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.

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