As more details about the killing of Osama Bin Laden are released, one of the questions that has surfaced is whether the CIA relied on intelligence resulting from the torture of terrorist suspects held in detention facilities abroad. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite wrote a compelling Op-Ed in the Washington Post On Faith board, in which she argues that torture is both inherently wrong and counterproductive. As Catholics react to the unfolding news, we should remain attentive to the rich wisdom of the just war tradition. The Torture is a Moral Issue campaign, linked here on the USCCB website, explains:
Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved-policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation’s most cherished values. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.
Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now-without exceptions.
Food for thought as we continue to reflect on the unfolding news.
Unfortunately, the Catechism passage on torture is ambiguous:
It leaves open the possibility that not all torture is wrong, specifically condemning only torture “to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred.” Under this reading, torture to extract lifesaving information in a ticking-timebomb scenario would not necessarily be ruled out.
The absence a comma after torture makes this a plausible reading, although I do not think it is how the authors meant it to be read. It makes the which clause seem restrictive—limiting the kinds of torture condemned to the ones listed. It almost certainly was meant to be nonrestrictive—merely listing examples of how torture is sometimes used.
I have been in discussions in which people have actually claimed that since the torture of the three detainees was to gather important intelligence (not to extract confessions), it might have been permissible. Of course the other out is to admit all torture is wrong, but to claim that water boarding (or whatever other “enhanced interrogation” technique is used) is not torture.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Para 404 spells out the prohibition against torture quite clearly (reiterated by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI)
404. The activity of offices charged with establishing criminal responsibility, which is always personal in character, must strive to be a meticulous search for truth and must be conducted in full respect for the dignity and rights of the human person; this means guaranteeing the rights of the guilty as well as those of the innocent. The juridical principle by which punishment cannot be inflicted if a crime has not first been proven must be borne in mind.
In carrying out investigations, the regulation against the use of torture, even in the case of serious crimes, must be strictly observed: “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim”. International juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances.
Likewise ruled out is “the use of detention for the sole purpose of trying to obtain significant information for the trial”. Moreover, it must be ensured that “trials are conducted swiftly: their excessive length is becoming intolerable for citizens and results in a real injustice”.
I neglected to add the point that if torture is wrong, it is wrong whether it is an effective means of gathering intelligence or not. I do think the argument that it is, overall, an ineffective means of gathering intelligence is important to make because (a) I think it is true and (b) no matter how convincing the moral argument against torture, if people believe it is highly effective, it is much more likely to be used.
I will admit here that although I don’t think the United States was justified in using water boarding, in a true ticking time-bomb scenario, where (1) man lives were at stake and (2) it was known for certain that an individual in custody knew how to stop the bomb from going off, I would not rule out torture. I know the saying that evil may never be done so that good will come of it, but there’s a famous Newman quote:
Under the circumstances, I would tell a willful untruth as would—almost certainly—any other person in his or her right mind.
When the Khmer Rouge were asked why did they torture their”enemies” ,the answer given was that in war they were justified in killing the enemy.Therefore since it was acceptable to kill them the living prisisoners could be tortured prior to death because as prisoners they were deemed for all intents and purposes “already dead” [as enemies who they were justified in killing].This is an approaching similarity in the mindset today here in the U.S. where the issue all over the media and among politicians revolves around the “absurdity” of being in favor of shootting an enemy [bin laden] to death but quibbling about torturing “enemies”.Anyone who is in favor of killing an enemy [in the” war on terror”] but against torturing them is deemed irrational.That we are publicaly thinking and speaking like people whose rationalization of torture resulted in the one of the most evil occurances of the twentyeth century is truly disturbing.