Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Addendum to Last Week's Torture Post

My torture posts of last week merited a number of responses -- 100 comments and counting on First Things, and 292 comments on The American Catholic -- I had to pull the plug on the latter: it seemed all parties had reached the point of talking past each other.

However, I wanted to add a few closing remarks that I appended from the post(s):

The application of canon 915

Regarding Morning Minion (Vox Nova)'s plea for denying communion to those who defend waterboarding, DarwinCatholic muses

… it seems to me that the argument lacks some crucial context. When bishops have, in rare circumstances, denied abortion to notorious abortion supporters, it has been after long years of the Church clearly denying that one may, as a Catholic, support legal abortion. It has also been after the individual politician is warned by the bishop that he/she must change his views lest he be denied communion. The denial of communion is, at that point, a response to repeated and stubborn refusal to accept correction.

So in this case, an obvious first step (assuming that the Church does in fact consider the positions being taken by these people to be totally unacceptable) would be for some bishops to step forward, make it clear that these positions are morally unacceptable, and advise people that they must cease making these arguments lest they find themselves divided from the Church.

As Chris says, this is clearly a potential teaching moment. I don’t myself agree with the arguments that folks like Thiessien are making — though I’m not ready to say with confidence that it’s impossible for Catholics to make such arguments in good conscience. …

What MM does not seem fully cognizant of, unless I’m much misreading his intention with his post, is that there is a difference in Church discipline on these two issues in that the Church has already made it clear that it considers dissent on the question of legal abortion to be something which, in notorious cases, can and should be disciplined through denial of communion. He may not like that, but there it is. It is not yet, however, clear whether the topic of waterboarding is something over which the Church considers it appropriate to ban people from communion for dissent.

(Just to make it clear, the intent of my post was not so much to agree with Morning Minion -- I don't; and rather, I concur with Darwin that by all appearances, it is not likely or even applicable to apply Canon 915 to people like Thiessen at this time. (I also doubt the author of the Vox Nova post would relish the (in my mind, justifiable) application of the same to self-identified "pro-choice" Catholics. That said, I think Morning Minion would be in agreement with me.

Is there a debate over 'waterboarding'?

Morning Minion replies:

Despite Christopher’s assertion to the contrary, there is no real debate about whether waterboarding constitutes torture.

Like it or not, I do think there is a 'debate'. Various Catholic apologists and pundits believe waterboarding may very well not be torture, and not intrinsically evil. In the comments of my very post, the same arguments were marshaled that have been used time and again:

  • Waterboarding as visited by SERE upon our own troops, or upon the Al Qaeda prisoners during interrogation, was, well, qualitatively different from the 'waterboarding' used by the Japanese and the Gestapo during World War II; by French during the Algerian war; by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970's, or, for that matter, by U.S. troops during the Vietnam war and a Texas sheriff upon a prisoner in 1983 (the latter two cases resulting in a court martial and dishonerable discharge from the Army, and a 10 year prison sentence, respectively).

  • Waterboarding was used with a different motive in mind than that which is condemned, say, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (“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.”) The United States, to quote Father Harrison, employed such techniques "to extract vital information from, say, a captured and self-confessed Al Qaeda operative whose secret plans may be the required key for saving hundreds or even thousands of innocent lives from his next projected terrorist attack." Consequently, the Catechism's "failure to condemn torture for obtaining “information” look like a deliberate decision on the part of church authorities, rather than a mere oversight or coincidence." [NOTE: This is precisely one of those instances where it would be easy to put an end to years of rampant speculation, were the actual editors of the passages in question to clarify their intention].

  • Waterboarding is defensible under "Just War" criteria -- This position is taken by several Catholic pundits (Deal Hudson, Fr. Robert Sirico and most recently Mark Thiessen on EWTN). Last year, a prominent advisor in the Reagan administration and popular evangelical Christian Gary Bauer employed the 'just war' criteria in defense of waterboarding as well.
I'm not necessarily stating the above arguments are persuasive -- but they are used just the same.

"It's only about waterboarding" vs. "100 deaths of detainees in U.S. custody"

Responding to the dismissal of one critic that the debate was "a waste of time", as it was "only" about three individuals who were waterboarded years ago, I drew attention to the report of the organization Human Rights First: Command’s Responsibility: Detainee Deaths in U.S. Custody in Iraq and Afghanistan – billing itself as “comprehensive accounting of the U.S. government’s handling of the nearly 100 cases of detainees who have died in U.S. custody since 2002.”

My friend Donald McClarey and a few others justifiably took me to task, pointing out that only a portion of those 100 reported deaths were actually suspect.

I freely concede and acknowledge that the ‘100 detainee deaths under U.S. custody’ claim merits close scrutiny -- and likewise believe one should be skeptical of cases in which, for example, every one of those cases are attributed to torture and interrogation. At the same time I don't think they can be dismissed wholesale, either, as some here are inclined to do. Here are some further attempts to break down the list in question:

I understand that not everything that occurred happened with the authoritative sanction from the top. (I certainly stand corrected if I gave that impression myself). I don't necessarily buy into the dominant "torture narrative" either -- the proposition that the Bush administration deliberately conspired to commit torture, and demanded the legal sanction to do so.

Rather, I find it more plausible that many of these officials at the top did not want to commit torture, and -- when they were approached for help on this matter by those conducting the actual interrogations -- were motivated to ascertain those techniques which they deemed were "within the lines". I'm not necessarily convinced they succeeded in doing so, but perhaps we can concede that they pursued this objective with honorable intentions, conscious of their responsibility to protect us from harm. (This is where I tend to take issue with Mark Shea: the speculation and imputation of dubious motives).

However, reading over the vast body of accounts and memos related to "enhanced interrogation" and detainee abuse, my sense is that even the lesser of the 'enhanced interrogation' techniques -- "environmental manipulation"; "sleep deprivation/adjustment"; "stress positions"; "20-hour interrogations", "controlled fear" -- that were signed off and formally approved of, were a contributing factor. Moreover, that our present methods of implementing this incarceration and interrogation is grossly dysfunctional. (See the Human Rights Watch report: "No Blood, No Foul": Soldiers' Accounts of Detainee Abuse in Iraq).

On paper it sounds as if such 'enhanced interrogation' techniques were tightly regulated so as to prohibit any abuse; that such abuse would be easily recognized and quickly addressed -- enough that our former President could say with a straight face, and with full conviction: "we don't torture."

When in reality, at least according to one soldier's testimony:

... And within a couple hours a team of two JAG officers, JAG lawyers, came and gave us a couple hours slide show on why this is necessary, why this is legal, they're enemy combatants, they're not POWs, and so we can do all this stuff to them and so forth. Yeah, they came the very same day. . . . Oh, it was very fast. We [laughing] it was like they were ready. I mean they had this two hour slide show all prepared, and they came in and gave it to us and they stopped interrogations for it. It was a PowerPoint. It was on a computer laptop. . . .

Some of the slides were about the laws of war, the Geneva Convention, but it was kind of a starting-off point for them to kind of spout off, you know: why we don't have to follow these Geneva Convention articles and so forth. Like, you know, inhumane and degrading treatment, well, this specifically relates to POWs, so we don't have to do this. So basically, we can do inhumane and degrading treatment.

And then they went on to the actual treatment itself, what we were doing, what we'd signed off on and those types of things: cold water and nudity, strobe lights, loud music-that's not inhumane because they're able to rebound from it. And they claim no lasting mental effects or physical marks or anything, or permanent damage of any kind, so it's not inhumane. And then there was also [discussion about] degrading [treatment]. Like what's more degrading than being thrown completely naked in the middle of a mud pile, with everybody looking at you and spraying water on you. . . .

So while many of these actions are morally questionable, I think we need to evaluate these incidents on a case-by-case basis: distinguishing between those techniques which were "lawfully sanctioned" and formally signed off on by the Bush administration at the time (which may, nonetheless be gravely immoral) -- AND other blatant abuses which occurred as a result of on-the-spot and often rash decisions by the interrogators themselves -- not necessarily formally approved by the top, but nonetheless encouraged by the environment and the circumstances.

Which is to say: this is not one of those things where we can lay every incident that ever occurred at the feet of President Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld and scream for a war crimes tribunal.

Where are the anti-torture conservatives?

It is very disconcerting to me -- as a self-identified 'Catholic-conservative' blogger since 2002 -- that the predominant sources I have to turn to for investigative reporting on this subject are leading liberal periodicals or organizations. It has been frequently pointed out -- I'm well aware of -- the liberal bias that is often present in these accounts, and am mindful to read with a critical eye.

I very much resent the fact that it is chiefly "liberals" who are raising a storm over this -- and that many conservatives seem to shrug it off. To quote the first response from one prominent "pro-life" critic of my post:

"Why is this such a tedious and ultimately meaningless argument? Because only 3 people were waterboarded. This is an issue that is being ginned up mostly by folks who hate Republicans and want desperately to change the debate from abortion."
Let's face it: it is this kind of knee-jerk response puts pro-lifers in a sorry light, and simply gives ready ammunition to Vox Nova's stereotype of "the hypocritical conservative."

Homework -- for those who care to read

Finally, here are some resources that may help evaluate "enhanced interrogation" -- again, with the disclaimer that these are typically understood to be 'liberal' sources. We have to read critically, but we can't wantonly dismiss for that reason either.


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  1. Good work! Much appreciated.

    Jim McCullough
    Greensboro, NC

  2. This one was interesting: