In mid-December the US Senate released its report on the CIA and the use of torture to gain information from jihadists concerning terrorism and planned attacks on Americans. The report was damning, claiming that use of torture or—(God save us from euphemisms) “enhanced interrogation techniques”—was widespread, but generally unsuccessful. Prisoners were water-boarded, forced to stand on broken limbs, and subject to prolonged rectal feeding.
As is invariably the case in the sordid world of party politics, the report was used by both sides to attack rather than enlighten, and the degree of rhetoric and ignorance was astounding. But what was the Catholic response to this situation and to the use of torture in general? It depended, of course, on what I call the “Catholic what”; that is: Catholic liberal, Catholic conservative, Catholic whatever. I rather prefer Catholic, pure and simple. This Catholic is not so pure but perhaps too simple—but he does have a column in Catholic World Report, so here goes.
Many opponents of the war and of President Bush argued that the intelligence was flawed and the CIA little better than those it had interrogated, which is astounding and absurd. There are no moral equivalents here. The Western democracies may be far from perfect but the fundamental values and virtues that underpin North American and European liberal states are supremely different and superior to those of the Islamists. Which is why we have to condemn torture, even if torture sometimes proves successful in obtaining important information. That people may tell the truth and reveal secrets when in pain and in fear of death is undeniable. But if they are sure of an afterlife in paradise the chances are certainly reduced. Subtlety is invariably more productive, as the Allies discovered with their intelligence work with Nazi prisoners in British prisoner-of-war camps.
Let’s be candid here. The American intelligence community was outraged and angry because it had not stopped thousands of innocent people from being slaughtered by Islamist fanatics who flew planes into buildings. There were warnings that should have been detected not only by the CIA and the FBI but by various police and security organizations within the United States and by agents abroad.
Beyond this issue, however, is the underlying moral dynamic that is essential for any Catholic to consider. The basic question is one of whether torture of another human being with inalienable rights can ever be justified. Those rights, remember, are inalienable in the Catholic worldview not because they were given by a government or by man but precisely because they were not; they are God-given.
First, organized torture eats away at the core of our self-definition and destroys, if you like, our very soul. We are distinguished from the brutes amongst us, and the ogres who would destroy us, by our humanity. Even a jihadist who would behead us, rape our wives, murder our children, deserves a certain dignity—not because he is a jihadist but because he is a person. This, I believe, is important. We need to see through the odious nature of the terrorist and treat him with relative dignity because of his God-given humanity. To ignore this is to give jihadism and terrorism a status above personhood, and that is something we must never do. It is quintessentially non-Catholic, and even anti-Catholic.
Put another way, when we torture a terrorist, we reduce ourselves to his level, as the Catechism indicates:
Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. 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. (par 2297; also see par 2148)
Second, and closely related, we play into the hands of our enemies when we torture because they can argue that we are the bullies and crusaders they have long claimed we are. They are already using the findings of this report to spew relativism, and their propaganda is horribly successful. As societies founded on Christian ideas and notions, we are not bullies and certainly not crusaders. Yet you can be assured that the torture report is already being used to conduct even more persecution of Christians throughout the Islamic world, and in particular in the Middle East.
Third, we do sometimes arrest the wrong people. It is impossible to imagine how an innocent person must feel if tortured, abused, and humiliated when there is nothing to say because there is nothing they know. The Catholic position is surely to obsess about justice, to do all that is possible to obtain the fair treatment of all and everyone. Much as we should admire our police and security agencies and officers, they do sometimes get it wrong. I have, for example, seen aggressive and inaccurate targeting of innocent people at pro-life demonstrations more times than I would like to say.
Fourth, do we really want the state to have so much power? What if it someday turns on us? As Catholics, this should be especially poignant. Homeschooling parents, pro-lifers, critics of same-sex marriage, opponents of euthanasia, and those who refuse to conform to the new liberal state have all faced an opposition that some would interpret as a form of persecution. In Germany, for example, homeschooling parents have faced arrest; it might not be torture but the forced removal of one’s children comes pretty close.
I am fully aware of the arguments in favor of torture and, unlike the political left, I don’t immediately reject them. If someone knew where my child was being held and my child would die unless I knew the location, I would of course want to torture that person. I would want to inflict any amount of suffering possible to save a loved one and I make no apology for feeling that way. But we cannot, thank God, form law and ethics on emotionalism, personal fear, or histrionic spasm. The law is far more than that, as the great Catholic, martyr, and lawyer St. Thomas More stated and taught us in the 16th century.
We are fighting a foe that seems to become stronger all the time, and the Islamist killers continue to outdo themselves in their disregard for basic humanity. They hate the West, they hate our freedoms and they especially hate our Christianity. Which is all the more reason why we shouldn’t respond in kind. We defeated the Nazis, but were wrong to bomb Dresden in the way we did and wrong to destroy entire cities. It was not only cruel, vindictive, and contrary to Catholic just war teaching—in that it targeted the innocent and those who had done us so harm and posed us no threat—but in practical terms it strengthened the German will to resist and possibly prolonged the war and all of its concomitant suffering.
War is sometimes necessary but sadism never so. In spite of the denial and the double-talk, we are in a war—and one that is just or more necessary than most that have been waged. It is a war of civilizations. As such, we have to win it, and indeed we will. But in the right way, the Western way, the Catholic way. God willing.