Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Physical and Mental Torture and Attempts to Coerce the Spirit"

Last night, I watched the incredibly depressing HBO documentary, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, which traced to graphic torture witnessed in this prison to the clear and deliberate policies of the Bush administration: the abrogation the Geneva Conventions for whole classes of suspects; the ludicrously restrictive definition of torture as death or serious organ failure; the approval of ever more aggressive interrogation techniques; and the transfer of Gen. Miller, the architect of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo, to Abu Ghraib, which the specific instruction to bring his techniques with him. Another theme of the documentary was that a few low level grunts were scapegoated and locked up, while senior officials like Miller received promotions. Truly appalling.

But one comment struck me while watching. I do not even recall the name of the person who said it. This expert noted that, while many Americans refer to the acceptability of coercive interrogation techniques as "torture light", psychological torture is harder for victims to overcome. It scars them for life. It is for good reasons that the condemnation of torture in both Gaudium Et Spes and Veritatis Splendour refers specifically to "physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit". And this is intrinsically evil, meaning that they can never be justified either by intent or circumstance, because it deliberately violates the God given dignity and integrity (the intrinsic worth) of human beings. It's really that simple. Human beings are being used as a means to some end, such as the extraction of information.

Sadly, there are some Catholics who indeed try to defend torture by appealing to intent and circumstance. And the key mistake they make is in not treating psychological torture as equal to physical torture. As I've noted before, apologist Jimmy Akin makes this mistake when he defined torture as "the disproportionate infliction of pain". You can see the wiggle room already. If not disproportionate, then not torture, then not evil. This is not much different than Bush official John Yoo defining torture as "death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function". Coming up with a quantitative definition always means that something falling just below the standard does not constitute torture. Obviously, psychological torture is not torture.

It gets worse. Akin argues that waterboarding may not constitute torture "if it is being used in a ticking time bomb scenario and there is no other, less painful way to save lives." Classic end-justifies-the-means consequentialism, made possible by his loophole. Another darling of the pro-torture crowd, Fr. Brian Harrison, also argued that torture may be valid in a ticking-bomb scenario as "the infliction of severe pain is not intrinsically evil" meaning that "its use in that type of scenario would not seem to be excluded.."

To see the bankruptcy of this mode of reasoning, look no further than Jose Padilla, locked up without charge or access to a lawyer for three and a half years, who is suffering from a severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and is by now a mental case. This is the result of so-called "torture light" as it did not involve "severe" or "disproportionate" pain. No, merely extreme sensory deprivation, extreme cold, stress positions. As one of his lawyers noted, he was treated like a piece of furniture. That's another way of saying his God-given human dignity was degraded. This is what torture is all about.

I will leave the last word with the martyr Oscar Romero:

"There is no dichotomy between man and God’s image.
Whoever tortures a human being,
whoever abuses a human being,
Whoever outrages a human being, abuses God’s image."


Shadhu said...

Hi from Tanzania, MM. That's a good post! Hope you have dvr'd it.

Morning's Minion said...

Yes, it's still on DVR!