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."These are good questions, and I'd like to discuss them here.
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?
To begin with, the Catechism of the Catholic Church's section on the fifth commandment discusses in detail both the issue of self-defense, and the state's duty to preserve the common good. While the Catechism points out that the use of the death penalty should be rare and should be limited to those times when "...this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor...." (CCC 2267), many Catholics will find themselves disagreeing, not about the Church's teachings on the death penalty, but on merely prudential matters: e.g., is this particular case or this particular death sentence just or not. In terms of self-defence, things are more clear-cut: an agressor does not have the right to harm or kill us, and we have the right to defend ourselves from his aggression even when this means taking his life (which should not be done if lesser means of defense will suffice).
In talking about these matters, though, I think it is necessary to go beyond the merely legal (that is, what the Church allows) and toward the deeper Christian principles at work. We are to love our enemies, and pray for our persecutors; this has never been an easy task, but it has never been abrogated, and there are no exceptions to the rule.
One of the works of mercy, for instance, is to visit the imprisoned; Jesus did not say "...except for those who might be guilty, or who attacked our nation, or who are terrorists," and so on. The Christian is challenged to see the image of God, the presence of Christ, in the most terrible of criminals, and to recognize that no one ever born has been completely beyond the mercy of God while he yet lived. While not every person is called to enter into prison ministry, we are all supposed to remember that the man or woman behind bars is still our brother or sister, and to pray for them and refuse to participate in speech or conversation that dehumanizes them or makes their crimes and guilt an excuse to treat them as mere animals in a cage.
The reason that torture is different from lawful incarceration and punishment is precisely because the victim is being treated as less than fully human. It is "okay" to simulate drowning, chain him up in a cell that is being kept at 38 degrees Fahrenheit, threaten to kill his family in front of him, and otherwise engage in behaviors designed to cause him pain and fear because he's not a real person, not someone like us; he's just a filthy terrorist, or a dirty criminal, or a member of a racial group we want to exterminate...it doesn't take long to get to that point.
None of this is to minimize the very real damage terrorists have done and continue to do. But lawful punishment for crime does not include inflicting pain and terror on those in our custody who have not even stood trial for what they might or might not have done. And lawful punishment is restricted to the good act of removing from society those who have harmed the social order; it is not lawful to reduce the person in custody to the status of a non-person and to treat him as we would never wish any person we cared about to be treated.
Some object here by saying, "Well, I wouldn't want my spouse or my child locked up in prison, either." That is true as a general principle. But suppose someone we loved was actually guilty of an act of terror--would we still insist they ought not be locked up? But on the other hand, would we still insist it was okay to subject them to waterboarding, cold cells, sleep deprivation, strappado, or other methods of "enhanced interrogation" if it were possible they knew about other terrorist plots? Could we even imagine accepting it as the legitimate role of any authority to treat someone we loved in this way?
We must love our enemies. We must love our neighbor as ourselves. And this is no less true when our enemy and neighbor is someone who hates us and would like to see our country attacked, and our people die in great number. We can't address that hatred with more hatred, with acts that remove from this person his very personhood. Not only does this violate the law of God, but it also creates an even greater likelihood that our enemy will grow to hate us even more than he already does.