Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Still Resolving the Torture Question

Mark Shea responds to Jimmy Akin here:
the fact is, I have no huge problem with attempts to define torture in the abstract (though, as we shall see, I think there are problems with trying to be purely abstract in the real world). Nor do I claim that my definitions are definitive. Personally, I think the person I know (cyberly speaking) who has done the most rigorous thinking about the question of defining torture is Zippy, whose archives I urge you to read, both at his blog and at Enchiridion Militis. Likewise, there is little left for me to say in response to Jimmy's cogitations that Zippy (whose comments I urge you to read on this thread) has not said.

However, I will add this: while there may be, in some other world, a way to get to something that looks an awful lot like torture but is not intrinsically immoral and therefore not necessarily condemned by Veritatis Splendor, I can't help but think that this is mighty far removed from reality. Moreover, in *this* world where torture is being conducted by the State and its apologists and advocates in the real world are not much troubled by such fine-tuned arguments and typically operate on the basis of pure consequentialism, I can't help but wonder if "What is torture?" is still a profoundly wrong-headed question.

What I mean is this: it's fine, in the abstract, to wonder "What is famine?" and go into a long exploration of precisely how to define famine. What's the difference between famine and dieting? What about countries where food consumption is just normatively lower than, say, the United States? Are they suffering famine? How many people, as a percentage, have to be going hungry (and how do you define "hunger" precisely?) before a state of "famine" exists? Questions like this can be multiplied forever. They are all reasonable, thoughtful, and so forth. Yet, if we spend a huge amount of time on them and (most importantly) never come to any conclusions during the middle of, say, a state-enforced famine under Stalin we will, like it or not, begin to start sounding like we are making excuses for Stalin's actions. It begins to start sounding like we're saying, "Oh sure, a lot of people are "hungry" (as it's popularly called) but does it really qualify as a "famine". Lots of evil get shrouded by quotation marks.

Now, to be very clear, I am NOT saying that Jimmy is doing this. If Jimmy had been writing for a year, making every conceivable excuse for torture, starting up blogs devoted almost exclusively to attacking those who oppose torture, and endlessly expressing hopeless confusion over what is torture (while resolutely refusing to acknowledge any positive definition of torture) it would be a different story. I think he's making a first stab at trying to respond to a question he has not addressed a lot of thought to. He's welcome to give it a whack. I wish more people were trying to do it. It certainly beats pondering the meaning of the works of Eminem. And by the same token, I think Zippy has done a pretty good job of pointing out the weakenesses in the comboxes.

But beyond that, I think a paradigm shift is necessary. Our task as Catholics is not to probe the bare minimum of what is ethically necessary and hug it like a limpet. Our task is not to try to get as close to torture as possible without crossing a line. Jimmy himself recognizes this, I think, in his Big Red Disclaimer. But I think the tidal pull of the "What is torture?" question in the context of current events makes it hard for a lot of people to make the paradigm shift.

The paradigm shift is this: "Do not torture and abuse prisoners" is not the only thing the Church says about our obligation in wartime. There is a positive command as well: Treat prisoners humanely and with respect for their human dignity. If we are seriously obeying that, we will not be asking whether there are things we can do to them that look like torture but are not intrinsically immoral. That, at the end of the day, is not the real issue. Therefore, the question "What is torture?" while interesting in an abstract way, is a question that has, for far too long, derailed the real discussion. For the real question is, "How do we conduct interrogations while being sure to treat prisoners humanely?" Until we start asking that, we are barking up the wrong tree.
His commentators on a previous thread offer a diversity of thought.

As for me, I find the mad rush of Fools to go Foolable to the Right as laughable as going Foolable for the left. Some have done this by obscuring the meaning of the word torture with the very question. Some have done it by asking if ridiculously non-tortures are torture under someone's definition. Others take the minimalist approach.

Personally, I like Richard Comeford's take: Love your enemy. Practice that love in the context of military detention. Army Field Manuel sans current-politically-correct, OK-to-torture manure does the job nicely, from what I've seen.

How about we continue spreading the Foolishness our Master has entrusted to us? Leave the Foolable water-carrying aside. The Reasonable--of the right or the left--can carry their own.

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