Saturday, December 13, 2014

Torture, yet again

In light of some on-going conversations in the wake of the Senate report on C.I.A. interrogation techniques, I offer a few more thoughts.

Firstly, I think it is important when faced with things like this report to recognize that these are not new issues and we're not the first ones to grapple with them. 

Second, classic Just War theory gives us good guidance, in terms of principles, as to when it is licit, perhaps even obligatory, to engage in war (jus ad bellum), and just conduct of war (jus in bello). Interrogating prisoners, which is fine and even necessary in war, clearly falls under the latter.

Third, I want to, once again, suggest that the distinction between intrinsically evil acts and extrinsically evil acts is most useful. The former consists of actions that are always wrong for everyone regardless of intention or circumstance (i.e., they may never justly or rightly be done). Few knowledgeable people would argue against the proposition, the Catholic Church teaches that torture is intrinsically evil. The latter are actions that, while normally to be avoided, can be justified under certain circumstances, like killing other people who are legitimate combatants in battle, etc.

Fourth, this brings me back to the definition of torture. On the one hand, torture cannot be defined so broadly that interrogating an enemy combatant or criminal suspect is precluded. On the other hand, it's wrong to brutally beat, or drown, or starve, information from a captured combatant or criminal suspect. When it comes to torture then, the question becomes, "How far is too far?" What I think many people, including me, find disturbing about many of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" cataloged in the Senate report is that they go too far by deliberately and systematically violating human dignity in grotesque ways. Besides, if we aren't morally superior to enemies like al-Qaeda and ISIS/ISIL/IS, then what's the point? There is also the issue of the relatively (not absolutely) indiscriminate use of these "techniques" even on innocent persons, not to mention that torture is often a terribly unreliable way of gaining useful information. In this case, these kinds of activities are also a cause of radicalization of many more young men. In other words, it's probably self-defeating.

Perhaps right now, at least for Catholics, the best we can do is to borrow and adapt the words used by the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a case concerning hardcore pornography: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."

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