torture is evil

Another must read - Hitchens' chilling waterboarding experience.
You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered.


I fought down the first, and some of the second, wave of nausea and terror but soon found that I was an abject prisoner of my gag reflex. The interrogators would hardly have had time to ask me any questions, and I knew that I would quite readily have agreed to supply any answer. I still feel ashamed when I think about it. Also, in case it’s of interest, I have since woken up trying to push the bedcovers off my face, and if I do anything that makes me short of breath I find myself clawing at the air with a horrible sensation of smothering and claustrophobia. No doubt this will pass. As if detecting my misery and shame, one of my interrogators comfortingly said, “Any time is a long time when you’re breathing water.” I could have hugged him for saying so, and just then I was hit with a ghastly sense of the sadomasochistic dimension that underlies the relationship between the torturer and the tortured. I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.
It horrifies me to think the U.S. government has done this to people. It is indefensible.


Dave said...

Indefensible? Ridiculous statement, more later.

Dave said...

Well, thought about it in the shower a bit more. Not necessarily a ridiculous statement, but it is a statement that implies that your mind is made up and it makes no sense in discussing it further.

Zachary said...

No, just because my mind is made up doesn't mean there's no sense in discussing it further. In fact, I specifically posted it so you and I could discuss it.

Here's why my mind is made up, tell me if I'm wrong and why: I think the article makes a powerful case that waterboarding is indeed torture. If waterboarding is torture, it is intrinsically evil.

I hold it is evil because our Church teaches it is evil infallibly.

Veritatis Splendour

"80. Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that "there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object".131 The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: "Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator"."

Zachary said...

Here is a link so you can read it yourself:


Dave said...

I'm still not sold that it is torture.

Even at that, I will have to reflect and pray more on the Church's teaching on what constitutes an evil act. Because as of right now, waterboarding (torture or not) I don't believe it to be evil in all instances,

I am not nearly as much up to speed on such theological arguments, however, isn't there also teaching on actions carried out by men who are acting under orders of a national army, etc?

Zachary said...

There are certainly distinctions that need to be made involving war, but even in cases of war torture is never an OK thing. The Pope is saying that, the act of torturing someone is evil by its very nature - regardless of the circumstances.

But the way to understand this is that the Church repudiates Machiavelli: it is never licit to do evil even if good consequences might result. The ends do not justify the means.

If waterboarding is torture, and I think this article is good evidence that it is, then it is evil. For the very serious reason that every person, including Islamic terrorists, are made in the image of God and are therefore accorded certain dignity whether we feel like they deserve it or not.

Darwin said...

I thought it showed a lot of journalistic integrity on Hitchens' part to allow himself to be subjected to this so that he could write about it.

As for whether it's torture -- it seems to me that the moral act (and thus the sin) of torture consists of doing something to someone to cause pain. Whether your motivation to inflict pain is to get information or force conformity or simply because you're a sadist, it's having the end of causing pain that makes torture wrong.

Given that, it certainly seems likely to me that waterboarding is in almost all circumstances going to be torture -- but I don't think I would call the technique itself "objectively evil" so much as the moral act of doing something with the end of inflicting pain on another person.

I am pretty sure that, all such questions aside, it's not a good idea for us to be using waterboarding on terrorist suspects. I think that in the long run we are, even at a pragmatic level, better off being "better than that".

Dave said...

"the deliberate, systematic, or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons in an attempt to force another person to yield information or to make a confession or for any other reason"

Would turning the temperature up in the interrogation room constitute "physical or mental suffering"?

Zachary said...

Would turning the temperature up in the interrogation room constitute "physical or mental suffering"?

Depends, how high and for how long?

Ol' Blue said...

I realized that I come to this question, having flipped and flopped previously, sympathizing with those who think waterboarding is ok, because I found this the most resonating part of Hitchens' article:
The team who agreed to give me a hard time in the woods of North Carolina belong to a highly honorable group. This group regards itself as out on the front line in defense of a society that is too spoiled and too ungrateful to appreciate those solid, underpaid volunteers who guard us while we sleep. These heroes stay on the ramparts at all hours and in all weather, and if they make a mistake they may be arraigned in order to scratch some domestic political itch. Faced with appalling enemies who make horror videos of torture and beheadings, they feel that they are the ones who confront denunciation in our press, and possible prosecution. As they have just tried to demonstrate to me, a man who has been waterboarded may well emerge from the experience a bit shaky, but he is in a mood to surrender the relevant information and is unmarked and undamaged and indeed ready for another bout in quite a short time. When contrasted to actual torture, waterboarding is more like foreplay. No thumbscrew, no pincers, no electrodes, no rack. Can one say this of those who have been captured by the tormentors and murderers of (say) Daniel Pearl? On this analysis, any call to indict the United States for torture is therefore a lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilization and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out, and ultimately to bring it down. I myself do not trust anybody who does not clearly understand this viewpoint.
Hitchens counters with 4 points. One is the slippery slop argument, which Dave basically countered in his last comment. The slipper slope argument is a two way street, and we have to draw the line on what is permissible somewhere. This seems like an argument of last resort.
Another is that the information elicited from waterboarding could be false. This seems like a possibility with any interrogation procedure, but it doesn't strike me as a moral argument. I leave the settlement of this one up to those with experience with the matter. The other two points deal with hypocrisy: we have persecuted others for using waterboarding, and it opens up captured Americans to waterboarding. Generally I think what's good for the goose is good for the gander, and we use waterboarding, other countries should be able to as well. It is interesting that for decades the US military has been waterboarding its own soldiers for training purposes, and yet hasn't slid down the slippery slope to employing more gruesome techniques on them.
This is a tough one, and I will try and post more in short order.

Dave said...

The point I am trying to make is that surely not all levels of "mental suffering" rise to the occasion of being called "torture". If I am a terrorist, and I am captured and placed into a cell. Surely I am "suffering mentally", (basically Iam scared $hitless).

When the eventual interrogation happens, what is acceptable? We have all seen the scenes in Law & Order. Making the terrorists sweat a little and feel uncomfortable is the standard. If it weren't effective, why would they do it? Furthermore, I am not convinced waterboarding rises to the definition of torture.

Zachary said...

Yep, I agree - "not all levels of 'mental suffering' rise to the occasion of being called 'torture'."

I do think, however, that waterboarding, i.e., subjecting someone to drowning for brief periods of time, is both physically and psychologically torture.

I also don't like its pedigree - it's been practiced by a number of awful regimes - Cambodia's Khmer Rouge comes to mind.

Dave said...

Including the Spanish Inquisition.

Its pedigree seems to not be relevant to the discussion.

I still don't think it rises to the occasion of torture. It surely is an enhanced interrogation technique, but it does not leave permanent damage. Torture is the slow cutting of a person, the slow breaking of bones, etc.

Trying to determine where a bomb is going to go off through waterboarding does not compare to real torture.

I'm with Andy McCarthy here: "Personally, I don't believe it qualifies. It is not in the nature of the barbarous sadism universally condemned as torture, an ignominy the law, as we've seen, has been patently careful not to trivialize or conflate with lesser evils... ...waterboarding is close enough to torture that reasonable minds can differ on whether it is torture".

Zachary said...

The Spanish Inquisition was in many ways horrible too!

But yeah, I can't convince you with words that it's definitely torture. Maybe you should pull a Hitchens and find out?

But seriously, if your conscience is really truly and honestly clear than I have nothing to ask but: are you really sure?

I sort of agree with McCarthy about reasonable minds disagreeing. But I think a reasonable mind would argue that waterboarding is at the very least close to torture. That is, it's very close to being intrinsically evil. It's a line I personally do not want to tread, and I do not think our country should tread it either, regardless of the consequences (good or bad).