teaching, intrinsically evil.

Abortion, after all, is just as evil when Republicans support it.  It shouldn’t strain the intellect of Catholic thinkers too much to realize that the same thing is true of torture and drone strikes, too.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Torture and Bishop Fulton Sheen

Have you read about the torture report?  Here’s a look:

The report is reigniting the partisan divide over combating terrorism that dominated Washington a decade ago. Democrats argue the tactics conflict with American values while leading members of the Bush administration insist they were vital to preventing another attack.
It contains grisly details of detainees held in secret overseas facilities being subjected to near drowning, or waterboarding, driven to delirium by days of sleep deprivation, threatened with mock executions and threats that their relatives would be sexually abused.
The central claim of the report is that the controversial CIA methods did not produce information necessary to save lives that was not already available from other means. That is important because supporters of the program have always said that it was vital to obtaining actionable intelligence from detainees that could not be extracted through conventional interrogations. [...]
"In many cases, the most aggressive techniques were used immediately, in combination and nonstop," the report says. "Sleep deprivation involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in painful stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads.”
In one facility, a detainee was said to have died of hypothermia after being held "partially nude" and chained to a concrete floor, while at other times, naked prisoners were hooded and dragged up and down corridors while being slapped and punched.
Multiple CIA detainees subjected to the techniques suffered from hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia and tried to mutilate themselves, the report says.

There are more gruesome details reported here, including details about sexual assaults, rectal feeding, threats to torture or kill family members of those imprisoned, ice water baths and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques.  And reportedly twenty-six of those treated this way were not guilty of anything, including two men who had been CIA sources before being arrested and tortured.

Some Catholics will read the report, shake their heads, and say that all of this was perfectly justified and morally right in the War on Terror.  They are wrong.  Torture is intrinsically evil, and this is just the latest in a series of proofs that this is so.

In Life is Worth Living: First and Second Series, Bishop Fulton Sheen described a Communist torture cell this way:  
The two ledges at the sides suggest beds for rest, but the slanting position makes it impossible for anyone to rest on them...The bricks fastened to the floor make it impossible for a person to sit, or even stand at ease...The Communists found after they used these torture chambers that they could drive people mad by making them stand for days and nights before a blazing light.  (Fulton Sheen, Life is Worth Living: First and Second Series, Garden City Books, 1955, p. 276)

Bishop Sheen then describes torture by the Chinese Communists of that day:
...the principle is to break down the mind through fatigue...When arrested, he (the prisoner) is kept standing before a blazing light for seventy hours or more.  Then he is told he may sleep.  The prisoner sleeps for fifteen minutes, then is kept awake for eight hours; is told to sleep again, but is awakened after six hours.  This goes on for months...(Fulton Sheen, Life is Worth Living: First and Second Series, Garden City Books, 1955, p. 276-277)
Bishop Sheen was warning the people of his day about the evils that people in Communist regimes had accepted as necessary for public safety and state security.  I wonder what he would say if he knew that some of the people who make the case for sleep deprivation and other forms of torture today are not only Americans, but Catholic Americans?  I have a feeling he would be shocked and appalled.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Camel on the Mantle

The other day I wrote this on Facebook.  People seemed to like it, so I’m sharing it here too:
Catholic mommy friends with young kids: I have a Catholic alternative to Elf on a Shelf (TM) (who appears to be creepy and sadistic). It’s totally free: Camel on the Mantle.

Get a small camel statue (from your nativity set, or from an old nativity set you’re not using, or print off a free camel coloring page and glue that sucker onto some cardboard or something). Put him (or her, if you like) on your mantel or some other protrusion (bookshelves will work).

Tell your kids the camel is journeying to your nativity set for Christmas, and will be helped by their good deeds and acts of kindness. Then move him a bit each night in the general direction of your nativity set.

He doesn’t need to flit all over your house. He certainly doesn’t make messes. Sometimes he might help the Laundry Fairy fold the laundry in the living room, or the Dishwasher Fairy move the dishes out of the sink, but it totally depends on whether the Fairy in question is in the mood for a camel’s help.

If the camel makes it to the Nativity set by Christmas: Great! If he doesn’t make it until Epiphany: still great! If he shows up sometime around Candlemas: you’re still good! And if you’re some sort of super-uber mommy type, you can have the camel leave a little treat of cookies or candy or something when he reaches the Nativity set.

This idea was inspired by our youngest daughter and her love of camels. She has one presently leading a procession of teapots in our living room:


A couple of things:

First, no, this idea isn’t terribly original.  The Wisemen Adventures predate the Camel idea by a long time, and I recall my sister-in-law’s family having some fun with that!  But I think these various Catholic takes on the Elf on the Shelf (TM) should be tailored to whatever works for your family.  Advent can be a stressful enough time without having to follow the rules of a cleverly-marketed game in such a way that your children’s elf’s antics will cause tears of envy at school. Who needs that?

So whether you do something with a camel or some wise men or the angel from the Nativity set or some totally different thing that works for your family--the important part is the “works for your family” part.  We had to give up on our old tradition of slowly moving the pieces of the Nativity set towards the stable after we got cats, for instance.  Nobody wanted to be looking for the Blessed Mother under the couch on Christmas Eve (and “under the couch” would be one of the good places...)

Second, the question arose on Facebook: how does the camel know if you’ve been good?  Clearly this isn’t some sort of creepy spy camel.  One good suggestion was that the children’s guardian angels might keep the camel informed.  I think young children would be satisfied with “Wise camels just know...”  One of my nephews, though, thinks he should report to the camel, and I think a “nightly camel report” could be really cute!  The kids could share at the dinner table or before evening prayers what good deeds they’ve done that day.

Third: if your family already does “Elf on the Shelf” (TM) and loves it and enjoys it, there’s no need at all to go with a Catholic substitute, because all of these things are extras and add-ons to help the littlest ones participate in the joyful and prayerful anticipation through Advent that points to Christmas.  While I tend to sympathize with those people who find “Elf” difficult and a little overwhelming (honestly, I was sort of glad that my girls were already too old for it when this trend really took off), I know that not all Catholic moms are like me--some of you don’t break out in hives at the sight of craft materials, for one thing, and some of you are super-organized, for another, so for some of you “Elf” is fun and enjoyable, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

UPDATE: One of my girls reminded me that we had sort of stopped the Nativity set moving before we got the cats, but when we talked about going back to it we looked at the cats and thought--no. Because our cats really, really like Bookgirl’s Nativity set. They keep stealing the sheep.  :)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Marsala: we’re Republican, but not too Republican...

If you’re a relatively new reader of this blog, you may have missed a silly annual feature I did for several years: the Pantone Color of the Year post.

I stopped doing it in December, 2011 (which would have been the 2012 color) because some comment box ridiculousness led to me questioning whether I should even keep blogging, and I hadn’t written the Pantone post yet that year.  By the time I resumed blogging the Pantone post would have been outdated, and somehow I never got around to doing it in 2012 or 2013 either.

But this year it seems like a good idea to go back to this lighthearted and fun--very tongue-in-cheek, by the way--“analysis” of what Pantone’s color pick means for us this year.

This year’s pick is Marsala, which the Pantone site describes this way:
Much like the fortified wine that gives Marsala its name, this tasteful hue embodies the satisfying richness of a fulfilling meal while its grounding red-brown roots emanate a sophisticated, natural earthiness. This hearty, yet stylish tone is universally appealing and translates easily to fashion, beauty, industrial design, home furnishings and interiors.
Of course, when I see this particular shade of reddish-brown or brownish-red, it says something else to me.  It says: “We’re Republican--but not too Republican.”

Oh, sure, for the first time in quite a while we’re going to have a Republican-controlled Congress. But how Republican are they?  These aren’t, by and large, the fiery-red patriots of the Tea Party who tried to make something out of conservatism (whether what they tried to make of it was actual conservatism is a conversation for another day); these are the moderate Republicans, the country-club set, the “Chicken Marsala on Every Plate” Republicans.

These are the Republicans who voted for Obamacare so they could, along with Princess Nancy, find out what was in it--and then they found out it was expensive, especially for their CEO pals and cronies (GOP’s unofficial motto: we put the “crony” in “crony capitalism...”).  These are the Republicans who are quite willing to be outraged about amnesty so long as they don’t have to do anything to stop the floods of cheap undocumented labor from coming into our country, because some of these same CEO cronies expect to be able to indulge in a little domestic offshoring from time to time to enrich the bottom line.  These are the Republicans who get nearly as much campaign cash from wealthy liberals as they do from wealthy conservatives--they’re completely inclusive when it comes to the color green!

But Marsala isn’t just a good color to wave as a banner over the incoming 114th Congress.  It’s also a good symbol of the “jobless recovery” and the economy so vibrant that Sears is planning to close double the number of stores it originally planned to shutter, while the retail sector holds its collective breath and hopes that the dismal Christmas opening sales won’t set a trend for the whole season.  When you’ve been told that the economy is in great shape and that the country is doing really well, it’s sort of a wake-up call to realize that people who are unemployed or underemployed while the basic costs of living have gone up are people who don’t have much to spend on Christmas gifts.

So maybe Marsala could be called “Black Friday Red,” since Black Friday isn’t putting as many companies in the black, economically, as it used to.  As a nice, dim red, Marsala shows that companies aren’t totally in the red--but they’re not in the black, or in the clear, either.

As if Marsala weren’t already a fine choice what with “Not too Republican Red” and “Jobless Recovery Red,” there’s a third possible significance (however unintentional) to this year’s Pantone choice: China has now officially passed America as the number one economy in the world.  Yes, America is now number two.  And maybe it’s just me, but I think Marsala is awfully close to being the color used in this particular logo.  We can call it “Bank of China Red,” if you’d like.