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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tom Reese SJ on Torture

The latest question asked at On Faith is whether the use of torture is ever justified. I thought I'd post the comprehensive answer given by Fr. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, one with which I agree ......


Dirty Harry for President

Although Hollywood is routinely condemned by conservatives as a hotbed of liberal elitists, in fact it perpetuates the American myth that violence is the way to overcome evil.

We grew up on cowboys and Indians, war movies and espionage thrillers that showcased the good guys beating up and killing the bad guys. And if the heroine is in danger, then the end justifies the means, any means. We all booed when the criminal tortured by Dirty Harry was released back into society by the court. We cheered when Harry blew him away. Don’t get mad, just get even.

The American faith in the efficacious use of violence led us astray first in Vietnam and now in Iraq. And when you are fighting an evil such as Communism or terrorism, the argument goes, any means is legitimate.

There are numerous reasons why torture is wrong.

• Torture is a violation of U.S. and international law.

• If we torture, we cannot object to the torturing of our solders and agents. This is why the U.S. military opposes torture. Senator John McCain, a victim of Vietnamese torture, speaks eloquently to this point.

• Although movies and novels can create artificial scenarios where information is needed in minutes in order to avoid catastrophes, in fact these situations rarely if ever arise in real life. It would require 1) an immediately impending catastrophe, 2) a captive, 3) who actually has information, 4) that could be used to stop the catastrophe, 5) who will give accurate and timely information under torture, and 6) we are capable to putting into action a response in time to avert the disaster. The stars are rarely so aligned except on TV programs like "24."

• The experts who have studied the question find that torture does not work. Information given under torture may in fact be false. People who know nothing will admit to anything and give false information to stop the pain. People who know something can lie. Other interrogation techniques provide better information both quantitatively and qualitatively.

• The work of torture attracts sadists who are more interested in torturing than in getting information. These people cannot be controlled, and we cannot trust their judgments about what is appropriate. And a decent person who engages in torture soon becomes degraded by the experience. Is this a line of work you would recommend to your son or daughter? As John Paul II said, “the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim.”

• The history of Christian and Islamic martyrs shows that people can resist and that they become heroes to their communities when they are killed.

• Torture was wrong when done by the Romans, by the Inquisition, by Queen Elizabeth, by Hitler, by Stalin and by Mao. This is not the company we wish to keep.

The Vatican and catholic bishops have argued strongly against the use of torture.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that “the regulations against the use of torture, even in the case of serious crimes, must be strictly observed…. International juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances.” It quotes John Paul II as saying, “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify….”

Christians must work for the abolition of the death penalty and all forms of torture, said Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace according to Catholic News Service. "Christians are called to cooperate for the defense of human rights and for the abolition of the death penalty, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment" both in wartime and in times of peace, the cardinal said. "These practices are grave crimes against the human person created in the image of God and a scandal for the human family in the 21st century," he said.

“Genocide, torture, and the intentional targeting of noncombatants in war or terrorist attacks are always wrong,” according to the draft of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States,” which will be considered by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at the annual meeting, November 12-15.

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of Baltimore, who headed the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services for 10 years, argues that military chaplains are expected to intervene to stop torture. “Where there is an acceptance of direct killing of noncombatant civilians, for instance, there is no chaplaincy worth its name. Where torture is justified in eliciting prisoner information, chaplaincy is ineffective or nonexistent.”

It would be ironic and perverse for Christians, who worship a man who was tortured and killed, to use torture themselves.



Blogger Paul said...

Ah, but what about "the ticking time bomb" - I think it's George's personal favorite, I've heard him state it a number of times.

You know: we know for sure a devastating bomb has been planted somewhere really devastating and we also know we've got the guy who knows where it is. And we know it's going to explode in like an hour. The ONLY THING we don't know is WHERE THE BOMB IS . . .

This happens all the time, which is why it takes a genius of realism like Dubya to see his way clear to how we need to toss the Geneva convention to handle these situations.

4:40 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Yeah, once you decide there is at least one good reason to torture someone, you've stepped into that ends justifying the means sinkhole of moral bankruptsy ..... there's not really any coming back from that. Easy for me to say, I know, but I do think that's true.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

In case you might be interested in my 'censored' comment on Jeff's blog, please go to my blog. Jack

2:57 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


I'm sorry you and Jeff are having a disagreement. I don't want to be drawn into it or to take sides, but I will say that Jeff is my friend and I esteem him greatly - that's not going to change.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Nor would I want it to change. I too admire Jeff and consider him a good man. I do think some comments he has made to me and some actions he has taken are not completely up to his own standards. That is the way I read them; he sees it otherwise. Thank you for at least allowing me the courtesy to say my opinions might, at least, have some merit. Jack

9:20 AM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

I think the question is: Who would Jesus torture?

8:42 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


9:28 PM  

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