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Regardless of circumstances or results, torture can never be justified

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 10, 2014

Some moral questions are very complicated. Others are very straightforward. In some cases, the morality of an act depends entirely on the circumstances. But some acts can never be justified, regardless of the circumstances.

The Catholic Church teaches quite clearly that some acts are intrinsically wrong. Deliberate abortion, for example, is always wrong. And so is torture.

This week’s revelations about the “enhanced interrogation” techniques used by representatives of the US government in the war on terror should trouble the conscience of every American. Some of the measures used in questioning captives were brutal and degrading. How could they possibly be justified?

(We could also argue about whether lawmakers who were fully briefed on these interrogation tactics a decade ago are in a strong position to criticize them now. And we could argue whether it is irresponsible to issue a public report on these unsavory tactics—likely inflaming passions against the US and endangering Americans serving abroad-- rather than quietly punishing the culprits. But those are debates for another day.)

In light of this week’s revelations, the burden of proof is on those who contend that agents of the US government did not use torture. The world at large believes that they did. We Americans cannot dismiss that belief lightly.

We can, if we choose, blame the media for sensationalizing the report, and blame the politicians for exploiting the story. But if in fact our government’s policies were gravely immoral, then we bear some degree of responsibility. To preserve our integrity (not to mention our souls), we must face that question directly.

Were American government agents authorized to use torture? It would take a strong stomach and a weak conscience to read descriptions of the CIA’s questioning sessions without serious qualms. Keep in mind that in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, St. John Paul II wrote that “physical and mental torture” is intrinsically evil. (emphasis added).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2298) teaches: “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.” When an interrogator treats his captor in a degrading manner, the human dignity of both men is violated; by treating his subject as something less than human, the captor becomes something less than human himself.

Defenders of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques say that it was necessary to put extra pressure on terrorist suspects, to extract important information that would save the lives of innocent people. That is a powerful, practical argument. But is it true? Expert interrogators question that premise.

A tortured prisoner might blurt out… anything. He may tell the truth, or he may say whatever he thinks his questioner wants to hear, whether it is true or not. Under extreme duress, he might not even know whether he is telling the truth or not; when pushed beyond their endurance, most people become less capable of speaking intelligently.

Even if it were true that torture could induce prisoners to give more accurate information, that would not be enough to justify an intrinsically evil act. Some defense experts claim that “enhanced interrogation” helped to ward off terrorist attacks. That is, to be sure, a powerful practical argument. But practical arguments are not enough to justify an intrinsically immoral act. How many women, finding themselves in difficult pregnancies, can make powerful practical arguments in favor of abortion?

A moral end does not justify an immoral means. In our battle against terrorism we may think of ourselves as the representatives of all that is good, that we are on God’s side. Yet we cannot claim the mantle of righteousness while using immoral means. The Catechism (#214*) warns: “It is also blasphemous to make use of God’s name to cover up criminal practices, to reduce peoples to servitude, to torture persons or put them to death.” (emphasis added))

Once we adopt immoral tactics, we lose our right to claim moral superiority over our adversaries. Our complaints about the brutality of terrorists will ring hollow if we engage in brutality ourselves. We cannot defeat terrorism by adopting its methods.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jrorr19609092 - Dec. 12, 2014 8:39 PM ET USA

    "How many women, finding themselves in difficult pregnancies, can make powerful practical arguments in favor of abortion?" This "argument" has nothing to do with what our government and federal elected officials authorized certain agencies to do to protect the lives of our countrymen. Those authorized to get information did not have as their objected to murder someone. An abortion is not a mere medical procedure; it is the intentional murder of a human being.

  • Posted by: Defender - Dec. 12, 2014 7:34 PM ET USA

    Spending over a decade in Army intel, I can say that other countries laugh at our politicians when they express their righteous indignation at things occurring under their very noses. Having said that, I remember an interrogator in intel school saying all he needed was a pencil during an interrogation (it was not for physical abuse, either). Having also dealt with the CIA on occasion, I wish I could say I was surprised at their actions, but I'm not. They were loose cannons in Vietnam and ....

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Dec. 12, 2014 10:27 AM ET USA

    From a recent article by Phil: "The vital distinction between moral principles and their prudential application is a source of frequent confusion in the moral life. To form our consciences well, we must learn to distinguish the difference. Our own moral obligation is *both* to accept the divine principles fully *and* to apply them properly...." Per the Catechism, the "principle" is: torture is not justifiable. The "prudential application" of such a principle is easy: do not torture.

  • Posted by: shrink - Dec. 11, 2014 7:37 PM ET USA

    The CCC#2298 as quoted above does not include the extraction of information on the list of prohibitions. Extracting a confession, is not the same as extracting information. Just a thought.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Dec. 11, 2014 6:36 PM ET USA

    Phil, do you do this on purpose? Why such a divisive piece? We can engage in this debate from our comfy homes. We can decry the horror of war and spout moral imperatives. The fact is we are here today because of what our military and government did to protect our freedom. We live in a broken and sinful world. The ends do not justify the means; and left on their own they would destroy our county, our families, our way of life ...in a heart beat. Our brutality, our evil actions. Really?

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Dec. 11, 2014 4:18 PM ET USA

    MWCooney, I guess it could be stuff like force-feeding a man through his anus, forcing a man to stand deprived of sleep until he soils himself, forcing a man to prostrate himself before an idol, or pouring water over his face until he partially drowns--all acts you can read about in the executive summary--are all *probably* torture on the basis of that Catechism quote given above. I can't control other countries, so their geopolitical motivations don't concern me: our country's evil actions do.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Dec. 11, 2014 12:53 PM ET USA

    Any discussion on the morality of torture that does not include a definition plays into the hands of those whose only interest in the debate is the undermining of the United States. Is having five guys standing around a prisoner and yelling at him torture? Does having the sound of a barking dog in the background qualify? I can assure you that the nations that are condemning us publicly following the release of this report are laughing privately at most of what is being defined as such.