Friday, March 28, 2008

Defending the Indefensible

On his Crunchy Con blog today Rod Dreher posts on, and links to, this post by Joe Carter, which is an open letter to the Religious Right. Carter's post is worth reading in its entirety, especially his point #4:

Four -- I can't make excuses for us on this one anymore: Christians have to take a firm stand against torture. Yes, there is a debate about what exactly is meant by that term. Let's have that debate. Let's define the term in a way that consistent with our belief in human dignity. And then let's hold every politician in the country to that standard. Our silence on this issue has become embarrassing.

Yes, lets!!!

Sadly, many of the comments below Carter's excellent post address this point, and not in a positive way. The same old tiresome saws we've all become so familiar with from the commenters on Mark Shea's blog are all trotted out here as if they're original, blindingly intelligent, and intellectually unanswerable, and they include the following:

1. Christians are against torture, but waterboarding isn't torture. Only medieval things like racks and screws and hot irons and beatings are torture. Waterboarding, loud music, "stress positions," cold cells--those things aren't torture.

2. Christians are against torture most of the time, but if we *had* to use it (ticking time bomb nuclear holocaust children in danger where oh where is Superman when we really need him but no we're stuck with Jack Bauer) then the option should remain on the table. 'Cause we can trust our government not to abuse the privilege-- and it's not like they're torturing anybody we know.

3. Christians aren't against causing terrorists momentary discomfort. (Of all the euphemisms for torture I've seen, this one takes the cake.)

4. Christians can kill people (soldiers, police, etc.) so why can't we torture people?

5. Waterboarding, even if it's technically torture, is being used for a good purpose (information gathering) instead of a bad one (cruelty for its own sake).

I could go on, but we've heard this tune before, and I'm still not dancing.

So instead, I'd like to take each of the points I've listed above and unpack them a little.

1. Argument from modernity: We can't be doing anything that's actually torture, because torture was one of those medieval dark ages pre-Enlightenment kinds of activities. The Iron Maiden, the rack, the shackles, the thumbscrew, those were instruments of torture. What we're doing is really science, the science of interrogation. See, we follow the scientific method and everything: Hypothesis: Information will be extracted more quickly from the recalcitrant if we simulate the pains of drowning such that he believes he really will drown. Equipment required: slanted board, plastic to cover the face, restraints to secure the hands and feet to the board and induce a sense of helplessness, copious amounts of frigid water. Process: etc.

The notion here is that torture is just horribly old-fashioned, and that whatever we moderns have gotten up to, it certainly isn't anything as silly and quaint as torture.

2. Argument from rarity: We're almost never, ever, ever going to have to torture somebody--even if you think the stuff we're doing counts as torture in the first place (see #1). But just in case, if there's the teensiest tinsiest reason why we might have to get really, really tough with somebody, maybe take out an eye or a finger or two--well, we don't want to make that impossible for Our Guys, right? Cause we can trust them to do the right thing.

The notion here is that Our Guys actually want to torture people, but never ever will unless it's legal, because hey, they wouldn't want to break the law. Just someone's legs.

3. Argument from euphemism. Torture is just momentary discomfort. Right. And murder is momentary deprivation of physical life, and theft is momentary adjustment of property, and rape is--well, we're back to momentary discomfort, aren't we?

The notion here is that if we get rid of the ugly word "torture" the ugliness of the reality will go away too. It hasn't worked in the case of "reproductive rights," so why on earth does anyone think it will work for "momentary discomfort?"

4. Argument of the apples = oranges variety. If Christians can kill in self-defense, why can't Christians torture in self-defense?

The notion here is that since killing is worse than torture, and Christians can sometimes kill, then Christians must be able sometimes to torture. However, killing is not morally equivalent to torture--murder is. Killing in self defense is not murder, just like inadvertently wrenching the shoulder of a suspect when you are arresting him isn't torture. Christians can never murder, Christians can never torture, because Christians can never do that which is intrinsically evil.

5. Argument from double effect: We don't want to hurt people for the sake of hurting them. What we want is information, so if we have to hurt them to get it, then that's okay.

The notion here is a pretty typical misunderstanding of the principle of double effect. The first criteria in this principle is that the act itself that we're talking about must be morally good or morally neutral; it may then have more than one effect, at least one of which is good. Interrogating a prisoner in the conventional sense would be a morally good or morally neutral (depending on the circumstances) act; but torture is always intrinsically evil and thus can never be the action under discussion in a double effect scenario.

Put in its plainest terms, there is never a moral justification for doing that which is morally evil. It is never possible to justify torture, which is always intrinsically evil. Christians who try to defend acts of torture must come to realize that they are trying to defend the indefensible.


Anonymous said...

A few things come to mind when I hear conservatives screaming for more torture:

1) After WWII, japanese soldiers were tried and executed by the U.S. government for waterboarding U.S. prisoners.

2) In Nazi Germany, after using torture unsuccessfully, they realized they could get more information from their enemies by befriending them on the field. Once the enemies let their guard down, they were more than willing to share very useful information, than what they were getting through torture.

matthew archbold said...

I'm with you. But mainly on the grounds that I don't trust the government at all.
However, I struggle with this when I personalize it. If someone had my kids and had them in hiding...
you know the scenario.
I struggle with that. You?

Red Cardigan said...

Matthew, I understand, but I take comfort in having heard from police/military people just how ineffective torture is likely to be in that situation. The kidnapper is not likely to tell us the truth if we torture him, in other words.

Movies, TV, etc., present a different view, and one that's emotionally satisfying sometimes, but it's not based on reality from what I hear.

freddy said...

I think sometimes the sloppy pro-torture thinking is what you get when you confuse Christian with Conservative. Liberals do it, too. It's frustrating and even scary to have to decide that otherwise decent leaders can be so gut-wrenchingly *wrong*! It's easier to find brain-twisting ways in which they can be right and remain our friends, our leaders, the Guys We Picked.

Matthew: I understand your difficulty! Sometimes watching a cathartic action-adventure movie, I'll remark to my husband that the hero's being to nice. "I'd go after that guy with my teeth!" I'll yell.
But the reality is that if I'm a Christian, I have to act like one. That's when the radical nature of Christianity comes into play -- when you can look some utter scumbag who would kidnap your children in the eyes and say, "You are my brother and so I will treat you."

freddy said...

"too nice" not to nice. Yuk! Need caffeine!

StBasil said...

Excellent post, Red. "Christians who try to defend acts of torture must come to realize that they are trying to defend the indefensible." Right on.

Pax Christi tecum.

Marisa said...

Excellent Red! Really excellent!