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Elshtain & Casey debate torture

On last weekend's episode of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. Be sure to watch the second clip, too (by clicking the "extended discussion" tab below the video box). Regrettably, there's no transcript for the online-only portion of the interview, but here is an excerpt from the broadcast.

ABERNETHY: Whats the underlying reason for this?

Dr. CASEY: Well, you look at basic Scripture, you look at Jesus in the Gospels about love your neighbor as yourself, do not repay evil for evil, love your enemyso theres this sense that each person is created by God in the image of God and has an inherent dignity, and torture would render that dignity undermined.

ABERNETHY: And Jean, what are the underlying principles for you?

Dr. JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN (Professor of Social and Political Ethics, University of Chicago Divinity School and Georgetown University): Well, the underlying principle for me is what I would call an ethic of responsibility. Thats an ethic that is especially important when were talking about statesmen and stateswomen who often have the lives of thousands in their hands, quite literally.

ABERNETHY: So they have a different rule, a different ethic, a different moral standard than somebody would if hes just acting as an individual?

Dr. ELSHTAIN: Not entirely different. We dont want a huge chasm to emerge. But I would say that there are extraordinary circumstances when harrowing judgments must be made by those we tax with the responsibility of keeping us safe, and at those times there may be a lesser evil kind of calculation to be made.


Dr. ELSHTAIN: Yes. I would say that the resort to extreme techniques would be used only after all other possibilities had been exhausted. It wouldnt be the first resort; it would be the last resort, and again wed have to be clear about what were considering torture here, because some of the most severe forms I think must be ruled out. But there are other forms of enhanced interrogation that, I think, under those extreme circumstances and as an exception, may well, under the ticking time bomb scenario, be resorted to.

ABERNETHY: There is a recent poll by the Pew Research Center that found that 71 percent of Americans American adults said torture can be justified often or sometimes or rarely. Only 25 percent said never. Is that influential to you at all?

Dr. CASEY: I think that shows the influence of the Rupert Murdoch school of ethics that weve been watching Jack Bauer, where torture is routinely shown to be effective on our television screens. I dont think we decide what is moral and what is immoral based on the latest Pew poll about American opinion.

I'm not sure what torture as a last resort means in the context of the standard hypothetical justification, which Elshtain mentioned, the so-called ticking-bomb scenario. As we Americans have learned from that great moral teacher Jack Bauer, we can't wait for the moment of last resort because the bomb might go off.In the online portion of the interview, Elshtain agreed that waterboarding is out of bounds, but she was fuzzy on other forms of torture, or, as she called it, enhanced interrogation. "If everything from shouting at or threatening someone to pulling out their fingernails with a pliers is torture, we tend to minimize the worst things because we're making these things that aren't as bad torture also," she said. Actually, what that minimizes is the lasting psychological damage caused by some forms of "shouting at or threatening someone." Threatening to murder a captive's children? Threatening to smear menstrual blood on him? To desecrate the Koran? Shouting at him to stand up? Shouting at him all night long to prevent him from sleeping? No one suggests that being mean to a prisoner constitutes torture. What we are talking about is state-sanctioned torture--including waterboarding.Read and watch the rest right here.


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The polling data on acceptance of tortrure is indeed troubling. Where does the acceptance come from? As Dr. Casey says, there's a cultural school of ethics that says it is OK for the President to approve repeated simulated drowning in some circumstances, and there is a political punditry class including professed Christians that defends the specious reasoning in support of approving torture in some supposedly restricted circumstances, claiming that the President's position is moderate and responsible to protect important interests. But is Jack Bauer only to blame? There is also a cultural school of ethics and a political punditry class, including professed Christians, that defends the specious reasoning in support of the President's approval of supposedly restricted circumstances for sucking the brains out of a baby's skull (to protect a woman's mental health!), claiming that the President's position is moderate and responsible to protect important interests. We have a political culture in which Christians of both conservative and liberal stripes sell out their principles for their partisan allegiances, being "prophetic" and uncompromising against evils of the other party, while they use the exactly same flawed reasoning to defend the atrocities of their own favored politicians. That moreso than Jack Bauer is the underlying cause of support for torture.

Are you suggesting that prochoicers are to blame for the American public's views on torture?

I think partisanship over principle on both sides has contributed to the situation, along with a culture that is saturated in violence in the media, and yes a culture that accepts violence as a solution to problems including the problem of an unwanted pregnanct. Certainly there are some pro-lifers to blame and some prochoicers to blame.

I don't worry about polling data too much because I believe that it is usually prefaced, whether explicitly or implicitly, by a framework assumpti0on in which necessary information is lost. Imagine answering a question prefaced by the statement, "would your view change if you learned that torture almost never elicits truthful timely information?" Truly, this is one area where avoiding sin has almost no downside. The so-called upside is almost entirely an imaginative construct on the part of people trying to cover their own complicity. Even in the Renaissance, it was understood that torture was useful for eliciting false confessions. Now, false confessions are sometimes very useful for politicians and princes, but if the idea is to extract true information in a TIMELY manner in order to actually save other people, torture is basically useless. I mean, think about this: a TICKING time bomb. That you KNOW about. If you know about it with a relative degree of certaint how is it that you also don't know about where it is, or when it is supposed to go off? The whole premise is totally outlandish. I don't know a lot of Jean Bethke Elshtain, and frankly, I am shocked by her statements, but I don't think I would describe her as politically liberal on the question of abortion.

Also, regarding Jason's point: Torture is hardly a modern conveyance. It existed in times of great religiosity and has only gradually been rendered morally unacceptable. I don't see how you can connect the dots between torture and modernity.

Actually, what that minimizes is the lasting psychological damage caused by some forms of shouting at or threatening someone. Threatening to murder a captives children? Threatening to smear menstrual blood on him? To desecrate the Koran? Shouting at him to stand up? Shouting at him all night long to prevent him from sleeping? No one suggests that being mean to a prisoner constitutes torture.Could you clarify this a bit? Being mean isn't torture, you say, but you also classify shouting at someone to stand up as something that causes "lasting psychological damage"? And this line doesn't make sense as a response to Elshtain: What we are talking about is state-sanctioned tortureincluding waterboarding.She seems to agree that waterboarding and other "extreme" interrogation methods are torture.

Why are you asking me whether shouting at someone to stand up is torture? Don't be ridiculous. As far as I can tell, Elshtain rejects waterboarding and pulling out a captive's fingernails with a pliers. She seemed to minimize other forms of torture including sleep deprivation, so-called stress positions, smashing a detainee against a wall, etc., as reported by the ICRC:

I was just wondering how you classify shouting at someone to stand up, given that you say it causes "lasting psychological damage." In fact, I can't tell whether you're getting huffy because you think shouting someone to stand up is so obviously torture, or because it's so obviously not torture.

How tedious. I did not claim that it causes lasting psychological damage. I wrote that some forms of it can cause such damage.

You wrote that "some forms" of shouting cause "lasting psychological damage," and then listed those "forms," one of which was "shouting at him to stand up." If you didn't really mean to write that, then fine, but there's no reason to be so testy merely because someone asked for clarification.

In any event, I would definitely disagree with Elshtain as to the majority of these "extreme" but not "severe" techniques, whatever that means: Most of them are indeed torture. But I don't think that grabbing someone's collar is torture (one of the techniques discussed in the torture memos), nor have you established that shouting at someone to stand up is torture. Maybe I'm inured to those techniques from seeing too many cop shows, but they just don't seem that bad to me. I'd also add that while the waterboarding of three people bothers me a lot, I'm even more bothered by the tens of thousands of regular American prisoners kept in solitary confinement (the psychological effects of which are far worse than being shouted at), as well as about the regularity of prison rape.

Actually, I posed it as a question, followed by "shouting at him all night long." But this is pointless, because we don't disagree.

Between this blog and Ms. O'Reilly's below, we seem to have folks such as Drakes, Proska, Sirico who want to parse definitions, descriptions, bring in the Just War Theory, etc. and apply the same defense in the political arena to catholic morality in terms of torture.Here is a Rocco Palmo quote "Rights Talk" today from B16: highlights: "After studying work, democracy, globalisation, solidarity and subsidiarity in relation to the social teaching of the Church, your Academy has chosen to return to the central question of the dignity of the human person and human rights, a point of encounter between the doctrine of the Church and contemporary society.""The worlds great religions and philosophies have illuminated some aspects of these human rights, which are concisely expressed in "the golden rule" found in the Gospel: "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Lk 6:31; cf. Mt 7:12). The Church has always affirmed that fundamental rights, above and beyond the different ways in which they are formulated and the different degrees of importance they may have in various cultural contexts, are to be upheld and accorded universal recognition because they are inherent in the very nature of man, who is created in the image and likeness of God. If all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, then they share a common nature that binds them together and calls for universal respect. The Church, assimilating the teaching of Christ, considers the person as "the worthiest of nature" (St. Thomas Aquinas, De potentia, 9, 3) and has taught that the ethical and political order that governs relationships between persons finds its origin in the very structure of mans being.""In the middle of the last century, after the vast suffering caused by two terrible world wars and the unspeakable crimes perpetrated by totalitarian ideologies, the international community acquired a new system of international law based on human rights. In this, it appears to have acted in conformity with the message that my predecessor Benedict XV proclaimed when he called on the belligerents of the First World War to "transform the material force of arms into the moral force of law" ("Note to the Heads of the Belligerent Peoples", 1 August 1917).Human rights became the reference point of a shared universal ethos at least at the level of aspiration for most of humankind. These rights have been ratified by almost every State in the world. The Second Vatican Council, in the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae, as well as my predecessors Paul VI and John Paul II, forcefully referred to the right to life and the right to freedom of conscience and religion as being at the centre of those rights that spring from human nature itself."It appears that some folks are twisting themselves into pretzels in order to use the same political/legal methods as the last administration and now applying them to catholic morality. Our history is riddled with examples of what happens when human rights are not respected even in the face of threats, wars, dangers,etc.How would some of you define "brainwashing" as used during the Korean War or Vietnam War?What would returning prisoners say about your attempts to parse torture as if it only includes physical marks?Why don't you ask Senator McCain what is torture?I find the exercise to justify the means by the ends to fall into the same category as the Man for All Seasons line - what happens when you remove all laws to destroy the devil and you at last face the devil but have no law left to use or defend yourself?

Thanks, Bill. Here's a direct link to the pope's address:

"Torture is hardly a modern conveyance."Various forms of the Inquisition.The Salem Witch Trials.Just 2 examples of time-honored and religiously sanctioned forms of torture.

What people must keep in mind that individual acts of torture (or whatever euphemism you want to use) don't happen in a stand-alone situation. I suspect that grabbing the collar or shouting at someone who is sleep-deprived, possibly physically and mentally abused, and has been subjected to such behavior over an extended period of time may indeed be a bit more harmful than doing it outside of the full interrogation context.

I have tried to stay out of these discussions for a variety of reasons mostly because of the reactions but once more unto the breach I suppose.First, I find it interesting that the same people who so often criticize others for being judgmental about the decisions of people in challenging moral and ethical situations (e.g. abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality) have no qualms being judgmental themselves in this case. Imagine for even a second that the lives and welfare of a hundred people let alone millions depend on your decisions. Imagine that you must weigh your responsibilities to them against the welfare of people sworn to harm them. This is hardly an ethically unambiguous situation. I am not saying you are wrong. I am saying try and have a little understanding.Second, opponents of torture in all cases have to start being honest about their position. Opposing torture in all cases means even when it works. Please, stop defusing the consequences of this position by claiming they dont work. First, they do. There is a reason clandestine organizations compartmentalize. There is a reason military members in combat are usually only told what they need to know to complete their missions and not future plans. History is replete with examples of accurate information being garnered through torture. Second, even if you dont think it works thats all you can say. You dont think it works. You cant say you know it doesnt. I am not saying this is a justification for torture, I am saying if you believe that torture is inherently and always wrong, and someone gives you the ticking bomb or buried child scenario, your answer has to be sorry, that bomb may have to go off.Finally, we have to stop conflating the two arguments is torture always wrong and what is torture. As much as you dislike the Bush administration, it is not accurate to claim that they said torture was justified. Torture is, and always has been, illegal. Their position was that these things were not torture. Yet, every discussion of this glosses over this debate. For example, defacing a Koran may be objectionable for other reasons, but it isnt torture by any reasonable definition.

You know what else is interesting, Sean? Comparing torture to gay sex. Wow. My only other response is that if we're going to have an honest public debate about torture along the lines you suggest, then we need to know when torture has worked and how.

You know what's really interesting? That the staunchest opponents to torture are military professionals and FBI agents with actual interrogation experience. I certainly agree that defining torture can, at the margins, be difficult, but the legal memoranda that were recently released made no bones about the techniques being used and they were not "marginal."The Gestapo specialized in perfecting techniques that were deemed brutal without leaving evidence of injury. That seems to escape the analysis of many, who are still trying to use John Yoo's "imminent material injury on the order of organ failure" standard.

As much as you dislike the Bush administration, it is not accurate to claim that they said torture was justified. Torture is, and always has been, illegal. Their position was that these things were not torture.Yes, but the president doesn't get to change the definition of words because it's expedient. Essentially they were and are saying that what had always, up to that point, been considered torture under U.S. law and under treaties the U.S. signed was justified. Also, remember that the question of whether torture "works" also involves examining frankly what we lose when we torture, and weighing it alongside what we've supposedly gained. Even if we did get actionable information as a direct result of torturing a prisoner, it wouldn't end the debate over efficacy.

Opposing torture in all cases means even when it works. Please, stop defusing the consequences of this position by claiming they dont work. First, they do. Sean,If torture is "intrinsically evil" -- then, according to Catholic thinking, it may never be used, no matter what the stakes. However, neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration made their decision based on Catholic thought. And I, personally, would be quite happy to do away with the concept of intrinsic evil altogether, although I have a feeling you wouldn't. It is really only valuable if you are willing to grant that an intrinsically evil action, no matter how trivial, may never be done to achieve any end whatsoever, no matter how good and desirable. I certainly remember being taught in grade school that one may not tell a lie to save the whole world. (Remember Gabriel Austin's quote from Newman regarding that point.) How many of us would want to have a government that believed in that principle? I think torture should be illegal not because there might not be some rare cases in which the government might feel the need to resort to it, but because you don't make laws based on extremely unlikely scenarios. There has yet to be evidence that the United States got valuable information from the three prisoners it waterboarded, but even if it did, that does not make it something that should be permitted by law. If there is ever a real case in which there's a ticking time bomb (say, a nuclear one), and the United States has in custody someone we are certain knows how the bomb can be stopped from going off, then of course they are going to do anything they can to get the information out of him. And no matter how illegal torture is, if they prevent the nuclear bomb from going off, no jury will convict them. I do believe, however, that Obama is correct that torture goes against American values, and I do believe it is perfectly relevant for him and others, in discontinuing the practice, to argue that it doesn't "work," if by that is mean that it does more harm than good. I don't think anybody who says torture doesn't work really means that you can't extract information, in some cases, from some people, that couldn't be obtained by other means.As much as you dislike the Bush administration, it is not accurate to claim that they said torture was justified. Torture is, and always has been, illegal. Their position was that these things were not torture. Yet, every discussion of this glosses over this debate. For example, defacing a Koran may be objectionable for other reasons, but it isnt torture by any reasonable definition.It is my personal opinion that at best those in the Bush administration were engaging in self-deception. The United States had tried and executed Japanese solders for waterboarding after World War II. With the long history of waterboarding being classified as torture, you can't seriously redefine torture not to include waterboarding and then use it and claim the United States doesn't torture. I haven't heard anyone claim that defacing the Koran is torture. But these "enhanced interrogation techniques" certainly are torture:

Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

If those techniques were used on American soldiers by an enemy, I don't think we'd wring our hands and say, "We'd like to accuse them of torturing our soldiers, but are those things really torture?" Of course the Bush administration used torture.

When I consider torture I think I come to the same place that I do when I consider the death penalty. I can conceive of situations where I could say, "yeah, that's probably justified." The problem is, once it is set in motion, the chance that it will be limited to those very rare circumstances, or that we could even identify those situations, is virtually nil -- and the chance that it would become an instrument of tribal retribution, and sheer frustration, exceedingly high -- thus, the chance of doing harm to innocent people and our own moral standing in the process vastly outweighs whatever potential benefits might exist for some theoretically justified use of torture. After all, whatever we technically owe enemy combatants in the way of due process, our criminal and judicial system is built around the notion that people are innocent until proven guilty and that they are protected against cruel and unusual punishment. Torturing and uncharged and unconvicted person isn't just an assault on their dignity it is an assault on the principles underlying our own definition of what the rule of law and fair and just punishment requires. And that doesn't even begin to count the costs to those individuals who are directed to carry out torture.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel about the morality of torture. The USA is a signatory of agreements binding in international law that exclude torture. The USA now admits that it practiced torture in 2002-3. The question is how to proceed against those criminally responsible in such a way as to ensure that this will not happen again and that the USA can convincingly recover its moral compass. (Btw, the memos deliberately discuss harmless sounding techniques alongside waterboarding in order to confuse moral reasoning; don't fall for that bait!)Unless this breach of civilty is fixed, American parents will be telling their kids: "You too can be Jack Bauer when you grow up!"It is not only those who authorized and enacted torture who are guilty. That waterboarding had been practiced was known since May 2005, as Mark Danner points out, but the Democratic Party decided not to make an issue of it, because to do so would lose votes with the American people. Indeed the Democrats supported a bill ensuring that torturers would not be prosecuted.Let us recall also that the torture practiced by the Bush administration under a veneer of legality is only the tip of an iceberg of abuse. Rendition flights send detainees to regimes where US law does not apply, and where they could be tortured without any legal constraints, by proxy, but sometimes the actual torturers in those places were Americans.

These discussions force me to return to one question: If torture is wrong ultimately because no human being should inflict such suffering on another human being, and if the suffering of troops on the battlefield is equivalent to the suffering of those who are tortured andthe sufferings of the troops are also caused by fellow human beings, then how can we ever justify war? In other words, if torture is wrong, shouldn't we all be pacifists???

One need not agree with Jean Elshtain to acknowledge that she is very intelligent and thoughtful. When she talks of the "ethics of responsibility," she is apparently referring to Max Weber's important, controversial, and often misunderstood distinction between two ethics, the ethics of responsibility and the ethics of conviction. This distinction has important consequences concerning the ethical norms that political officials ought to observe and those that private citizens ought to observe.Obviously, this distinction is relevant to issue of how an official deals with enemies who aim to kill or maim those for whom he or she is responsible.This issue has been around for a long time. It is not satisfactorily addressed simply by claiming as "self-evident" the moral high ground.

GrantI did not compare the two. What I compared was the charitable attitude, or lack thereof, by some of the posters when it comes to this, and frankly any moral issue, on which they politcally disagree. The same is true with accusations of partisan political motives. Anyone who hazards to agree with a conservative position, even if he is a bishop, is immediately labled a partisan hack. Yet posters who march lock-step with this administration or dismiss its policies that are directly contrary to the teachings of the Church - their motives are pure.I agree, we ought to see if it worked - first step, release all the details of the questionable interrogations - not just the ones that are politically expedient. This is a much more complex moral issue than as it is portrayed. What forms of physical or psychological coercion constitute torture is not clear cut. Also, the reasons for the coercion matter. Sleep deprivation for 36 hours to discover the whereabouts of a terror cell may not be the same thing as sleep deprivation for 24 hours for no reason other than cruelty. Look at waterboarding - thousands of american servicemen have undergone it in training. Was that torture? As long as we accept that coecion is acceptable, we must define the outer edge, and people will always disagree where that edge is. The move now to criminalize this judgment, whether you agree with it or not, is extremely dangerous and may come back to bite the very people who are pursuing it.

No, Bernard, you're correct. Of course you don't need me to tell you that one need not claim anything about the moral high ground to make the argument that enshrining torture into state policy is a serious mistake. Jean Elshtain is one of our most well-regarded philosophers of ethics. That's why I was surprised when she seemed to dismiss Shaun Casey's mention of sleep deprivation as a form of torture.Sean, would you agree that the complexity of the issue has been downplayed on both sides of the debate? Of course motive matters (and that is partly why convictions will be hard to get). But it doesn't always absolve an interrogator, or a policymaker, from responsibility.

The move now to criminalize this judgment, whether you agree with it or not, is extremely dangerous and may come back to bite the very people who are pursuing it.Sean,If torture is illegal in the United States, and the line between harsh interrogation and torture is blurry, then who gets to decide whether torture has been committed or not? I would agree that it's dangerous for the new administration to prosecute the previous administration. But what do you do if it looks like the previous administration may very well have broken not merely American law but international agreements? Clearly waterboarding for training purposes is not torture. That is a red herring.

The United States has prosecuted people for doing the very things that Bybee, et al. found not to be torture, on the basis that it was, in fact torture. You can't have different standards when it is Americans who are on the dispensing rather than the receiving end of interrogation practices.Remarkably, these prosecutions are not mentioned by Bybee, perhaps the most telling detail in any of these analyses. The failure of the memos to grapple with all prior uses and analyses of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and stress positions makes their analysis totally worthless -- not just on the basis of their conclusions, but that those who wrote them have any idea whatsoever what they are talking about in the context of the legal conventions and precedent that would normally accompany an analysis of whether something is or is not torture. Whether those who relied on them ought to be prosecuted, or whether the drafters should be prosecuted are different questions that in all fairness can't really be resolved in the heat of public comment, because criminal statutes are strictly construed and applied. Sean, who said that coercion is acceptable? What do you mean by coercion? Physical coercion, mental coercion? Like I said, there might be close calls but what the CIA did isn't one of them.

Ann, it is my understanding that early Christians were true pacifists. I am sure Bill Mazzella has a handy history book answer for why that changed. At any rate, with regard to warfare itself: certain practices are considered to be war crimes, it's not as if "anything goes" even during the heat of battle. It's useful to see these conventions as well as the conventions against torture, not as reflective of religious or moral ideals, but as establishing an essential golden rule by which all nations simply agree to comport with minimum agreed upon standards. That's also why the "we should see if torture works" argument is a complete non-starter even if you can argue that a given technique could be useful -- unless you also want others to match you in their treatment of your own personnel. If it works for you, it will work for them as well. After all, intentionally targeting civilians with fierce bombing and arson campaigns is also probably quite a bit more effective than not targeting them -- so what?

" ---- the we should see if torture works argument ----"If "working" is justification for torture, then that argument should apply to willingly chosen abortion. It works, i.e., solves the problem, ergo ....