Archive for April 27th, 2009

Tortured Reasoning

I have been writing, when I have been writing at all lately, about small children, birds, and the Divine Liturgy. As some of you may have guessed, I gave up- along with a lot of other things- public political discourse for Lent. As it turned out, not only was this not much of a penance, it was a genuine relief. I was, after all, exhausted from the last election, which was the only one I’ve ever known that strained friendships.

I am loathe to reenter the fray, but what I want to comment on really is more along the lines of moral theology than polemics. (Yes, I know that I could probably make the same claim to most of my political commentary, alas)…

There has been a great deal of controversy in the past weeks over President Obama’s release of Bush era memos describing and justifying various “enhanced” interrogation techniques. “Enhanced interrogation techniques”, of course, is a euphemism for torture, the way “collateral damage” is a euphemism for dead civilians. At least it is no longer possible to argue that a handful of rogue hillbillies were alone responsible for the abuse of prisoners. Beyond doubt, the roots of the thing were in the highest levels of the Bush administration.

Reaction to this on the Right consists of two responses. Some are still arguing that somehow such acts as denying a suspect sleep for 11 days, threatening harm to his children, hanging him from his wrists from the ceiling like in a cartoon dungeon, nearly drowning him- 183 times in a month in one instance- locking him in a dark box with crawling insects, stripping him and dousing him with ice water in a cold room, and the rest of it are somehow “not really torture”.

I hope these moral idiots remember that the next time American troops are captured by their enemies.

But the most common reaction is that, however one wants to characterize these actions, they work and are therefore justifiable. At least Dick Cheney, who will not go away, claims they work, though the quality of intelligence gained by torture is open to debate.

But let us grant, for the sake of argument, that they do work. For this reveals the real moral bankruptcy of the post-Christian milieu. In moral theology, the idea that the morality of an act is determined by the good it effects rather than by the intrinsic nature of the act, is called “consequentialism”. Consequentialism is a sort of spiritual and moral poison, for by it anything can be justified based upon the imagined good that one will obtain or the evil that will be thwarted. It is a poison that has been ingested by nearly everyone in this culture, Right, Left and Center. Nor are religious believers immune. In the last week I heard, on the radio, the consequentialist justification for torture from two Catholics, the self-proclaimed SuperCatholic and former senator Rick Santorum, and the more average Catholic pew-sitter Sean Hannity. To see these paragons of moral principle revealed as relativists would have been amusing, were the stakes not so high.

And if you doubt for a moment the breadth of the infection, think of any discussion you have ever heard among Americans about the bombing of Axis cities in World War II. Mention Hiroshima and most Americans will defend annihilating it by citing the (imagined) numbers of American lives which were saved by averting an invasion. A handful will declare that in fact dropping the bomb was not necessary because Japan would have negotiated if the US had not demanded unconditional surrender, or for some other reason. Only a tiny handful, even among Christians and Catholics, who should know better, will say that it was simply wrong because it is always wrong to intentionally kill innocent people.

Indeed, all of the horrors of the last century and of this nascent one were carried out in the name of some great good. The Nazis, after all, heralded the dawn of the the Third Reich, the thousand year reign of peace and order, under the benevolent hand of the master race. The Marxists killed their millions to bring about heaven on earth, the end of war and inequality and oppression. In our own day, scientists defend their ghoulish experiments on living human embryos to rid the world of disease, and the Wahhabi jihadists are blowing up themselves and their enemies to initiate the rule of God. In their minds they are literally blowing themselves to Kingdom Come.

Americans decry these horrors but defend the ones they themselves perpetuate for the sake of lesser goals: defense of “The Homeland”, or the spread of democracy, or the establishment of a Pax Americana.

To return to the question of torture, let’s conduct a little experiment in morality: if the “enhanced interrogation techniques” described above can be justified in the name of expediency, what else is allowed? Can we crush the testicles of the suspect’s child, as Bush administration lawyer John Yoo so infamously argued? If it works, if it saves lives, why not? Where do you draw the line, and how is that line not arbitrary?

As these moral convolutions are always done in the light of some far-fetched hypothetical situation, let me propose one such situation: if you could save the whole world by torturing a single two year old to death could you do it? How is this different from incinerating a hundred thousand civilians to win a war?

That secularists, who see only as far as the horizons of this world, can justify such amoral calculations is bad enough. That those who claim the name of Christ can do so, those who are commanded to love their enemies, to do good to those who would harm them, and to treat others as they themselves wish to be treated, is mind boggling.

Kyrie Elieson. Hospidi Pomiliu. Lord Have Mercy.

Daniel Nichols

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