Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Answering some Torture Objections

I've noticed in online discussions of the torture issue that some conservative Catholics voice a few objections either to the notion that torture to gain information is intrinsically evil, or to the notion that waterboarding, cold cells, or sleep deprivation is torture.

I've decided to list a few composite objections here, and answer them one at a time:

Objection #1: The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that torture is intrinsically evil if done to "extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred..." but it doesn't say anything about torture being intrinsically evil if it's being done for the purpose of gathering intelligence. Therefore, we can conclude that it's fine to torture somebody for intelligence-gathering purposes.

Answer #1: The phrase "extract confessions" does not mean what it might seem at first glance to mean in English. The Latin words are " ad confessiones extorquendas," and while my Latin scholarship is not necessarily of the best, I recognize in the word "confessiones" the root verb "confiteor," which means "to confess , admit, acknowledge; to reveal (one's deeds, thoughts, or actions)." There is no automatic understanding in the Latin that we're talking about a "confession" as in a legally admissible statement of one's guilt designed to facilitate prosecution of one's crimes; it simply means "getting someone to admit to or reveal their deeds or thoughts or actions," and there's no limitation implied as to the purpose to which that information will be put.

So in the Latin the phrase"extract confessions" simply means to use force or threats to make someone tell you something they know--in other words, to obtain information from them by force. And the use of torture to extract this kind of confession is clearly forbidden by the Catechism.

Now, I realize that some may object that given my admitted Latin weakness I might be getting this wrong. But it agrees with what Pope Benedict XVI said when he said, "I reiterate that the prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstances." And it also agrees with what Cardinal Martino said back in 2005:

At a news conference about the peace message, Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican's pontifical council on peace and justice, was asked if torture could be a legitimate tool to gain information that might prevent terror attacks.

The prelate replied that there was no justification for using torture, which is the "humiliation of the human person, whoever he is."

"The church does not allow torture as a means to extract the truth," Martino said. Terror suspects "sometimes say what the torturers want to hear. ... There are other ways to obtain the truth."

Objection #2: Yes, torture is evil. But this particular method of enhanced interrogation (waterboarding, cold cells, sleep deprivation etc.) is not torture, because there's no blood, there's not usually any permanent damage, and nobody ends up missing an arm or leg. So unless you think terrorists should get the comfy chair and a nice salad bar, you're silly to say that these things are torture.

Answer #2:

I think there is a misunderstanding here, an equation of the word "torture" with the words "savage brutality." I don't think that you have to be brutal beyond a certain degree to be inflicting torture; you just have to intend to hurt somebody, and to hurt him enough to force him to do whatever you want him to.

Suppose you make a video showing a group of soldiers gang-raping the terror suspect's six-year-old daughter. The terrorist doesn't know that the video has been faked, and that nothing has happened to his daughter; he believes that she has been violated in this terrible way. Is it torture to put this video on a continuous loop and play it in his cell 24 hours a day, after telling him that the soldiers are going to do the same thing again tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on until he cooperates or she dies? You're not hurting him physically at all. There's no blood. He's not in pain--not physically, anyway. His child hasn't really been brutalized in the way the video shows, and the screams she appears to be screaming are just sound-effects. So it's not torture, right?

Anyone who thinks that this scenario doesn't describe torture isn't somebody I'd want around my own children. Such a thing could easily drive a man past the bounds of sanity, especially if he doesn't actually have the information his captors are demanding from him.

Torture is a matter of intent, and when the intent is to hurt someone either physically or psychologically as a way of forcing his cooperation in some manner then it doesn't matter if the act of torture is permanently scarring or just a really, really ugly thing to do to a fellow human being. Like my scenario, or drowning a man repeatedly, or putting him nearly naked into a prison cell that is 42 degrees Fahrenheit, or keeping him awake to the point where he begins to hallucinate and begins suffering serious mental symptoms.

Objection #3: Torture for sport or done by evil dictators is bad, sure. But we're the good guys. If we have to use these techniques it's because of our love for our fellow man. We're trying to protect the innocent. Torture, therefore, is legitimate self-defense, when we use it.

Answer #3: I was going to do a whole post on this one. The error here is the idea that there is such a thing as preemptive self-defense; not too hard a notion to accept if you also believe in preemptive war, but wrong nonetheless (as preemptive war is).

If I live in a neighborhood that's a bit on the iffy side, and one set of neighbors seems threatening and are probably criminals, do I have the right to defend myself preemptively by lighting up their house with a rocket-launcher, preferably when they're all home? Of course not; that would be murder, even if they had actually threatened me in some way. There are things I can do to avoid danger, such as calling the police to report the threat, buying a large dog or a shotgun, or even moving to a different neighborhood--but I can't "defend" myself by killing these guys, even if I'm morally certain they deserve it and will probably hurt me sooner or later.

And if "our guys" capture somebody they're morally certain is a terrorist, and they think that maybe he's got information about future terror plots that may or may not ever come to pass, does the right to self-defense mean they can waterboard him preemptively to force him to tell what he knows before anything comes of it?

No. They can't know with certainty that the person does know anything. They can't prove that torturing him is going to save a single innocent life. But even if it could--we cannot do evil to gain good. We can't commit a murder to save a single innocent life; no Catholic approves of the murders of abortionists, however much we hate their foul work. We can't commit a rape or other sexual sin to save a life, either. And we can't torture, not even if we believe that doing so will save an innocent life.

Is this a hard thing to accept? Yes, it is. We want to defend the innocent and punish the guilty, and those desires are not bad; they are good. But if we must do evil in order to accomplish either of these goals, then we should beware.

In much of the debate about torture, it seems that we arrive back at this same place: torture isn't evil when we do it, because we want to defend the innocent. Or, in other words, the ends justify the means. But that's a very, very bad principle on which to base one's notions of morality.


John Thayer Jensen said...

Another commentr - not quite an objection - raised could be phrased as:

Someone has kidnapped my wife and I know for certain that he knows where she is. And it is a 'ticking bomb' scenario - she will be killed tomorrow if I don't pay. I will use whatever means, including torture, to find out where she is and save her.I phrase it like that because I read something quite like that on your blog. Note that the person doesn't say it is all right to torture in such a circumstance, only that he would do it. I have complete sympathy, and cannot say that I would react differently.

Nevertheless, I think we must say, and say clearly, that not respecting the human person is the issue here - and it is always wrong, no matter how gut-wrenching the situation.

Which is not the same as saying that such a person should not be punished. I am not at all convinced that the only reasons for the death penalty are prevention and protection. I think that the argument for retributive justice has not been adequately addressed. The late Cardinal Dulles said the same. That we must never despair of the repentance of every person is often brought forward here, but it is a red herring. The question is whether God has authorised - under some circumstances, which I am not competent to discern - capital punishment. If He has, then it must not be that capital punishment is inconsistent with giving the person the opportunity to repent. It may, in fact, be the very circumstance that brings him to repentance. Ste Thérèse's 'first convert' is precisely a possible example of this.

But we may never intend to demean the person nor to despise the image of God in Him. And that is what torture is about.

Baron Korf said...

The CCC doesn't call Torture an intrinsic evil at all (CCC 2297), however it does state that it is "contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity"
"We can't commit a murder to save a single innocent life"

As good as that notion is, it is not Church teaching.

"Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor." CCC 2267

Red Cardigan said...

Baron Korf, the use of the death penalty is not murder. I didn't say it was impossible to kill someone for a just reason (e.g. self-defense, etc.). I said we could not *murder* someone, no matter how good the reason.

Red Cardigan said...

Oh, and the "intrinsic evil" term comes from Veritatis Splendor, which references Vatican II.

Baron Korf said...

Well in your post you say its from the CCC.
If we are to draw the death penalty and murder with a fine tipped pen, should the same not be done with interrogation and torture?

When someone is executed, we do not boil them in oil, feed them to wild animals, starve them to death, or have them hung, drawn and quartered (at least not anymore). Nonetheless they are killed.

Much the same as executions are well defined, so should harsh interrogations. What caught my attention is the comment from Cardinal Martino "There are other ways to obtain the truth." I really wonder what he is talking about?

"Torture is a matter of intent, and when the intent is to hurt someone either physically or psychologically as a way of forcing his cooperation in some manner" Seems to rule out just about everything except simply asking the suspect. Even the police go further than that when they are trying to get a confession or someone to roll on an accomplice.

I'm not trying to attack anyone, I'm just trying to come to the right conclusion. I've seen a lot here and elsewhere about what is wrong and why, but I see nothing about what is acceptable. These broad brush answers don't do much for me, especially when paired with fine-point teachings.

Anonymous said...

I am at work right now so do not have time to comment fully but would like to suggest that a discussion on this topic is not fully rounded out with some inclusion of Just War doctrine and consequently, ideas such as the law of double-effect. i.e "According to this law it is permissible to undertake an action which has two effects, one good and one evil, provided that certain conditions are met. Although these conditions can be formulated in different ways, they may be enumerated as follows: (1) the action itself must not be intrinsically evil; (2) the evil effect must not be an end in itself or a means to accomplishing the good effect (in other words, it must be a foreseen but undesired side-effect of the action); and (3) the evil effect must not outweigh the good effect. If these three conditions are met, the action may be taken in spite of the foreseen damage it will do." (Catholic Answers http://www.catholic.com)
No time to discuss further but as a military man for almost 25 years I have wrestled mightily with such questions. Back to work for now.

CrimsonCatholic said...

I sympathize with your concerns, but I think they are either misplaced or insufficiently supported in a couple of instances.

With regard to Answer #1 particularly, I think that it overstates the conclusion to say "Therefore, ... it's fine" with regard to torture. The argument as I understand it is simply that the categorical prohibition on torture for the purpose of obtaining confessions does not necessarily extend to all sorts of information. In that regard, I think the objectors have a point. While the semantic range of the Latin term could extend as far as you suggest, there is little basis for thinking that it should. First, the historical basis of that prohibition was the Roman law practice of inquisitorial torture, i.e., torture to determine guilt or innocence, so it would not presumptively be assumed to mean more. Second, later Magisterial guidelines on the use of torture, such as Ad Exstirpanda, allowed torture to be used to extract admissions from someone, but only after there was clear evidence that the person was guilty and there was some indication of hesitance suggesting that he might repent of his wrongdoing given sufficient incentive. Both facts suggest that the prohibition on torture to produce confession was not aimed at admissions generally, but specifically at admissions used to determine guilt or innocence, which would be considered unreliable for obvious reasons and thus immoral when used as a truth-seeking mechanism.

As to Holy Father Benedict XVI and Cardinal Martino, I would presume that both were referring to "torture" in the technical definition proposed in various Magisterial documents as an intrinsically evil species of act (namely, "physical or mental torments or attempts to coerce the spirit"), rather than every sort of infliction of pain that could fall under the label of "torture" in certain particular circumstances (such as a lesser degree of pain used to extract a confession).

With respect to Answer #2, I think you are right in saying that the objection based on physical harm is vapid, and I agree that the correct standard should be the intent "to hurt him enough to force him to do whatever you want him to." However, there is a long line of Tradition saying that even severe corporal punishment can be a aversive tool to train and reform, rather than force, the will. Therefore, I would qualify this with the statement that there can be some forms of pain infliction that are pretty gruesome but that count as aversive training of the will.

Answer #3 is dead on. People need to do better in justifying themselves than sheer rationalizations. In attacking those spurious rationales, I just want to make sure that we aren't beating straw men, and at least in Answer #1, it might be taken that way.

CrimsonCatholic said...

One other point that I consider interesting:
"We can't commit a murder to save a single innocent life; no Catholic approves of the murders of abortionists, however much we hate their foul work."

It's not clear to me that killing an abortionist posing an immediate threat to an unborn infant would not qualify as defense of others, no different than if the same doctor pulled a gun on a three-year-old. My understanding of the reasons not to do it are (1) there is a lesser means of preventing the harm than killing someone so that the force is disproportionate, (2) that it is unlikely to ultimately result in the infant's life being saved, and (3) the harm of doing an act that is definitely illegal (even if wrongly so) in this instance is likely to outweigh the benefits. The last consideration might seem craven, but given the Scriptural admonition to be "wise as serpents," I don't believe that we have a positive obligation to go out and confront the state on every instance of injustice, particularly when we have other opportunities to do good in our various vocations that do not bear the same risks.

Jeff Miller said...

"Torture is a matter of intent" Exactly, sin is in the will. Many times torture apologists bring up hazing for frats or the training some military personnel receive for survival training. The difference between someone in the military receiving training to resist interrogation and interrogating someone using the same thing is the intent.

Baron Korf said...

And what is that intent Jeff?

Dr. Bill said...

I would echo "anonymous"'s comment. He deserves particular respect as a military man.
Further: the issue of torture raises the larger issue, of what moral/ethical norms apply to the State as opposed to the individual. I do not raise this issue to defend torture, just to ask that we adopt a consistent national ethic.
For example: an individual may not decide to drive on the left side, whereas the State has the duty to determine this choice in the interest of public safety. An individual may not take up arms to enforce the law (in general), whereas the State has the duty to do so.
As for torture, or any form of interrogation under duress, clearly the individual has no right. But does the state have that right?

ApolloLegba said...

Ok. You say there is no such thing as preemptive self defense, but there is. The example you gave is kind of weak and unbalanced, and I think you realize that. Mixing a neighborhood scenario and a rocket launcher is a bit unbalanced. I also agree that you should take means to defend yourself. BUT! If you were on the street and you had pepper spray or something that would normally be carried on the street and one of your neighbors tells you to give him your wallet or he's going to stab you. He hasn't attacked you. He has only made threats. Are you going to wait for him to stab you before you spray him with pepper spray, stun him with a stun gun, or whatever? I wouldn't.

I'm not completely disagreeing with you. I just wanted to make a point that there is such a thing as preemptive self defense.

However, you can call a cat a dog all you want and it will still be a cat. If you attack someone unjustly and call it preemptive self defense...it will still be an unjust attack.