Torture - A Necessary Evil?

Over at Against The Grain, I found a fascinating post discussing the uses of torture, and whether it was an acceptable technique, according to Catholic theology. Torture, described as the deliberate infliction of pain, is compared with corporal punishment, and put into context for Catholics.

Contrary to many of the "peace and non-violence" crowd, the Catholic Church hasn't taken a stand against every type of violence. The underlying issue is what is the intent of the person who is either injuring someone, or at the most extreme, killing them (which, in SOME cases, is not contrary to Church teachings).

Take the case of capital punishment. Catholics are permitted to vote, as a member of the jury, for the death penalty. Several things are necessary:

  • There must be overwhelming evidence of the person's guilt (fulfilling the "reasonable doubt" condition). Since the penalty is so severe, the juror must be convinced that the person is truly guilty - not just go along with the other jurors to avoid a hung jury.
  • The crime must be a grave one. This would rule out the death penalty for less-than death crimes, unless it involved severe injury to the victim.
  • The crime must have been deliberate. Accidental deaths, however many were involved, don't count, unless it rises to a level of "depraved indifference".

Similarly, corporal punishment is not forbidden. Parents and other caregivers may spank, TEMPORARILY withhold food (sending a child to bed without supper), or use physical means to impose their will, as long as the intent is to change the child's behavior, and the punishment is appropriate to the offense. That means a swat (or several) on the backside is OK. Beating a child with a stick for over 10 minutes would not be.

I seldom used corporal punishment. It just wasn't as effective as other means after a few years. Most kids older than pre-school know what they should be doing, and realize that they are transgressing. At that point, what any punishment should be doing is building up their conscience and helping them to acquire the moral awareness and character to resist indulging their selfish wants.

BTW, you could argue that the same is true of adult criminals. But they are harder to change by that point.

Torture designed to get reliable information is a more troubled concept. It is tied to the belief that preventing a greater evil allows the perpetrator to use the torture in an effort to get that information. Now, moral individuals will probably be troubled by use of torture. That's a good thing - they should be. Deliberately hurting someone should cause some guilt. If the use of torture is limited to the most extreme cases, when all other means have failed, it can fairly be argued that, in a moral sense, the torturer can be forgiven his action.

So, the major question, at this time, is whether torture gets reliable information. I'm not convinced it always does. That's why I'd like to see the majority of interrogations use persuasion, bribery, and other techniques - such as "good cop, bad cop". Getting the perp to believe that you understand him is simply more effective that hammering on him. Having said that, it's obvious that playing sympathic friend won't work for all bad boys. There are times when sterner actions will be necessary.

One thing I've found is that torture is LESS effective on people brought up in a culture of pain. That is, if the person has experienced physical punishment of a severe nature, inflicting, or threatening to add to that history is something they can resist - easily.

What breaks those people is love and understanding. It absolutely gets them to give in and spill the beans, almost always.

So, we need, as a nation, to keep our options open. For the sake of our interrogators, we need to spell out what is OK, and what is not. We also need to carefully limit who is authorized to use the more extreme measures.


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