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Can torture ever be justified? Round II.

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 15, 2014

Many readers have responded, with questions and criticisms, to my argument last week that “Regardless of circumstances or results, torture can never be justified.” Let me respond to some of the common concerns.

          The Senate report on “enhanced interrogation” was a partisan document, released by liberals seeking to gain political advantage.

No doubt that’s true, but it’s not relevant to our discussion about the (im)morality of torture. The motives of the people publishing the report do not affect the accuracy of the facts contained therein. If some credible expert could assure me that the report is factually wrong or grossly exaggerated, I would be relieved. To date, unfortunately, I have not seen anyone seriously dispute the overall accuracy of the report.

          How should torture be defined? Where should we draw the line between aggressive questioning of a hostile witness and outright torture?

In my original essay I skipped lightly over this important question, assuming that anyone who had read the Senate report would recognize that the line—wherever it is—had been crossed. If you can read the description of those “interrogation” techniques without qualms, I am grateful that I am not your prisoner.

Still the question is worth asking: What is torture? Few rational people would argue that a suspected terrorist should be seated in a comfortable chair, given a cold drink, and addressed politely. Some degree of pressure can and should be exerted on the suspect, to prompt quick and accurate answers.

Torture, however, is the deliberate infliction of pain, intended not to secure the subject’s cooperation but to break his will. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2298) conveys the sense of the term: “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.”

Perhaps one way to distinguish between legitimate tough questioning and torture would be to imagine how we would react if we learned that the subject of the interrogation was completely innocent: that he provided no information because he had no information to provide. If that innocent man had been made to sweat and squirm for a few hours, that would be unfortunate. But if he had been broken in body or in spirit, that, I suggest, would be torture.

          The Catechism condemns torture when it is used to extract confessions. But in the war against terror, the CIA used “enhanced interrogation” to extract information that could be used in the fight against terrorism.

What distinction is being made here? In one case the suspect does not want to admit his guilt, but the torturer forces a confession out of him. In the other case the man does not want to provide information about his terrorist colleagues, but the torture pries that information out of him. The results are different but the motivation of the torturer is the same: to extract information that the subject will not willingly provide.

In Veritatis Splendor (80) St. John Paul II, citing Vatican II, lists “physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit” among the actions that “are by their nature ‘incapable of being ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image.”

          But aren’t some American soldiers subjected to the same sort of techniques (waterboarding, for instance) as part of their training, to prepare them to face hostile interrogation?

Yes, but these training sessions take place under controlled circumstances. Let’s hope that the armed forces do not employ instructors who actually want to break the spirit of their trainees!

Motivation and intention are key factors in appraising the morality of an action—as well as the effect of that action on a human subject. Some medical procedures are painful and/or humiliating for the patient. We tolerate them because we realize that they are ultimately for our benefit, and because eventually we know the pain will stop. The subject of “enhanced interrogation” has no such assurances.

          Maybe some interrogators used torture, but only because they “went rogue.” Official US policy did not authorize such excesses.

This is actually a very important point, on which lawmakers should focus in light of the Senate report. Were a few interrogators going too far, or did their orders encourage them to do exactly what they did? There will always be some aggressive individuals who are tempted to slide over the line; that’s why it’s so important to draw a clear line at a morally defensible point. Did American leaders draw such a line? The televised remarks of former Vice President Cheney are not reassuring on this point.

          But as Cheney said, the rough interrogation techniques were necessary; they saved American lives.

What is freely asserted can be freely denied. Some people say that the CIA interrogators extracted some information that could not have been obtained otherwise, thereby stopping terrorist attacks. Others say that the results of the “enhanced interrogation” were meager. It is impossible to know what might have happened under other circumstances.

In general, are Americans—is the world—safer now than a decade ago? Has the threat of terrorism waxed or waned? Maybe the use of torture produced information that enabled our forces to stop x number of terrorist attacks. But could the resentment and rage provoked by the torture turned young men toward terrorism, so that now we face 2x or 3x more attacks? Those calculations, too, cannot be resolved with the information that we have on hand.

And in any case, the calculus of success and failure, even measured in human lives, does not answer the key question here. If torture is intrinsically wrong—if it can never be justified, regardless of the circumstances—then it must be rejected.

          Doesn’t just-war theory allow us to choose the lesser of two evils?

No. The lesser of two evils is still evil. Again, if something is intrinsically wrong, it is wrong in all circumstances.

The tradition of just-war teaching allows for the use of proportionate force to stop an unjust aggressor. Under some circumstances, when other remedies have proven ineffective, the Catholic teaching on justice in warfare allows for the use of lethal force. But even when lethal force is employed, it is never justifiable to hate an enemy or deliberately to strip him of his dignity.

Even in all-out war, the Church teaches that some options—such as the deliberately targeting of civilians-- are morally unjustifiable. That clear, universal, moral imperative lies at the heart of our condemnation of terrorism. Even if they had a just cause, we would still condemn them for shedding innocent blood.

St. John Paul II used his personalist philosophy to explain the principle at work here. A human person can never be treated as an object: a means toward an end. It is always wrong to say, "I will kill these innocent people in order to change the policies of that government." It is also wrong to say, "I will inflict hideous pain on this person in order to extract information that will thwart the plans of these other people."

          Al Qaida, the Taliban, the Islamic State, and other terrorist organizations routinely target innocent civilians. Their methods are far more immoral than the excesses of the CIA. There is no moral equivalence here.

True. The CIA’s offenses are not nearly as egregious as those of Al Qaida, the Taliban, and the Islamic State. Is that supposed to be reassuring? If we justify our policies by comparing them with those of avowed killers, we have come a long way from the “shining city on a hill.”

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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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 16, 2014 10:51 PM ET USA

    The ends do not justify the means. However one might sympathize with superiors who, after 911 (and as recently as this week when more than one hundred school children were murdered and some forced to watch their teacher burned alive) believed that such catastrophic human suffering must be prevented by exceptional means if necessary. What happened to some prisoners is indefensible. What happened at that school in Pakistan was worse than hell. At least in hell there is a certain justice.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Dec. 16, 2014 8:20 AM ET USA

    Something is wrong here. The report doesn't matter but it's moved you to write. Motivation behind the report does impact contents-especially accuracy & truth. Individual interrogators motivation are paramount in this discussion as with any sin. Circumstances must be included in the analysis and "It is impossible to know what might have happened under other circumstances". Torture is morally wrong-agreed. Without knowing motivation, intention, or circumstance is your concern properly presented?

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Dec. 16, 2014 5:52 AM ET USA

    "Motivation and intention are key factors in appraising the morality of an action" So, Phil, if the interrogator says that he does not want to break the prisoner's spirit, he only wants information that he is reasonably certain the prisoner has, does that change anything? After all, KSM was a sworn enemy with a track record, a mastermind, meaning that he had lots and lots of valuable information vital to the protection of the homeland.