But God, He Did It First!



In war, there is not always a clear-cut bad guy and good guy. People fight for all kinds of reasons. In this story, there is an obvious bad guy: terrorists. They hate. They embrace evil. They will use any method imaginable and some unimaginable to achieve their end. Killing children? Rape? Nothing is beneath them. A terrorist is a bad guy pretty much by definition.

That makes us the good guys. If only it were that simple and we were four-year-olds on a playground!

Every time the issue of torture comes up, it is only a matter of time before someone mentions some awful thing terrorists are doing somewhere. They ask, “So why aren't you upset about that?"

I am upset. Having terrorists terrorize is, well, terrible. It is hard to imagine people acting so utterly inhumane. There is extraordinary violence committed against innocents.

So terrorists, by definition, must be bad guys; they attack and hurt the innocent. In a storybook, that makes the people fighting them good guys. But in real life, the presence of a bad guy and a guy opposing a bad guy might not guarantee the opposition is good. Opposing him does not make us good. Good is harder.

Let’s talk about being the good guy. Here are a few of the things the "good guy" is saying.

How can you complain about splashing a little water?

In December of last year, the Senate Intelligence Committee released about 500 pages of a 6,000-page report documenting specifics of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used in the War on Terror. As a nation, we had already been arguing about the ethics of waterboarding for several years.

The question reduces torture to waterboarding and waterboarding to a prank you might pull at camp. This is a reductive lie. Waterboarding is a form of torture. The design of the torture is to trick the body into thinking it is submerged by pouring water over a thin cloth placed over the prisoner who is bound at an angle with his head down. It may not sound awful, but only because it is hard to imagine. The prisoner feels as though he is drowning, and sometimes he does. Vomiting is a risk because the body’s instinctive response is to gag. Bound at an angle, vomiting comes with a risk for aspiration. Setting aside the psychological damage and the risk of death, other complications from this technique include damage to the lung or brain.

Furthermore, we learned in the report that waterboarding was only one of many awful techniques used. The report exposed gruesome events. If you are still trivializing what happened I encourage you to read about it in more depth. I cannot argue with ignorance. I will not go into more graphic specifics about what we did because it gets much, much worse. But you can easily find them. Please do.

The report was partisan.

If you think December's Senate report, when much of the information came out to the public for the first time, shouldn't have been done and was only done as a partisan power-play, set aside the question for long enough to decide whether or not the report was true. To my knowledge, no one is seriously arguing its veracity. If it was a partisan power grab, the way to diffuse that would be universal repudiation. Don't corner yourself. Don't dodge the question of fact. Truth does not belong to either party.

But, what constitutes torture?

If you are quibbling about the line between "not very nice" and "torture," your questions are understandable, but wrong.

When you talk to teens about sex, they inevitably ask how far they can go. It is an inevitable question, but one that you cannot answer directly. It is easy to find examples to frame the question, but then there is an enormous gray area. Wandering around blindly in that gray area, aiming for just this side of mortal sin is probably not wise. You cannot answer the question because what they are really asking is, "I really, really want to commit a mortal sin. How close to that can I get without being separating myself from God?" The question itself will lead you in exactly the wrong direction. If you are looking for wiggle room around something you know is wrong, you aren’t trying to avoid evil, you’re trying to justify it.

To be clear, I am comfortable asserting that what we did was well outside of the gray area. What we did was, in fact, the dictionary definition of torture. Borrowing phrasing from Merriam Webster, we subjected prisoners to “severe physical pain as a form of punishment or as a way to force someone to do or say something” and intended to cause “mental or physical suffering.” It was torture.

Move ahead. We accept that what we did was torture. Why did we do it? Was it justified? This is not loose moralizing from a borderline pacifist. These are pragmatic questions because it will come up again. Can we do it again? Can torture ever be justified?

Don't you know what they are doing?

This is an old argument. When do the ends justify the means? Usefully, it has been answered explicitly for Catholics.

"It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it." (1756)

Even if we are responding to gruesome violence we cannot resort to intrinsically evil acts. When we face judgment and are called to account for what we have done, we cannot point and whine and say, "But G-ood... He did it first." It bears repeating, "One may not do evil so that good may result from it."

Isn't it covered by just war theory?

No. Just War Doctrine is limited, though theories abound. Again, looking to the Catechism:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; - all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; - there must be serious prospects of success; - the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

That sounds like we have to weigh our actions against theirs. We do. But it goes on:

“The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. 'The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.'" (2312)

“Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.” (2313)

It cannot be justified. That is what intrinsically evil means. War is evil, but not intrinsically because it can be justified under certain very limited circumstances. Abortion is intrinsically evil. Torture is intrinsically evil.

OK. So, maybe what we did was bad. But why are you more upset about our response than the crimes we were addressing?

What are we doing? We are becoming the bad guy! When we decide we hate our enemy and there is no action off limits to stop him, we are indistinguishable from him. We set his actions as a standard. See that line, that line they keep moving? We are running full speed toward it.

The good guy doesn't aim for the worst thing he can imagine and try to stop just short of it. He aims for the good. Even when he misses, he is justified. If we become the bad guy, it doesn't matter anymore if we win or lose.

I am angry -- livid -- because these are evils done in my name. Why am I more upset about what we are doing than what they are doing? Why am I more concerned about being a sinner than stopping a sinner? I am more afraid of becoming a bad guy than losing a fight to one; I am more afraid of Hell than death.

Photo credit: Debra Sweet, Flickr Creative Commons

Work Cited

Catechism of the Catholic Church - Latin text copyright (c) Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Citta del Vaticano 1993

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