What Would Jack Bauer Do?

Suppose I asked, “Are there any circumstances when it would be okay for the president to order an interrogator to crush a nine-year-old boy’s testicles?” What would you answer?
If you are a normal person and not John Yoo, the man who, from 2001 to 2003 was employed as the Justice Department’s legal advisor to President Bush and who was among the authors of the memos advocating the legality of torture, you’d say, “Hell no!”
(Yoo’s answer to this question was: “I think it depends on why the president thinks he needs to do that.”)
The gulf between those two answers is the reason we are (still) having this long national conversation about torture. As everyone except a few diehard people commonly described by psychiatrists as “in denial” now knows, the Bush Administration decided to start torturing people as an official part of its policy. What I want to briefly survey is how, once that decision to torture was made, the campaign to justify it via the media had to follow — and how so many Catholics became and remain willing apologists for this, to the grave endangerment of their souls and the public good.
The pattern for the agitprop campaign was set pretty early, kicking into high gear with the shocking photos that came from Abu Ghraib and continuing to the present hour. It consisted of the weird combination of “We’re not torturing, and besides, they deserve it and it works, so it’s good.”
To accomplish the first lie (Deny that we torture at all), torture advocates made use of the first line of defense for all liars: euphemism. Call it “enhanced interrogation.” Remember that the scare quote is your best friend, as are the words “so-called” and “alleged.” Deploy flippancy by calling it “frat hazing.” Flippant laughter is, as Screwtape notes, the finest armor plating against God that hell has ever devised.
Beyond these ploys by torture defenders, there were other strategies. Perhaps the most important one was the Ticking Time Bomb fantasy.
Here’s how the game is played: Demand, “Wouldn’t you torture a Bad Guy to save your little girl, who is even now riding the bus to the zoo, which will be ground zero for the nuclear holocaust that will wipe out New York in one hour?” This perennial, invoked thousands of times by torture defenders, is inevitably accompanied by the claim, “I’m just trying to get people to think clearly about the kind of war we’re in.”
However, what never enters all these clear heads is that the Ticking Time Bomb scenario is a rank piece of emotional manipulation which never actually happens in real life, and is solely seen in episodes of 24 and Bruce Willis movies. Neither 9/11, nor any other act of terror we have endured was anything like a Ticking Time Bomb scenario. Torturing a thousand people would not have stopped it. Good police work and an INS that was not asleep at the switch might have.
Eventually, this began to dawn on people. Some began to realize that the panic-driven consequentialism of the Ticking Time Bomb fantasy is also used to justify abortion on demand (“What if Thelma and Louise both had tubal pregnancies after an incestuous rape by their fathers? Wouldn’t you say that abortion was justified then?”) Indeed, some of the most clear-headed realized that tubal pregnancies after an incestuous rape are actually more statistically probable than a Ticking Time Bomb scenario, yet (quite properly) no “faithful conservative Catholic” uses this to support an abortion license since they know that hard cases, let alone completely imaginary ones, make bad law.
But, most of all, it began to dawn on people that you don’t torture people because you know that they know where the bomb is. You torture them because you don’t know that there is any bomb; you don’t know if they know anything; and you don’t even know if they are guilty of anything at all (as for instance, 80 percent of the victims at Abu Ghraib were never even charged with anything). You torture them because you have made a fundamental moral blunder by confusing proud brutality with realism and courage. All you really know is that the Church tells us that torture is intrinsically immoral and gravely evil.
So the evidence piled up that, while the supposed “realists” who supported torture were spinning fantasy scenarios, back in the real world we were torturing people in other places besides Abu Ghraib and that the torture was a systemic policy decision of the Bush Administration and not the work of the patsies that the people who ordered the torture were denouncing as a “few bad apples.”
So the torture defenders turned to the sorites paradox as a new defense. Only, instead of asking, “Precisely how many seeds does it take to make a heap of seeds?” they asked “Precisely where does a legitimate coercive technique ‘cross the line’ into torture?” Since there is no one-size-fits-all reply to that question which provides us with an infallible heuristic for measuring exactly what torture is in a way satisfying to every human being on planet earth, much less to people dedicated to excusing American torture policies, the torture defenders used it with great effect to laugh off the mounting evidence that we were, in fact, torturing prisoners with such things as waterboarding, freezing, stress positions, and various other torments we borrowed from the Gestapo and the Soviets.
As this game unfolded, definition after definition of torture could be proposed by torture opponents who were suckered into this fruitless and sterile bit of sophistry and the torture defender had only to reject definition after definition (while proposing none of his own) and the torture could go on as long as the Bush Administration liked. It was like the guy who gets caught feeling up the secretary and then tells his angry wife “Lots of people work late at the office!” and “Does putting my hand on her leg have to mean something? I patted my friend Joe on the leg the other day. Does that mean I’m gay?” The torture defenders in the media and the blogosphere sought, by every means possible, to conceal the obvious pattern of torture and abuse of prisoners with semantic fog. And it worked for a time. It still works for those who can’t even admit that waterboarding somebody 183 times is torture.
However, as time went on, even the Dictionary Game started to get a bit stale, what with those corpses that kept turning up, not to mention the hypothermia cases, the horror stories coming from the International Red Cross about waterboarding and various other torments for which we used to execute Japanese and Nazis. So various feints, lies, and excuses were unveiled to make “we don’t torture” continue to fly.
Then there was the popular mockery directed at the torture critic: “So you’re saying we should give the terrorists a kiss and a glass of warm milk and tuck them in at night!” Those who recited this along with the cry “9/11 Changed Everything” forgot that this is not the first war we’ve ever fought and that we do have a long experience of treating prisoners humanely without coddling them. It turns out that history did not begin with Generation Narcissus and that we were able to fight Nazis and Communists without adopting their tactics as policy. They also forgot that we hanged people for doing what the Bush Administration authorized.
There was also the “Hey! It’s not like we’re beheading people like they are” dodge. This, combined with the “What’s the big deal about torture while abortion is happening?” sleight of hand both partake of the same erroneous reasoning: namely, that Catholic moral reasoning begins with the teaching of Christ, not with “Be a bit less cruel and evil than Saddam or Planned Parenthood.” That wasn’t much different from the “We’ve only done this to a few people” evasion, which (in addition to being a lie) works as well as telling God “Hey! I only murdered one person! It’s not like I’m a mass murderer!”
And then there was the “We can kill people in wartime, so why can’t we torture them too?” maneuver. The key to making this argument succeed ignores the obvious point that once an enemy becomes a prisoner, you can’t torture him for the same reason you can’t shoot him once he lays down his gun: because he possesses certain rights as a human being in the image of God. For the same reason, the “human rights are only for legally recognized human beings” ploy (so beloved by the champions of Roe v. Wade) was a non-starter for torture defenders who tried to claim that enemy combatants, possessing no standing in Geneva Conventions, also possess no human rights. It turns out that human rights derive from God, not from pieces of paper or Caesar — as the pro-life movement eloquently points out when the human being under consideration happens to be unborn.
But, the torture defenders said, the unborn are innocent! The people we torture subject to enhanced interrogation are guilty. This was, however, to overlook a number of things. First, as was already noted, you don’t torture people because you know they are guilty. You often torture them to find out if they are guilty. Sometimes, they aren’t — at which point the pressure to find them guilty of something anyway becomes very acute since you will otherwise be guilty of torturing an innocent man. This does not tend to create honest government. Second, what the torture defenders actually mean, without realizing it, is that they favor torture as a form of punishment, not for gathering information. (The Pandora’s Box this opens will become clearer in next week’s column.)
Meanwhile, to return to our discussion, there came a day — especially with the release of the torture memos — when the torture defenders had to finally admit that, yes, Bush lied and, yes, we torture. Thus began the second phase of the agitprop campaign: Torture supporters have begun to heavily emphasize, “Torture really works. So it’s good!”
The problem for the Catholic torture defender is this: While there is room for a definitional debate on “What is torture?” there is absolutely no room for debate on the question of whether we should torture, since the Church has answered it definitively. Gaudium et Spes (no. 27) condemns torture categorically:
Furthermore . . . whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as . . . torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself . . . all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.
And if that is not clear enough, Pope John Paul II quoted that same passage in Veritatis Splendor 80, calling torture (of any kind) one of “a number of examples of . . . intrinsically evil” acts.
If you are confused about what “intrinsically evil” means, go back to my first question about crushing the testicles of a nine-year-old boy. That “No way!” you responded with? That’s what “intrinsically evil” means. There’s no excuse for it. It’s totally off the table. Can’t do it. This is rooted in the ancient Catholic teaching that good ends cannot justify evil means, especially intrinsic and gravely evil means.
But, alas, the human ability to rationalize evil is awesome.

Mark P. Shea is a senior editor for www.CatholicExchange.com and a columnist for InsideCatholic. Visit his blog at markshea.blogspot.com.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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