Wednesday, December 10, 2014

On Torture


I often argue that it is not justifiable to commit evil in order to achieve good. I suppose this is a fancy way of saying "two wrongs (or three or four) don't make a right." Or: "the ends don't justify the means."

The handiest example I can give you is abortion. The death of an unborn baby can't be justified no matter how deep and sincere the desire for an end to a pregnancy, because the intentional killing of an unborn baby is always evil. Yes, even in the case of rape or incest.

If it is always evil to initiate force - and I believe it is - it is only justifiable to use force in self-defense.

Thus, it is always evil to intentionally kill an unborn child, because an unborn child cannot initiate force. It is impossible. The child, as yet, has no will. He is incapable of acting willfully either for or against anything, including his mother.

He exists through no will of his own. In fact, in the vast majority of pregnancies, there is no aggressor: pregnancy resulted from two people willfully participating in an act they knew could potentially result in pregnancy. (Although, undoubtedly, one of them will ask the other at least once, with wide eyes and in a wounded voice, How did this happen?)

In a small percentage of cases, the initiator of force is a rapist, statutory, incestuous, or otherwise. The question of how to deal with such an aggressor is outside the purview of this blog post; for the purposes of my argument it is only necessary to note that in such a case, it is the rapist who is the aggressor, and not the unborn child.

I have heard this sound argument recently - that good cannot be the result of evil - unsoundly applied to the problem of torture. A Senate report (although, if we are being honest, it is a strictly partisan document prepared by Senate Democrats, or more accurately, Senate Democrat staffers) concerning CIA "enhanced interrogation" techniques was read on the Senate floor by Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) yesterday, and it is currently all anyone can talk about.

Last night while looking at social media, I saw where a young woman in her 20s had begun a diatribe with: "TORTURE IS NEVER OKAY." And while I find this particular young woman lovely and well-meaning, I admit I couldn't stop myself from laughing.

If we are blithely handing out nevers, here are some: this young woman has, presumably, never been to war, never been tasked with the protection of a country, and never been face to face with a murderous, cold-blooded person intent on protecting information that could save her loved one or her fellow countrymen with a mere slip of the tongue.

To continue with our never theme: it is easy and in fact justifiable to declare that intentional abortion is never okay. As I've explained, the unborn child can never be an aggressor.

It is less easy to assert that torture is never okay. Because it simply sometimes is.

The handiest way to illustrate this point is with an example. Think of the person you love the most: your child, your spouse, your sibling, your parent, whoever. Imagine they have been kidnapped and held by murderers demanding a ransom you can't pay. Now imagine one of the gang of scoundrels has been captured, and there is sufficient evidence to believe beyond the doubt of a reasonable person that this individual knows the location of your loved one.

If he tells you, there is a chance you can save your loved one. If he doesn't, your loved one will almost definitely be killed.

Don't imagine that you are Jack Bauer. Imagine that you are you. And imagine your real-life husband, wife, child, parent, brother or sister is the one facing imminent death.

The police tell you they are going to use enhanced interrogation techniques on this person. The methods won't do any permanent physical damage, but they will be psychologically harrowing. There will be no red-hot pokers to the eyeballs or bamboo shoots beneath the fingernails. But there may be an ice water bath, sleep deprivation, or a technique that makes them feel like they are drowning.

What do you do, to save the life of your loved one? Do you tell the police "why heavens to betsy, you musn't!"? Or do you make the decision that it is reasonable to subject a criminal holding an innocent person hostage, rather than allowing the innocent to die?

Do you self-righteously declare that "torture is never okay," and sit back to wait for your loved one to be mailed to you in bits? Or do you figure that a little ice water is an acceptable price to pay for a human life?

Now imagine that it is not your loved one in danger, but thousands. Millions. The loved ones of all the nation. Imagine it is not one kidnapping, or one murder, but bombs, rockets, potential nuclear attack you are trying to thwart. And imagine the individual withholding information about weapons, targets, strategy, and hiding places is no mere murderer, but a terrorist responsible for the deaths of hundreds or thousands of people.

Is it okay then? To pour water on his face until he talks?

This example does not - and is not meant to - illustrate that torture is grand, fine, the best way to get things done, always acceptable, etc. I doubt you'll find many people who would approve of it as anything other than a last resort.

This example is meant to illustrate - and I believe it does - that some practices defined as torture are sometimes morally justified.

Are there instances in which torture is immoral and evil? Of course. No doubt there are countless.

Does even justifiable torture have its drawbacks and limitations? Without a doubt.

But to declare that "torture is never okay" is, frankly, naive.

After 9/11, as a nation we demanded answers, protection, and assurances of safety. Our appeal to elected officials was handed down the line, from politicians to generals and administrators in charge of the war effort, and so on and so forth until it was repeated urgently to the men and women tasked with actually obtaining those answers, that protection, that assurance.

"Give us answers. Give us protection. Give us assurance that we are safe."

If that is what you've been asked for by your superiors - by your country - and you are sitting in a room with, say, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a proven and avowed mass-murdering terrorist holding within his dark little brain information that will undoubtedly save American lives, do you continue begging him for answers and promising him goodies until you're both dead of old age, or do you pour some water on his head until he gives you what you need to protect innocent people?

If it were me: somebody pass the pitcher.

Now we are condemning the people who did this, who did it for us, and who often got results.

I haven't read the 480-page Senate report, and I cannot speak to whether each instance of torture was justified. It's very possible and in fact likely there have been occasions when torture was either too hastily applied, or too severe in its application.

In short, it's not a defense of the CIA I undertake here, but an attempt to explain why a knee-jerk condemnation of all kinds of torture, in general, is folly.

If I have little patience for those who declare that "torture is never okay," I have less for those who would smugly assure me that, in my example scenario above, they would rather see their loved one die than see someone tortured. This is not pure, noble, or merciful. This is immoral, self-righteous claptrap.

As David Mamet eloquently wrote, "Kindness to the wicked is cruelty to the righteous." When you are haughtily, nobly merciful to the evil, you are vainly, abjectly cruel to their innocent victims, past and future.

Christian pacifism carried to extremes is not only immoral, but dangerous. God help us if we teach our daughters that they are closer to God lying raped and dead in a ditch than standing over a dead rapist holding a smoking pistol.

And God help us if we allow the innocent to die so that we may pat ourselves on the back for taking the ethical high ground, while the murderers take their precious secrets to their cells.

4 comments:

  1. (this is from Aimee, I'm not gonna bother logging K out to post this)

    from CCC2297: 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.

    2298 In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors.

    I'm just gonna leave this here. Cafeteria Catholicism happens on both sides of the political spectrum.

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    1. I hope you're not implying that Kristen represents cafeteria Catholicism...

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  2. Thank you for this post. For my part, I would never support torture, but I agree that knee-jerk, unreflective self-righteous judgments on this subject are annoying. I can find such reactions aggravating even when I essentially agree with the point being made. Also, I appreciate that you make various distinctions and qualifications in trying to do justice to this issue.

    Let me ask some questions, both so I can understand your views better and also--perhaps--so they can serve as food for thought:

    1) I am unclear on your view of consequences and their importance. On the one hand, you point out the terrible consequences that might arise if someone fails to torture a terrorist (and the consequences you describe certainly are terrible). On the other hand, you begin your post by emphasizing that good consequences do not justify an immoral action, that the ends do not justify the means--this is why you do not support abortion, even if the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy are difficult for the woman carrying a child. Is the difference between the torture and abortion scenarios--despite the fact both involve serious consequences--that a terrorist is guilty of aggression and an unborn child is innocent of it? Or is there another reason the two cases are so different?

    2) If torturing a terrorist to obtain information is justified, how much of a difference should uncertainty make? If you are not certain if someone in custody is really a terrorist or actually guilty of aggression, are you justified in torturing that person to obtain information? What if you know the person is a terrorist but are not certain if he has knowledge of any actual future terrorist attacks? Is torture justified then?

    3) You mention that the interrogation "methods won't do any permanent physical damage, but they will be psychologically harrowing." Why is this important? If someone is a terrorist with knowledge of an imminent attack (and let's say, for the sake of argument, that you know both of these things with certainty), why not use extreme methods such as red-hot pokers to the eyeballs or bamboo shoots under the fingernails? Do limits matter, even when the person tortured is guilty of aggression?

    I would be curious what thoughts you have on these points. Thanks.

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  3. It's okay to torture living breathing humans but killing a non sentient non viable fetus is the worst crime in all circumstances.

    I guess right to life only applies if you are a cute widdle fetus. Prolifers don't give a crap about you after you are born....

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