If Torture is Wrong

If torture is wrong, always and unconditionally, justifications of it are invalid by definition.  Michael Austin made this case this month at Independent Voter Network in response to the controversy surrounding the newly declassified report on the CIA's post-9/11 interrogation practices (the full 525-page executive summary can be viewed via this news report, also from Independent Voter Network).  What I find interesting about his argument from the perspective of Catholic moral theology is that it makes for a pretty good explanation, from an entirely secular perspective, of the meaning of intrinsic evil, which could be succinctly defined as acts which are always wrong.  And arguably, by starting with the wrongness of torture as axiomatic and expressly refusing the burden of proof, he is indirectly appealing to some conception of natural law.  The implication of this opener is that torture is self-evidently wrong, and we should all just know that, innately.

Nevertheless, there are frequently attempts to mitigate the immorality, of which Austin names four examples (each being a mitigation that ceases to matter as soon as one takes the intrinsic wrongness of torture as a given):

—where it occurred - critiquing the "legal hair-splitting" of Guantanamo Bay's circumvention of national and international laws.

—that the release of the report was politically motivated - which of course it was, and Democrats are not off the hook here, not least because of their politically driven timing.  In fact, Austin writes, "The great culpability of Senate Democrats lies in not getting this information out ten years ago when it might have mattered more."

—whether or not the torture was effective - and here Austin makes an interesting parallel: "We do not avoid torture because it is ineffective; we avoid torture because it is wrong—just as we avoid conducting medical experiments on people without their permission because it is wrong. No amount of good information—be it military or medical—justifies doing that which is inherently immoral."  Again from a Catholic moral standpoint, which presumes human dignity from conception onward, embryonic stem cell research is a perfect example of "conducting medical experiments on people without their permission".  Both violations of human dignity have been rationalized on the basis of gaining potentially life-saving information.  But these arguments, even if ostensibly in pursuit of a good, depend on the value of certain human lives being calculated on the basis of the disposability of others.  If human dignity is universal, then the ends do not justify the means.

—whether those we tortured were good people - presumably some of the people who were tortured by the CIA were themselves responsible for some horrible acts of violence.  But if we do the same, we become the same.  Or as Austin phrases it in what, to me, is the kicker of his whole critique, "But when our actions become indistinguishable from those we are supposedly trying to save the world from, we cease to be good and we simply become powerful."

Aside from the wrongness of torture or whether it has been done, some raised fears that the release of the report could provoke violent repercussions - perhaps well-meaningly so if raised from places with genuine security concerns, but hypocritically so if on the part of those who had tried to justify torture in the first place.  As Daniel Larison of The American Conservative pointed out, 

“…many of the loudest opponents of releasing the report don’t normally think that “violence and deaths” from protests or terrorist attacks can ever be linked to U.S. actions overseas, and even if they accept that there is a link they don’t think that has any implications for what the U.S. should or should not be doing abroad. Changing a particular policy or avoiding an intervention all together in order to minimize the risk of attacks against Americans is normally portrayed by many of the same people as “giving in” to terrorism. Only now that there is minimal accountability for the illegal and abhorrent use of torture by our government are they moved to worry about what people in other countries might do in response.” 

It is extremely convenient for these people to discover the possibility that a report about past U.S. abuses might inspire outrage and even violence in response.  There was no such concern among hawks about the foreign policy implications of torturing people when it was being done, and they expressed no similar worries that other U.S. actions would provoke violent responses. 

The real terrorist recruitment tool is torture itself, not the admission that it happened, especially when this has not been much of a secret anyway.  In fact, according to one Associated Press report, the initial reaction across the Middle East was a resounding shrug.

Republican senator John McCain all but predicted as much in his strong defense of the report from the Senate floor:

“Sadly, violence needs little incentive in some quarters of the world today.  But that doesn’t mean we will be telling the world something it will be shocked to learn.  The entire world already knows that we waterboarded prisoners.  It knows we subjected prisoners to various other types of degrading treatment.  It knows we used black sites, secret prisons.  Those practices haven’t been a secret for a decade.  Terrorists might use the report’s reidentification of the practices as an excuse to attack Americans, but they hardly need an excuse for that.”

Whereas former CIA director George Tenet once stonewalled questions about interrogation tactics by repeating the claim, “We don’t torture people,” McCain had made the same statement in a prescriptive manner during a Republican primary debate in 2007.  And despite his capitulation at times to his party’s more hawkish wing, McCain has commendably remained one of the most outspoken voices against torture from either party, speaking with a conviction – as was evident in his recent Senate speech – that is likely rooted in his own experience as a former prisoner of war and a torture survivor.  Making clear his belief that these practices “stained our national honor,” he went on to simultaneously question their effectiveness and appeal to the national conscience:

“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering. Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.

Of course, if we seek to follow a tortured Lord who left us the example of suffering without retaliation, we have all the more reason to be the voice of conscience.  Moreover, if we are members of a Church that names torture among the unjustifiable acts that by their very nature violate a universal and unearnable human dignity, no claims of mitigating factors should ultimately matter.



Julia Smucker

Julia Smucker writes for Vox Nova