Tuesday, April 18, 2006

To Torture, or Not to Torture...

That is the post 9/11 questions.

Whether it is nobler
to commit evil that good may follow
and chance the rising darkness in our heart
Or endure such evil
and in enduring, end it.

Stephen Lake considers the question in The Lesser Evil? over at Christianity Today.

He focuses on the perennial issue that continues to haunt our society these post 9/11 days: torture.

Should we or shouldn't we?

He focuses on two Christian scholars' contrasting responses.

First, there's Jean Bethke Elshtain approval of "torture lite":
While Elshtain decries Dershowitz's torture warrant proposal as "a stunningly bad idea … up-ending the moral universe: that which is rightly taboo now becomes just another piece in the armementarium of the state," she admits that "there is no absolute prohibition to what some call torture." Her primary concern is definitional. There is a problem, she argues, with "the word itself," torture: "If everything from a shout to the severing of a body part is 'torture,' the category is so indiscriminate as to not permit of those distinctions on which the law and moral philosophy rest. If we include all forms of coercion or manipulation within 'torture,' we move in the direction of indiscriminate moralism and legalism—a kind of deontology run amok." For the sake of precision, she argues, we ought to limit use of the term "torture" only to horrific torments that everyone would consider as such: rape, mutilation, electrical shocks, the rack, crucifixion and cruelty to a suspect's spouse or children. Just as there are degrees of murder, from manslaughter to murder in the first degree, so too is there is a range of coercive tactics. Thus she endorses Mark Bowden's notion of "torture lite,"3 admitting that shouting, trickery, sensory and sleep deprivation, hooding and stripping, and even moderate physical coercion (slaps, shoves, collaring, etc.) may be allowed. For when it comes to defending innocent lives from terrorist attack, it is "moralistic 'code fetishism'" to proscribe all forms of what the Geneva Conventions call cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.4
To which, Mr. Lake responds:
Is it not possible that the cumulative effect of many acts of torture lite would amount to torture proper? A steady diet of hooding, sleep and food deprivation, nakedness and shame, exposure to severe temperatures, deception, and intimidation can surely have the effect of creating servility, creating a environment of fear, and destroying a subject's world. Here it is telling to note that Elshtain tends to associate torture with singular acts of extreme physical torment; but if Parry and Scarry are correct, the cumulative effect of persistent torture lite—which plays as much on the mind as on the body—can be equally devastating to the person as a whole.

Christian ethicists (including Elshtain herself) hold that the image of God resides in the whole person, who is a complex, integrated whole of body and mind. If this richer understanding of coercion is correct, it might, then, appear better to draw the lines precisely where the Geneva Conventions did, putting torture and torture lite in their respective categories while proscribing both. Even if necessity drives agents beyond the pale, even if our courts allow for such a legal defense, the moral line remains clear in this murky terrain. To my mind, this line of reasoning hardly counts as "moral code fetishism"—least of all, for the Christian ethicist.
Next. Mr. Lake considers the absolute rejection of torture "an emerging voice in Roman Catholic theology"--William T. Cavanaugh:
In Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ and more recent publications,6 William T. Cavanaugh admonishes Christians to reject lesser evil thinking entirely. The Christian's response to torture, he maintains, is to unite as the body of Christ and to practice, instead, a Eucharistic politics of peaceable resistance to power. In the Eucharist, the Church is united as the body of Christ in celebration of the Lord Jesus Christ, tortured and slain by the powers of this world. In his own, typical words:
The job of the church is to tell the truth: this is not an exceptional nation and we do not live in exceptional times, at least as the world describes it. Everything did not change on 9/11; everything changed on 12/25. When the Word of God became incarnate in human history, when he was tortured to death by the powers of this world, and when he rose to give us new life—it was then that everything changed. Christ is the exception that becomes the rule of history.7
Eucharistic resistance responds differently in the face of terror. By it,
we are made capable of loving our enemies, of treating the other as a member of our own body, the body of Christ. The time that Christ inaugurates is not a time of exceptions to the limits of violence, but a time when the kingdoms of this world will pass away before the inbreaking kingdom of God.
A crucial feature of Cavanaugh's approach is to contextualize torture. He would agree with Parry's broader understanding of the phenomenon, and go further. Theologically and historically, torture must be located within the modern state's battle for political supremacy over other competing authorities—especially over religion. Here he builds on a controversial narrative he developed some years earlier,8 which rejects the common view that the Wars of Religion necessitated the rise of the modern secular state as an adjudicator of conflict and keeper of the peace. Rather, "what was at issue in these wars was the very creation of religion as a set of privately held beliefs without direct political relevance …[which] was necessitated by the new State's need to secure absolute sovereignty over its subjects."9

In Torture and Eucharist, Cava-naugh illustrates this point through a case study of torture and the Roman Catholic Church in Pinochet's Chile. He argues that in typical modern fashion, the church tragically accepted a lesser evil tradeoff with the modern, secular state. In a kind of Gnostic deal with the devil, the church gained conditional "spiritual authority" over "Chilean souls" so long as it did not contest the state's unconditional sovereignty over the body and the means of physical coercion. But eventually, when the cycle of violence threatened to destroy the Chilean republic, the church corrected course. It rejected the terms of the modern compromise and sought to recover its Eucharistic unity as the body of Christ. Only then was it finally capable of resisting the practice of torture by the Pinochet regime—and helping to bring it to an end.

The message is clear: If the post-9/11 world forces such choices on the body of Christ, we ought to reject them, too. Instead of security at all costs, Christians ought to embrace our nation's friends and enemies—and reject torture as a means to our own security.
Mr. Lake might like to whole-heartedly embrace Cavanaugh's thesis. However, like Reagan, he trusts but verifies:
Cavanaugh's message is provocative and stirring. At its best, it is, I believe, a prophetic call to the church to move to a deeper and more rigorous denial of a politics rooted in violence. Nevertheless, I have yet to find in his writings10 a systematic reckoning with the Pauline teaching in Romans 13, that the governing authorities are God's "agents … who do not bear the sword for naught." Cavanaugh readily embraces Paul's teaching about the body of Christ and its mission, but what of his teaching about the state and its mission? It may be that the state often immorally rushes to violent means, but does violence ever have a role? Elsewhere, Cavanaugh appears to endorse just war ethics,11 but it is not clear how its affirmation of restrained political violence in the service of justice fits within his Eucharistic politics, which appears to eschew violence entirely. Perhaps the most plausible interpretation is that he wants a more rigorous, morally idealistic application of just war thinking than Elshtain, George Weigel, or some other theorists have offered. But for that application to have a more solid grounding, I think Cavanaugh will need to integrate Paul's teaching about the body of Christ with his teaching about the limited sovereignty over earthly affairs that God does grant to the state.
I agree with Mr. Lake on both his summaries of and responses to his interlocuters. Ms. Elshtain's position fails to address our fundamental identity as human persons. We have been created by our God with an inviolable dignity. Torture--lite or otherwise--disintegrates a human being from his will, making torture of any kind a destable violation of human dignity. Thus, torture always and everywhere contradicts the will of God in regards to the dignity of the human person. The Catholic Church has a name for such absolute contradictions. She names them intrinsically evil acts. These acts--by virtue of what they do--can never be justified by circumstances or intentions, however dire.

That is likely where Mr. Cavanaugh is coming from. He surely knows the Church's teaching on torture:
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.
Therefore, he defies any government's intention to legitimize any use of torture for any reason, even one as vital as the defense of the people it's sworn to protect.

He's absolutely right, of course. None of may do evil, that good may come of it. No government can implement an intrinsic evil as a just policy. While Mr. Lake's concern about Mr. Cavanaugh's understanding of the role of the state in his "Eucharistic policy" strikes a cord, it's not relevent to any discussion about torture. No state can legitimately claim the right to torture anyone.

This is not "moral fetishism." This is adhering to the teaching of Christ through his Church. While some unfortunate Foolables might like to debate whether torture is, indeed, intrinsically evil, their likes do not change Christ's mind. Likewise, other unfortunate Foolables might like to point to the Church's own past participation in policies that mandated torture. Well, since when has imperfection by any Christian made Christ's revelation questionable? If that's the case, then we have no cause to hope in our salvation, for we all must doubt even the Ressurection. After all, far too many Christians throughout the ages acted as though the Ressurection didn't happen; why, they've buried their dead for 2,000 years! And if they're so intent on prejudicing the Church's teaching on account of her inadequacy in witnessing to it, let them consider this:
2298 In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors.
Torture is not an option for Fools and committed Christians anywhere. When the Reasonable and Foolable Defenders of Society collectively mutter for the legitimation of this dehumanizing practice, we must stand with Christ and his Church and say, "No!"

Christ calls all of us into union with himself. We can't accept his invitation if we busy ourselves disintegrating our neighbors, however much we believe they deserve it.

If we violate others' integrity tomorrow, who will stop others from violating our own the next day?