On torture

21 02 2011

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I found this via the Western Confucian. It seems to me that one cannot speak of the civilization that we have in comparison to civilizations past and call what they had then barbarism. After all, did they have such large portions of their society either incarcerated or formerly incarcerated? And of course, the above link shows that the idea of “at least we don’t torture people” to be a lie. The fact that we incarcerate people for years on end and have them terrorized in such ways is a torture unique in and of itself. Compared to that, a good flogging or caning seems civilized.

Much has been made in the Catholic Church in this country regarding the instrinsically evil nature of torture. While the Church should no doubt be applauded for such a stance, many pundits use it to wash their hands of the actual realities of the prison-industrial complex in this country. If we are going to obsess over such practices as waterboarding of foreign terrorists yet say nothing of repeated gang rapes of prisoners within our own borders, at least we shouldn’t complain if people accuse us of being inconsistent. All we are doing is using our moralistic stance to shield ourselves from the actual realities of our situation. And as this condition is often the result of government and social policy (the “war on drugs”, the economic abandonment of the ghetto by industry, etc.), it might as well be an atrocity perpetrated by the state.

On the other hand, I don’t buy the whole argument that, from a moral theological perspective, torture is “intrinsically evil”. My first reply would be, “since when?” 1993? 1945? As the Catholic Church was supportive of many forms of torture, right under the noses of moral theologians who we now respect in many other ethical issues, one wonders what makes us so smart to see things that they didn’t. If we argue that the Catholic Church could get torture so wrong for so many years, we can only wonder what else it may have gotten wrong. On the other (other) hand, I don’t see anything in any theological teaching (prior to the last fifty years) that says the the State has no right to punitive action against the bodies of its subjects. For me, this seems the case of the Church playing catch-up with the values of the secular Enlightenment (though one must concede that those values were distilled from Christian principles, and many Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ideologies haven’t been particularly enlightened). For me, I am thankful that the Church doesn’t defend torture, but I think this is a case of secular ideology schooling the Church on how to be civilized.