Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Torture American style

No doubt you've heard that this week, members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee released a report detailing various "enhanced interrogation methods" which were used by agents of our nation (principally CIA, is my understanding) on those who were swept up as terrorists or terror-suspects during our recent efforts to fight terrorism.

Two points have been made about the politics of this: that it was the work of Democratic members of the committee, not both parties; and that it served to distract attention from hearings in which Jonathan Gruber, the MIT smarty who famously said the American voter is "stupid" and that's how the Obama Administration was able to get a jury-rigged Obamacare through Congress. Both correct.

Two foreign/defense points have been made: namely, that this will hurt our relations with allies and inflame our enemies. Most likely correct.

Also, the usual defenses and qualifications have been offered: that we have to accept some compromises of our deeply held American values, in order to safeguard our...deeply held American values. That if only we knew the context, we would accept these methods. And that they weren't all that bad, surely not "torture"--because the government's experts were very careful to define torture so that it was just beyond how far they went.

But the one thing I haven't seen anyone say is that the things reported weren't true.

So let's not mess around. Let's see what our government considered acceptable methods of interrogation:

> Prisoners were subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation, "for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads." At least five detainees "experienced disturbing hallucinations."

> President Bush received his first briefing on enhanced interrogation techniques in 2006, about four years after the program started. According to CIA records, Bush expressed discomfort with an image of a detainee "chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper."

> At least 26 detainees were "wrongfully held," one of which was "mentally challenged," and wasn't detained because of anything he did, or knew, but as "leverage" over his family. To this end, the CIA recorded audio of the mentally limited man crying.

> At least one detainee was stripped naked, shackled and made to stand up to 72 hours, while periodically doused with cold water.

> One detainee spent 266 hours in a coffin-sized box.

> Lots and lots of waterboarding (which simulates drowning); it turns out it was conducted far more widely than previously admitted.

> Several captives were "rectally rehydrated" and given "rectal feeding." The latter practice involves introducing pureed food into...the rectum. This was done even where there was no medical necessity. Gee, can you imagine any other reason they might have done this?

> Several captives were told that members of their families -- mothers and children -- would be "sexually abused" or have their throats cut.

This last point bears some attention; because some time back, when having a discussion with someone about waterboarding, I offered this as a hypothetical: what if our interrogators threatened to harm a family member, in order to induce a confession? And the response was, oh no, that's totally different, and we would never do that...

When once we start to justify doing evil, in order to prevent a greater evil, where does it end?

In the doomsday scenario I sketched out in another post, I supposed that a President might -- by this moral calculus -- decide that sacrificing the constitution and religious freedom of the United States was a lesser evil than the destruction of America's largest city.

Many other scenarios can be sketched out. Turn over one million American Jews, to save 8 million New Yorkers. Bomb a city in, say, Iran (who despite being an enemy, is nonetheless hated by many of our enemies), or else we'll bomb you, and so forth.

Horrible? Impossible, you say? But why? It'll save lives. And, if you refuse, then -- as someone said to me on another blog, then it's your fault if those people die.

One of the defenses of our torture program was, first, "they had it coming" (except for the many cases of mistaken identity); and second, "we didn't kill them"--meaning that as long as we stop short of death, all is permitted.

Note, for example, that in this whole torture regime, lots of medical personnel were kept handy, just to make sure the detainees weren't killed.

So let's explore that thinking. "They had it coming"--meaning, if you do evil things, we get to do what we like to you.

We have lots of really bad people in prisons across the country. People who were, in open court, fairly convicted of murder, rape, assault, drug-pushing, child-molestation, and any number of terrible things.

So clearly, we have a moral license to do whatever we them. How about medical experimentation? Instead of testing on innocent unborn children, why not test on guilty criminals? And surely, they don't need two kidneys, when lots of good people die every year for lack of one good kidney?

And if everything short of killing is acceptable treatment for enemies, why not...power drills and lit cigarettes and live electric wires. It's not like we're permanently maiming them. They'll recover. We have doctors handy. And why not rape? We could call it..."rectal rehydration."

Meanwhile, notice -- in order to do these things to bad people, we must recruit lots of our own people to do it. Either we have to take good people, and teach them to be bad; or else, we hire our own bad be bad to others in our name.

We have a choice. We can listen to conscience, the voice of God: "One may not do evil so that good may result from it." Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1756.

Pope John Paul II: "No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church." (Evangelium Vitae, n. 62.)

Or, we can threaten to cut the throats of children, when their parents are probably terrorists.

All to protect our deeply cherished...way of life.


Sandra said...

Father, I appreciate your willingness to address these topics so directly and to do so from so intimate community as a Midwest parish.

I also applaud your insistence that we not be tempted to condone evil actions that "good" may come of it. However, I think it would be edifying for any discussion to parse terms a bit--something the politicians and media (of all persuasions) do not do--intentionally because they just want the hysteria of one form or another.

I think it is worth parsing the actions that are "coercive" and actions that are "torture". Neither may be morally sound for interrogation, but I would suggest there is a clear difference in culpability between the two. "Dietary manipulation" and sleep deprivation are probably not the same culpability as sodomizing them with food (or whatever that detestable act they are trying to describe was).

Is any form of coercion during interrogation morally unsound?

The other piece that is worth bringing back up for discussion is what conditions have lead us to this untenable position--a position that our security is in such doubt that we are tempted to resort to such methods. I would suggest that we have "embraced" a combination of "American values" that are not tenable for a sustainable society. We should examine what those values are and consider putting some on the pruning list--because neither terrorists blowing up buildings nor sodomizing prisoners are moral options.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I wrote a post awhile back about the Church's teaching on torture, which is here:

Let me know if you still have questions after reviewing that, plus the sources linked in it.