Monday, July 17, 2006

The question of torture

Consider the following:
"Coming to topics which are practical and of some urgency, the council lays stress on respect for the human person: everybody should look upon his or her neighbor(without any exception) as another self, bearing in mind especially their neighbor's life and the means needed for a dignified way of life, lest they follow the example of the rich man who ignored Lazarus, who was poor.

Today, there is an inescapable duty to make ourselves the neighbor of every individual, without exception, and to take positive steps to help a neighbor whom we encounter, whether that neighbor be an elderly person abandoned by everyone, a foreign worker who suffers the injustice of being despised, a refugee, an illegitimate child wrongly suffering for a sin of which the child is innocent, or a starving human being who awakens our conscience by calling to mind the words of Christ: "As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers or sisters, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40).
The varieties of crime are numerous: all offenses against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and willful suicide; all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures; all offenses against human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where people are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons: all these and the like are criminal: they poison civilization; and they debase the
perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honor of the

--- Gaudium Et Spes, #27, (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in
the Modern World), Second Vatican Council, 1965.
From the Second Vatican Council, this is the definitive statement on the issue. As can be seen, torture is explicitly forbidden. There is no grey area! And note the context: it is right up there with murder and abortion. We are in the sad situation today whereby the Bush administration, which exploits Christianity for its own ends constantly, is in the business of endorsing torture. Of course, they never say so openly, but the intent is clear.

I do not wish to give an account of the whole saga. Many, such as Andrew Sullivan and Marty Lederman, have been following this sad story from the beginning and know the whole details. I will just quote a couple of salient points.

First, the infamous Bybee memo. Jay Bybee, when he was Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department signed a memo in 2002 (authored by John Yoo) which said that torture only means torture when it results in "death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function". Also, prohibitions against torture "may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations undertaken of enemy combatants pursuant to the President's Commander-in-Chief powers." Bybee was later confirmed as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Second, the thorny issue of the Geneva conventions. As pointed out by Marty Lederman, the Bush administration declared in 2002 that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to Al Qaeda, and that detainees were to be given Geneva Convention protections only to the extent dictated by military necessity. And the CIA was even exempt from this weak standard. The key issue is Common Article 3, which bans (among other things) "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture" and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment". Sounds pretty similar to Gaudium Et Spes, doesn't it? Well, not for the "Christian" Bush administration. Marty Lederman also notes that the principles of Common Article 3 were regarded as the minimum standard of treatment for detainees since 1949 (and possibly even since the Civil War).

Third, when it came to the McCain amendment, which would prohibit "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment" by US personnel anywhere in the world, Bush issued a signing statement basically saying that he was maintaining the executive authority of his office to do what it takes to fight terrorism. In other words, he would choose the dark side.

Where does this all lead? The results are well known and clearly documented. In a book entitled "Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror", Stephen Miles notes the following approved "interrogation techniques" (I am quoting from Andrew Sullivan here):
"Beating; punching with fists; use of truncheons; kicking; slamming against walls; stretching or suspension (to tear ligaments or muscles to cause asphyxia); external electric shocks; forcing prisoners to abase and to urinate on themselves; forced masturbation; forced renunciation of religion; false confessions or accusations; applying urine and feces to prisoners; making verbal threats to a prisoner and his amily; denigration of a prisoner's religion; force-feeding; induced hypothermia and exposure to extreme heat; dietary manipulation; use of sedatives; extreme sleep deprivation; mock executions; water immersion; "water-boarding"; obstruction of the prisoner's airway; chest compression; thermal burning; rape; dog bites; sexual abuse; forcing a prisoner to watch the abuse or torture of a loved one."

Welcome to Bush's America. Leave your soul at the door.

One of the most depressing things about the whole affair is the silence of Christian right on the issue. They either eagerly back Bush, or stay quiet. There are some honorable exceptions in the blogosphere, including Mark Shea, but other entities that pride themselves on taking a Catholic voice, such as National Review let themselves down. Why was this? Again and again, you will hear the same kind of consequentialist "end-justifies-the-means" rhetoric I described in my last post. Ticking bomb scenarios. The need to save large number of innocent lives. The need to fight an enemy that just doesn't play by the rules. Sorry, but none of this matters. You cannot attack human dignity to attain certain goals, no matter how good. Funny how the very same people are against such reasoning when it comes to abortion, isn't it?

Of course, what's even worse is that anybody with experience will tell you that torture doesn't even work. Just look at the case of Abu Zubaydah, a mentally-ill Al Qaeda tortured by the Bush administration so that the president would not "lose face", as noted in Ron Suskind's new book. As quoted in the Washington Post article:

"They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety -- against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

I hope we are all grateful that Bush, the Torturer-in-Chief, the great "decider" is making us all safe!

Given this state of affairs, the result of the recent Supreme Court Hamden case is heartening. As Marty Lederman noted, the ruling that Common Article 3 applies to Al Qaeda was the most important aspect of the decision, not military commissions. Of course, the usual right-wing jack asses are jumping all over this result. The jokers at National Review claim that the Supreme Court has signed a treaty with Al Qaeda for the protection of terrorists. Their editorial is entitled "an outrage". This is where we have come to, folks, when a magazine that claims to be Catholic-influenced, calls the restoration of Geneva Convention protections "an outrage". Lederman shows how faulty this reasoning really is: many treaties "require signatory states to refrain from acting in certain ways universally, even with respect to persons, entities and states that have not signed, and do comply with, such treaties". It's called doing the right thing. And it's in Gaudium Et Spes, #27. But if that gets in the way of loyalty to Bush, well...

One final point: the major dissenters in the Hamden case were the Catholic justices: Scalia, Alito, and Thomas. And Roberts would have been up there with them had he not recused himself. You can dress it up in all the legal niceties you like, and talk about executive power and military commissions, but at the end of the day, these guys dissented from an judgment that restored rights totally consistent with Catholic teaching. Shame on them.

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