Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Why Waterboarding Is Torture

I've heard many Catholics claim that what we've done to terrorists really doesn't fall under the definition of torture, because torture is only torture if it causes serious and lasting physical harm to the person being hurt. Waterboarding, sleep deprivation, cold cells--sure, these things are uncomfortable and unpleasant--but they're not torture, because they don't cause any permanent damage.

Setting aside the reality that permanent mental or psychological damage may occur even with these forms of coercive tactics, I think it's important that we Catholics repudiate firmly and unequivocally the idea that torture is only torture if it causes significant and/or permanent injury to the person being tortured. It is possible to cause severe, even excruciating pain, both mental and physical, without leaving any marks, let alone any permanent injury; and the Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following:

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.91

So, what is waterboarding? It is an act of physical violence. The person being waterboarded is strapped to a board without his consent; he is helpless, and can't move. Often plastic is put over his face to increase the sensations that he is drowning and can't breathe. Water is then poured into his nose and mouth; his body reacts to this as if he really were drowning, even if in his mind he realizes that this is not the case--but few people are capable of remaining mentally calm when their bodies are straining at bonds trying to escape death by drowning. This physical reaction can, indeed, cause extreme pain, unconsciousness, and suffocation; it is possible to kill someone using this technique.

The intent of doing this is clearly to cause pain and terror. It is done to force someone's cooperation, to coerce their will, and to frighten them into compliance with the torturers' demands. It is not a legitimate act of restraint or punishment, such as might be said of incarceration and its trappings (e.g. bland food, tiny accommodations, boredom, restriction of movement, etc.). It is done wholly to cause suffering on the grounds that this suffering will then lead to the "good" results the torturer desires.

Waterboarding, like deliberate and extended sleep deprivation done for its own sake (as opposed to the sleep deprivation which can sometimes occur in a prison setting when unruly or noisy prisoners keep others from their rest) and cold cells in which the temperature is significantly reduced in order to cause the pains of hypothermia, treats the prisoner as an object. His human dignity is stripped from him because he is seen to be possessed of some useful information; whether that is true or not does not matter to those who are certain that he will be useful if he can only be broken. He may be guilty of acts of terror and deserve a trial and some just punishment, but the decision to torture him is made whether his guilt can be or has been proven; there is no such thing as "innocent until proven guilty or until we decide to waterboard you," and so torture is an offense against justice as well as against mercy.

I have heard some argue that since we train our military to withstand waterboarding, waterboarding must not be torture. However, this is a misunderstanding which fails to give the proper credit to the notion of free will and of trust; the military member understands that he has consented to the training by the fact of his military position, and he also trusts those training him not to injure or kill him in the course of the training. No such free will or trust is possible to the person being tortured, as he does not consent to the waterboard, cannot escape it, may even break his limbs trying desperately to get away from his restraints, and cannot trust the people pouring the water in his nose and mouth to stop choking and drowning him if he is too close to death.

The question, "Is waterboarding torture?" must be answered, "Yes--if the intent in strapping someone to a board and pouring water over him is to make him feel as if he is drowning, to cause him pain and terror, to coerce his will for some purpose, and to do so in a context in which free will and trust are wholly absent." Catholics must reject the idea that waterboarding isn't torture just because the victim is left in one piece and is usually left alive; that's not good enough to erase the clear intent of those who employ this tactic, when their intent is to do exactly what the Catechism calls "torture."


Rebecca said...

I csn't believe this isn't obvious to everyone.

My pulse started racing just reading your description of waterboarding. I can't imagine the terror of that. It is clearly not morally legitimate in any way.

Magister Christianus said...

My pulse started racing, too, but for a different reason. I didn't want to think about this issue. I didn't want to have to respond to it.

And yet I must.

Erin, you are right. I think it is difficult for many to acknowledge this because we want justice in the world, and there are times when it seems as if the only way we can obtain justice is through unjust means.

Yet if we say no to the unjust means of torture, then what about killing another human being in an effort to bring about a just situation? St. Cyprian, Epistle 1.6 says, "Homicidium quum admittunt singuli, crimen est, virtus vocatur publice geritur. Inpunitatem sceleribus acquirit non innocentiae ratio, sed saevitiae magnitudo." "When individuals take a human life it is called a crime. It is called a virtue when it is done publicly. It is not a reason of innocence that obtains impunity for crimes, but the magnitude of their savagery."

The discussion of torture leads us to discussions about taking a life in execution or on the battlefield. What acts of violence can be justified? When can they be justified? Where can they be justified?

How are we to square torture, even if it leads to information that results in a moral good, with Jesus' admonition to turn the other cheek and to do good to our enemies?

I hope there will be more comments on your post.

Rebecca said...

Magister Christianus, I want to hear Red's answer but I just have to pipe up again--it may be difficult to know just when the taking of a human life is just, but that doesn't make it a difficult thing to know that torture--deliberately causing a human being in a helpless position to be terrified or to suffer horribly--is never ever justified. This reminds me of DeKonink's note that because it may be difficult to tell whether a virus is alive or not, that doesn't mean it's difficult to tell whether a horse is alive, or whether there is life in general.

Anonymous said...

Didn't the CCC say torture was wrong in these circumstances: extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents or satisify hatred? None of these critera are met in subjecting a prisioner to extreme discomfort in order to learn vital, life saving information!
I think that the memos that have been declassified are evidence that those invovled in making these most difficult decisions agaonized over their moral responsibility. None of this was done with evil intent, rather with malice to none-to quote a wise man.

Magister Christianus said...

Rebecca...I agree, which is why I said that Erin was right. My point is that addressing the question of torture leads us to address other questions as well.

Red Cardigan said...

Magister Christianus, I think your questions are good ones, and would like to address them in a separate post (later today, if I can, or tomorrow if not).

Anonymous, I think that you're straining the definition. "Forc(ing) confessions" and "frighten(ing) opponents" would be two of the reasons to waterboard somebody even if the goal was to gain useful information--what is the information, if not a kind of confession? And isn't the purpose of using these techniques to frighten the opponent so much that he cooperates with us?

kkollwitz said...

"it may be difficult to know just when the taking of a human life is just, but that doesn't make it a difficult thing to know that torture--is never ever justified."

This is not at all clear to me. In a fallen world where killing, imprisonment, etc., is reasonably acceptable, I am not persuaded that there is never a justification for such procedures as waterboarding.

kkollwitz said...

"Jesus' admonition to turn the other cheek and to do good to our enemies?"

My short answer is we can our own cheek all we like, but we also have oblgations to our fellow man that may override that impulse.

Jeff Miller said...

The defense of water boarding not being torture has always seemed to me to be rather odd. It is not simulated drowning it is actual drowning, just controlled. If it isn't torture than I guess we should have the police use it.

There is also quite a bit of difference between a battlefield circumstance and torture. The right to self defense on the battlefield is obvious. Torture on the other hand assumes a right of corporate self-defense that might not even exist. The person being tortured might not even have the knowledge they are torturing him for.

Mari said...


Here's the thing I have trouble explaining: if torture is intrinsically evil, then why didn't the Church figure it out until this recently?

Like abortion and birth control, torture has certainly been around since long before the Church, yet her teaching and practice has not been ... nearly as clear. It seems even murkier than the question of slavery, because from the beginning, the Church has tried to free slaves, while historically, torture has actually been permitted / used.

I'm not disagreeing with you at all, btw, but looking for more on this angle.

God bless!

Anonymous said...

I think a big question here is what exactly the Catechism means by "confession." The way I read it, I was thinking in terms of an individual being forced to confess to a specific crime in order to convict them of said crime. Can the giving up of any information be properly considered a confession? I'm not sure.

I agree that waterboarding is torture (it seems to have been considered torture historically over the course of the last couple of centuries). But I also think that imprisonment can be just as psychologically damaging as being waterboarded. Add to that the fact that a person plotting to kill others has no moral right to keep information about the crime to him/herself, and in fact, has a moral duty to reveal information that can save the innocent; and I'm just not sure that I can see how all torture can be intrinsically evil. If we can imprison someone and sentence criminals to death, I don't see how torture can be wrong under all circumstances at all times.

I think Jeff Miller hits on a really important point though about the doubt as to whether the person being tortured really has the information being sought after.

What exactly, besides asking them directly, can morally be done with prisoners to try to get important (and potentially life-saving) information? Is any level of sleep deprivation, exposure to discomforts, etc., off limits? Have moral theologians explored this? I don't even know.

--Elizabeth B.

Baron Korf said...

"what is the information, if not a kind of confession?"

Be careful there. Often a confession is one of guilt. So if you are torturing someone to prove that they guilty you could be torturing an innocent person. If you are torturing a professed member of a terrorist organization, then you are dealing with someone guilty of those crimes and generally not shy about them either.

Getting operational, organizational and other such forms of information is a very different objective than a confession to prove the person's guilt.

I would think that it falls under the same concept as the death penalty. Something that is generally wrong but allowed to the State as a last resort to protect the innocent. I would assume the same condition would apply about being certain of the offender's guilt.