O for a voice like thunder, and a tongue
To drown the throat of war! When the senses
Are shaken and the soul is driven to madness,
Who can stand? When the souls of the oppressed
Fight in the troubled air that rages, who can stand?
When the whirlwind of fury comes from the
Throne of God, when the frowns of His countenance
Drive the nations together, who can stand?
When Sin claps his broad wings over the battle
And sails rejoicing in a flood of death;
When souls are torn to everlasting fire
And fiends of hell rejoice upon the slain,
O who can stand? O who hath caused this?
O who can answer at the throne of God?
The Kings and Nobles of the land have done it!
Hear it not, Heaven, thy ministers have done it!
-- Poetical Sketches, "Prologue Intended for a Dramatic Piece of King Edward the Fourth," William Blake
The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, William Blake, 1805
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I've written a little on the subject of torture recently, in the wake of the report made by the SSCI. My previous post was more concerned to explain my own pacifism; my blood then curdled to see people -- nearly all of them professing and practicing Christians -- positively coming out of the woodwork to defend the use of torture, as a drastic necessity or even as a work of positive justice.
For the purposes of this post, I'll ignore the more obvious blasphemies of creatures like Sarah Palin. D. C. McAllister at The Federalist is one author who has come forward in defense of torture.* She writes:
... 79 percent of evangelicals in America and 78 percent of Catholics (along with 68 percent of all Americans, according to a recent poll) ... say torture can be justified. ... Torture in some forms and in some circumstances -- conducted by the police and military officials -- can be morally justified because (1) torture is not necessarily morally worse than killing (i.e., the death penalty); (2) the terrorist has forfeited his right to life and his dignity by his own evil actions; and (3) the innocent lives that can be saved are of higher value than any moral claims by the terrorist who has committed atrocities.
Now, in strict fairness, I must say that I was predisposed to disagree with (and indeed be pretty horrified by) McAllister's essay; having read it, as objectively as I can, I do find it objectively horrifying. I also think that its argument is rationally sloppy. However, since it seems to be fairly representative of Christian defenders of torture, and also better written than many -- for instance, she has the great good sense to define her terms -- I've chosen it as my point of departure.
McAllister defines torture as "the infliction of severe pain on a defenseless person for the purpose of breaking his or her will," which seems as good a definition as any.** This, from the start, places torture decidedly outside the traditionally Christian view of violence.
Have a kitten. You're, uh, going to need it.
The abhorrence of Jesus for violence hardly needs to be explained; though He seems to have been angry, or at least exasperated, often enough, we have only two instances on record of His being by any description violent, neither one against human beings. And when things came to the point, He made quite explicit His refusal to employ any kind of force, and indeed, openly begged His Father to forgive His crucifiers. Yet all that being said -- and even apart from the subsequent history of Christendom, with its wars and rumors of wars -- it is difficult, even so, to take the view that, say, the mother who knocks a man on the head with a lamp to keep him from raping her daughter has really sinned by doing so. To argue, as some pacifists do, that even defending the life of a defenseless innocent is wrong, is far too demanding a doctrine for most people to even consider.
The Catholic (and mainstream Christian) solution to this paradox has been that violence in defense of one's own life or the life of another is morally permissible -- and may even, when it comes to those who depend on us, be a duty -- but that this is qualified in three important ways. First, it's precisely defending the innocent that is allowed here, not a general license to harm or cause pain to an attacker. Second, coming from this first concern about motive, the defensive means must go only as far as it takes to effectively restrain an attacker from hurting someone, no further. And third, at any rate in the case of self-defense, it is also permitted to forsake this right, rather in the way that forsaking the right of marriage in favor of celibacy is not required of Christians yet is still a good work. These notions about violence -- which, I think, first began to be formulated by St Augustine, after Constantine's quasi-conversion had improved and complicated the relationship between the Church and the Empire -- finds expression both in the idea of self-defense, and in the tradition of Just War Theory.
In any case, one of the essential threads in the tapestry is that only an aggressor may be responded to through violent means; another is that only those means which effectively prevent an aggressor from causing harm, and no more, may be used. St Thomas, whom McAllister refers to a number of times in her essay, is quoted in the Catechism on this point.
Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with its Creator ... God alone is the Lord of life ... The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent ... "If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful ..." 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 to human dignity.***
How does all this this exclude torture? Well, look back at the definition: torture is the infliction of severe pain on a defenseless person. Defenseless people are in no position to be aggressors; they have already been restrained. The moment an aggressor's power to harm is neutralized, according to the Christian tradition, our right to use violence disappears -- because it ceases thereby to be self-defensive violence. And this holds in the formulation of Just War Theory, whose exponents have long maintained that not only civilians but even prisoners of war have a right to humane treatment, precisely because they no longer qualify as aggressors.
But what about terrorism? Terrorists are already breaking all the rules of justly conducted warfare -- they deserve to have those rules broken right back on them!
Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many live that deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.****
Gandalf the Grey, wearing what may be the finest "bitchplease" face in pretend-history.
And if we speak of just deserts, I think we must be prepared to meet the ghosts of the Cherokee, the Chickasaw and the Choctaw, the Muscogee and the Seminole, the Sioux and the Dakota, the dead of Tippecanoe and Wounded Knee; the ghosts of African and Caribbean slaves, the "strange fruit" that hung from Southern trees, the victims of depraved Tuskegee; the ghosts of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki; the palatably-termed "collateral damage" of Afghanistan and Iraq.
McAllister's argument is (in my judgment) founded on deeply un-Christian premises. She asserts that it's worse to kill someone than to torture them, because "When someone is dead, they have no autonomy, no hope of life, and no dignity. They're dead." This line of thinking is materialistic: it makes life the highest good, and declares that those who lack life lack humanity. But some of the most basic Christian doctrines are the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body. If the soul continues to exist, then they do still have autonomy and dignity; and if we will be raised again to life at the Last Day, then hope of life is a given as well. No thoroughly Christian defense can be made for the claims McAllister here makes as part of the basis of her argument.
She goes on to point out that death by torture (namely stoning) was the standard form of capital punishment prescribed in the Torah; she also states that
If killing were not morally justifiable on the basis of human dignity, God would be a monster. But he isn't. Why? Because of human guilt. Even though the Bible says "Thou Shalt Not Kill," God orders Joshua to "go in and clean house, and don't leave anything breathing! Don't leave a donkey, child, woman, old man or old woman breathing. Wipe out Jericho!" He can order this because these people had violated God's law and in so doing had forfeited their rights and lost all sense of dignity.
I decline to speculate -- still less (for once), to pontificate -- on why God did this or that in the Old Testament. Most of that part of the Bible is very mysterious to me; though I will point out that, in Job, God sternly rebukes those who deduce from human suffering that the person who suffers deserves to do so.
That question aside, I don't think that appeals to the Old Testament work for us, for two reasons. First, the Torah and the rest of the Old Testament record God dealing directly with a nation with whom He had made a covenant. He has made no such covenant with America. It isn't to be expected that a one-for-one correlation between the Torah and political justice as such should exist.
And second, to be blunt, I'm deeply disturbed by a lot of things in the Old Testament. Slavery, racism, and infanticide all make more or less regular appearances, and they aren't always being practiced by Gentiles, nor even by apostate Jews. I don't know what the explanation for that is; I am quite certain that if someone deduces from their presence in Scripture that these things are morally acceptable, that person creeps me the fuck out, and frankly I don't want them anywhere near me or my nephews. If the story of the averted sacrifice of Isaac would have made just as much sense to you if Abraham had murdered his son and God had accepted it as worship, like Moloch, your theology is Satanic.
"Tash! Tash! The great god Tash! Inexorable Tash!" (There was no nonsense about "Tashlan" now.)
-- C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, Cap. XII: Through the Stable Door
But, one might point out, Isaac was innocent, and McAllister's argument was that these people forfeited their human dignity by violating God's law. What, the babies? The farm animals? They got what was coming to them?
Besides, how do we measure this? -- how bad does a person have to be before they forfeit their rights as a human being, made in the image and likeness of God? Do they have to be a war criminal like Adolf Eichmann or Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein? What if they're only a war criminal like Harry Truman or George W. Bush or Barack Obama? Or is it perhaps a question of whether they fly the Stars and Stripes over their killings?
She asserts, too, that the use of the death penalty in the Bible plainly shows that human dignity is mutable, and that the doctrine of hell shows this even more so. I don't think either of those things follows. Of the first, the Catholic Church (and most Christian thought on this subject with her) admits that defending yourself against unjust aggression entitles you to use such force as will restrain the attacker -- even lethal force. But that is justified only if lethal force is the only kind that will suffice, and is permitted not because the criminal deserves it, but because you aren't obligated to surrender your own life. To use more force than is strictly necessary, or to desire a criminal's death for its own sake, rather than (in the logical sense) accidentally, is wrong.
As for hell, the Catholic tradition -- while not excluding the language that God sends people to hell -- has laid more emphasis on the fact that the damned choose hell. "Without that self-choice there could be no hell," as C. S. Lewis states in The Great Divorce. If God respects that choice, it is because of human dignity and autonomy, not in spite of them: He will force everlasting bliss upon none who refuse it.
William Blake, The Lovers Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1827
Derived from Dante's Inferno, Canto V
McAllister treats it as a truism throughout that it is worse to kill than to torture, and that therefore, if war can be accepted, so can torture. I dispute this also. Everyone is eventually going to die, so that killing is morally important for slightly different reasons than our usual modern, scientistic, materialist habits of thought would imply: important because God, not man, is the Lord and giver of life, and because man is made in the image of God. Conversely, not everyone will be subjected to torture; it is an avoidable evil, unlike death, which can at best be postponed.
I do maintain that it is worse to torture a man than to kill him. For -- going back to that important definition -- a victim of torture is defenseless (whatever his past conduct), and the only kind of killing I admit to be just is the killing of an aggressor, and even then I admit the justice of killing only when nothing else will suffice.
Conversely, torturing a man is specifically designed -- as McAllister says -- to break his will. That is, to reduce him from the status of a rational soul to that of a shambling mess, by terrifying him and treating him like filth. Her assertion that "Interrogative torture is not prolonged, maximal, pleasurable, vengeful, or punitive, and it does not have long-term debilitating consequences that completely disrupt a person's ability to function normally" reads like a tasteless joke. Yeah, I'm sure the prisoners who had pureed food rammed into their rectums will just get over it; that the ones who were waterboarded literally hundreds of times weren't traumatized at all; that the torturers who had admitted to prior anger management issues and freaking sexual assault didn't experience any sensations of pleasure, vengeance, or punishment while they were subjecting the victims to mock burials or threatening to rape their mothers; that the victims who were wrongly imprisoned in the first place (which lasted for months after the CIA had determined there was no reason to keep them there), and the one who died because of the way he was treated --
Did you miss that part before, Ms. McAllister? When you were talking about innocent lives being worth more than the lives of terrorists (for each one of whom Christ died), did you miss the fact that innocent people were detained and tormented along with the guilty? When you were saying that it's worse to kill someone than to torture him, did you miss that we did exactly that, and in the most degrading and hideous way possible?
I haven't even brought up the question of the horrific effects of torture upon the perpetrator -- since, in order to torture someone, you have to make yourself (however temporarily) the sort of person who will torture someone. Some CIA operatives felt the same way, objecting to what their employers nonetheless ordered them to do; some of them were disturbed to the point of weeping. But I can barely stand to write any more about this.
Still, it may be worth noting, for anyone who can still stand to read about it, that torture has also been conclusively shown to not work. At all. Even those who gave information under torture often gave false or misleading information -- because why the fuck wouldn't they? -- and literally all of the useful information we obtained was gotten without torture. I am not kidding or exaggerating, and I'm not pulling it out of my ass, either; it was one of the things the SSCI found in their investigation.
I take that back; it did work for one purpose. It made the psychologists who developed the torture techniques the CIA used over $81 million. But I'm sure that's a coincidence, and not one of the most despicable examples of war profiteering in Western history.
Ms. McAllister, if you should happen to read this, I implore you to look squarely at what you have been defending and acknowledge that it is evil, and to repent.
To anyone reading this: I have been fasting and praying today for the healing of victims of torture, and I solicit your help in doing so, as I solicited the same thing for torturers this past Wednesday. Tomorrow, I plan to do the same thing, on behalf of those who did or do advise or approve of torture. The torturer, the tortured, and the one who counsels torture are all my brethren -- I will dissociate myself from none of them, but confess and practice the coinherence, reciting with the great John Donne:
The Church is Catholike, universall, so are all her Actions; All that she does, belongs to all. ... And when she buries a Man, that action concernes me: All mankinde is of one Author, and is one volume ... The Bell doth toll for him that thinkes it doth; and though it intermit againe, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, hee is united to God. ... [A]ny mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde ... The Bell rings out, and tells me in him, that I am dead.
-- Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII
Pilate took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person;
see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. -- Matthew 27.24-25
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Torture victim at Abu Ghraib, four of whom have since been sued by a US defense contractor.
God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine --
Lord God of hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget -- lest we forget!
The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget -- lest we forget!
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget -- lest we forget!
If drunk, with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law --
Lord God of hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget -- lest we forget!
For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word --
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord!
-- Recessional, Rudyard Kipling (composed for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee)
*I have assumed (based on her argument and background) that McAllister is a professing Christian. If I'm mistaken about this, and she is simply conducting a hypothetical argument on Christian premises, then I apologize, as in that case much of my own argument is merely irrelevant to her. (I have done my best in the course of my argument to avoid assuming that she is a Protestant or a Catholic, since she has attended and written for Protestant institutions but also very largely cites Catholic sources in her essay.)
**We need not be detained by the philosophically important, but only orthogonal, possibility of torture whose primary purpose is not to break the victim, but to satisfy some appetite of the torturer, such as lust for revenge or perverted sexual appetite (which latter, as in BDSM, need not be a violation of the victim's will at all).
***Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras. 2258, 2263-2264, 2297; italics are original. The section in quotation marks is taken from Aquinas' Summa Theologica, Part II, Second Part, Question 64, Article 7.
****The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 69. This may be the more significant in that neither Tolkien personally nor the character of Gandalf can be regarded as pacifists, nor cowards, nor intellectual slouches.