Saturday, December 10, 2011

Waterboarding and Torture

[EDIT: In the years since I wrote this, I found an argument that convinces me that waterboarding falls under torture. Basically, we can sum it up as “The Church does not have to catalog every form of cruelty in defining torture.” Arguing that “the Church never mentioned it, therefore it’s okay” is an argument from silence fallacy. If I had made that connection back in 2012, I would have been much more confident in writing this article.]

Certain Catholic bloggers have been either challenging or annoying the internet (depending on your views) as of late with the discussion of waterboarding and Republican candidates for President.  The issue of contention in these articles and comments are varied.  The problem I have however with the whole debate is the fact that neither side really makes a reasoned argument.
Basically put, the argument is as follows:
  1. Waterboarding is torture.
  2. Torture is condemned by the Church
  3. Therefore Waterboarding is condemned.
However those who disagree generally reject point #1, and that is the valid point of attack.  If the premise is false, then the argument collapses.
However, instead of establishing the truth or falsehood of the claim, people on both sides seem to beg the question.  They assume that it is torture or it isn't and the entire debate is spent rebutting those who disagree, whether candidate or blogger or person who comments on the blog.  The problem is, if the argument is assumed proven without proving it, the whole argument goes nowhere.
So my thought is, why not start at the beginning and look at the whole issue to begin with and see where exploration leads us?
Preliminary Thoughts Before Beginning
I want to make clear at this point that while I attempt to use logic and reason and the teaching of the Church, I do not claim magisterial authority for my conclusions.  If the Church ever makes a formal statement which contradicts what I reason here, I will submit to the decision of the Church and not claim she is in error.
The point of this article is to attempt to explore the issue which is under such dispute and perhaps help people like myself who are morally troubled by waterboarding but want to understand the teaching of the Church on the matter.
I intend to look at this in two parts.  In the first part, the objective definitions.  In the second part, what we must consider in light of what we know and what is ambiguous.
Undisputable: The Catholic Church Condemns Torture
First, we need to recognize that it is not even an issue for debate that the Catholic Church condemns torture as intrinsically evil (always wrong regardless of circumstances).  The Catholic who decides that waterboarding is torture but thinks it is justified anyway holds a position in opposition to Church teaching.  Therefore, the person who wants to justify waterboarding must establish that it is not torture.
Definition of Torture
Socrates always began by defining his terms, rather than by just discussing the right and wrong of an issue.  This is a wise thing to do, because all too often people use the same word and mean different things.  The result is talking past each other with no progress.  We need to understand what a thing is before we can get around to classifying it.
So let's begin with the Oxford English Dictionary and (since this is a Catholic blog) augment it with definitions from Church decrees.
The Concise OED defines torture as, the action or practice of inflicting severe pain as a punishment or a forcible means of persuasion.  Such a definition makes a good start, but there is a potential issue of equivocation here and that is over "pain."  Is pain to be understood as physical pain only?  Or are issues such as psychological pain (the infliction of fear etc.) also considered to be torture?  Without clearing this up, any dispute on the issue is doomed to failure.
The United Nations defines Torture as:
"any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions."
Under such a definition, it is not any pain and suffering which is incidental to lawful actions (people suffer for being in prison but that isn't automatically torture) but severe pain and suffering which is intentionally inflicted.
To increase our understanding from the Catholic perspective, the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2297 further expands the definition.  It is false to limit torture to physical pain, as it declares:
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.
So, now we have physical and moral violence.  Blessed John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor #80 also includes mental torture as equal to physical torture.  From this, we seem to reach a definition of torture we can use:
the action or practice of using physical, mental or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred.
What seems to follow from all of this are the following:
  1. Motive doesn't matter.  Blessed John Paul II spoke of torture as intrinsically evil – which means there can be no motive which can justify the use of it to claim it is good.
  2. It is not limited to physical pain.  If I use psychological means to terrorize a person, it is just as much torture as using the rack.
  3. However the pain is deliberately inflicted and is considered severe as opposed to accidental pain or mild.
I think we do have some problems of ambiguity here unfortunately which will come clear as we discuss waterboarding, and that is the question of where does the pain (physical, mental or moral) become "severe" and where does it become "deliberate."
Definition of Waterboarding
This definition is harder because it is an emotionally charged word.  Ask an opponent to define it and you get something that sounds like it comes straight out of the propagandistic distortions of the Spanish Inquisition.  Ask someone who favors the use in interrogations and it sounds like a mild inconvenience.  So what we need to do is find a definition which is as free from propaganda as we can manage.
There are almost no sources out there which seem to be free of bias one way or another, and that is a problem when we want to understand what it is before classifying it as torture or not-torture.
Unfortunately many definitions beg the question by automatically calling it torture or by denying it is torture when that is the issue under investigation.  This one (from's legal dictionary) seems to come the closest to balanced to use as a starting point:
A criminal investigation interrogation technique whereby a person suspected of having or withholding relevant information is blindfolded and bound on their back, sometimes with the face covered with porous or nonporous material, and subjected to water poured over their mouth and nose such as to simulate drowning and to thus, under duress, elicit information.
So the technique uses "duress."  Duress is defined (Concise OED) as:
noun threats, violence, etc. used to coerce a person into doing something.
Law constraint illegally exercised to force someone to perform an act.
That sounds deeply troubling right here.  Even if not torture, it is at least using coercion to gain information.  Then there is also the issue of simulated drowning which makes use of fear and/or discomfort.  Again, depending on whom you ask it is either an intense use of fear or else is not intense enough to qualify as "torture."
Who Defines?
And that's the problem.  We don't have any objective means of determining whether this use of discomfort meets the criteria of "severe."  A conservative can point to a liberal account and accuse them of bias and propaganda.  A liberal can do the same of a conservative account.  Both sides seem more focused on pushing their view than establishing the truth objectively.
It does no good to say "most nations think it is torture."  That's an argument from numbers (a logical fallacy).  Most nations seem to think abortion is right for example.  So regardless of what people think, it is important to find an authoritative source to settle the disagreements
The Church can authoritatively define the issue here of course (though only Catholics recognize this truth), but as deeply as I search, I find myself unable to find a definitive Church statement that can settle the issue one way or the other.
Now, does that mean that since we do not have a definitive statement governments are free to use waterboarding if they choose?
I absolutely reject that notion.  This is the "Argument from Ignorance" fallacy.  Since the Catholic Church understands that it is only when ignorance is invincible (that is, impossible to learn the truth) that it is not sinful, we are certainly obligated to search to the best of our reasoning what the truth is.
Making Use of the Four-Square
I think here the use of the Four Square in a way similar to the way Dr. Peter Kreeft has done in terms of abortion is useful here.  We can have two sets of either-or questions to create four possibilities.
First, Is Waterboarding Torture?  It either is, or it isn't.
Second, do we know this?
This gives us four possible answers:
  1. It is torture and we know this.
  2. it is not torture and we know this.
  3. It is torture and we do not know this.
  4. It is not torture and we do not know this.
The ramifications of these four possibilities are:
In three cases it would be wrong.  In the 4th might be wrong for other reasons
In cases 1, 3 and 4 we would be in the wrong to make use of waterboarding.  However, since an action can be wrong even if it is not torture, case #2 does not mean waterboarding is "right."
In case #1, waterboarding must be condemned as torture.  There is no way around it.
In case #2, waterboarding is not torture, but that does not mean it is automatically right.  It merely means the debate about it being right or wrong is a topic other than torture.
In case #3, we are doing wrong and if our ignorance is vincible, we are condemned for not looking into the issue enough.
In case #4, we are reckless in acting without knowing the truth.
With cases #3 and 4, Dr. Kreeft has used a good example with a hunter seeing movement in the bushes.  Does he fire before determining what causes the movement?  If he does and he kills another person, he is guilty of manslaughter at the least.  If not, he was reckless and merely got lucky.
So, in three out of the four cases the accepting of waterboarding would be wrong.  The fourth would merely shift the focus of the debate.
Here is where the reader, whether Catholic or a non-Catholic person of good will must consider well.  If you consider waterboarding to be acceptable, you will need to be able to answer for your decision before God.
Conclusion: Where I Personally Stand
I want to make clear that while I believe my opinions below reasonably follows the Church teaching, I don't want people to think I am equating my personal belief with Magisterial teaching.  I accept the Church as mother and teacher and if she should decide that I err, I would accept her teaching with obedience, grateful that she has made clear the issues that I find difficult to understand.
However, this is the conclusion I draw which my conscience tells me I must follow and it is a conclusion which I believe safely fits within the teaching of the Catholic faith.  Because it is an issue of conscience, I believe it would be wrong for me to go against this.
With this out of the way, I think waterboarding is torture and therefore something Catholics should not support.  Because it seems to make use of fear and discomfort, because there is the risk of injury (physical or mental) or death I believe that it meets the criteria of "severe pain or suffering."
This has ramifications.  If a candidate supports the use of waterboarding, it means that I must not support such a candidate except in the case where there is a greater evil to be opposed.
I do believe the issue of abortion is an issue of greater evil of course.  The torture of a thousand persons a year is a grave evil to be sure, but the sanctioned murder of a million unborn children a year is an even greater evil.
So, when it comes to choosing between two pro life candidates, the one who opposes waterboarding is to be preferred over the candidate who supports waterboarding.  However, if it comes to choosing between a candidate who favors abortion and opposes waterboarding and a candidate who opposes abortion and favors waterboarding, the first candidate is the greater evil and must be opposed.
However, in such a case, if the second candidate is elected, we must oppose any attempts to implement or further implement that grave evil.  We cannot be silent when it comes to an intrinsic evil.  I believe there would be a proportionate reason to vote for such a person to block a pro-abortion politician from becoming President, but we would have to recognize that such a vote would have to recognize that abortion is a greater evil and not that waterboarding is "not evil."

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