Why I believe waterboarding prisoners is torture, and you should too

February 18, 2010 § 10 Comments

This is the first in a series of posts on the subject. The other posts are:

The Church has been extremely clear that torture is always and everywhere intrinsically immoral, no matter why one chooses to do it. For a long time, when it wasn’t clear what exactly the US had done as official policy authorized from the top down, that led to endless debate among Catholics over torture definitions and what had and had not been done.

It is no longer necessary to carry on that endless quagmire of a debate in order to establish that we in fact tortured prisoners, because now we know the particular techniques which were used. Thus the current focus on waterboarding: not as an exhaustive list, but as a proof-by-counterexample. If it is proposed that the US did not torture prisoners, a single counterexample is enough to falsify that proposal.

There are (at least) three general kinds of reasons why you should believe that waterboarding prisoners is torture: I’ll call them reasons grounded in history and law, reasons grounded in intuition, and reasons grounded in argument.

The reasons grounded in history and law are summarized by Mark Shea:

[T]he fact that the Vatican, the UN, all our western allies, international law, and every administration since at least the Spanish-American war has classified waterboarding [prisoners] as torture (till the Bush Administration acted unilaterally to pretend it is not) make it pretty clear that the thing is torture.

While it is true that the Bush Administration crafted a number of memos in order to try to change this status quo, to invoke that as part of the pertinent body of law and history is special pleading. Whatever 9-11 did change, one thing it did not change is what is and is not torture. If it was torture before 9-11, it remains torture today. So the verdict of history and law is that waterboarding prisoners is torture.

The reasons grounded in intuition are often dismissed as matters of personal taste or revulsion, and as therefore carrying no explanatory water. But surely that is entirely too coy. If I know I am peeing on a cat for kicks, it is ridiculous to suppose that we can’t conclude that it is “animal abuse” (with or without quotes) without appealing to a legal brief or moral theology treatise. The natural law is written in our hearts, built into our nature. When we strap a helpless prisoner to a board and bring him near to the point of death by drowning repeatedly, until he breaks down and tells us what we want to hear, in the process betraying his co-conspirators and his conscience, we can see that it is torture without any words at all running interference for us. It is very clear.

Still, some may find even those two in combination unconvincing. And that is where our third class of reasons come in, the reasons grounded in argument.

If waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture, given the above there must be some clear argument that it isn’t torture. The presumption of history, law, and intuition is that it is torture, and in any event if it is not torture then there must be at least one and probably many compelling – or at least valid with true premises – arguments that it is not. We can probably provide quite a few good arguments why a cat is not a fish, after all: we could probably do so even if we weren’t intensely motivated or particularly bright.

This is where the experience of the last six years of debate comes into focus. Many of us know most of the arguments by now. There are probably hundreds of them. We’ve discussed them all, and even invented some ourselves when the paucity of valid ones thrown at us by our highly motivated interlocutors became clear. In six or more years, I have yet to see a single one which holds up to scrutiny. That will be the subject of a follow-up post.

Tagged: ,

§ 10 Responses to Why I believe waterboarding prisoners is torture, and you should too

  • Tommy says:

    The Church has been extremely clear that torture is always and everywhere intrinsically immoral, no matter why one chooses to do it.

    If waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture,

    Zippy, I am kind of puzzled about why you would choose to introduce “for information” here, when you go to such lengths to make it clear that the act is torture regardless of the intention. Aren't you worried that you will cloud the issue? Would the sentence work just as well without the “for information”?

    Actually, one strain of arguments pro-waterboarding has it that there is no possible bright dividing line between torture and mere unpleasant treatment, and so it is impossible to say that there MUST be a clear argument that shows that waterboarding is not torture. If it lies in that gray area inherently, then nobody should expect a definitive proof.

    Which I don't agree with, because it seems obvious to me that when you almost drown someone, you are not in that gray area. But that's a separate aspect than whether there is an unresolvable gray area.

  • Zippy says:

    Nice catch, Tommy. I put that fact into the description precisely because it comes into the putative sed contras.

    If I'm going after a nosology for a pathological idea, I need to express the idea in a form that doesn't beg any of my own questions.

  • Tommy says:

    Ah, now I see. Thanks for the clarification.

  • […] while boasting our superiority to those Cafeteria Catholics on the Left. Zippy’s archive, particularly this series, is a powerful antidote to this shameful chapter in the history of the American Catholic […]

  • […] Why I believe waterboarding prisoners is torture, and you should too […]

  • […] tidied up the broken links in my waterboarding series.  This was a first priority, because many folks contributed to it and some wanted to continue to […]

  • […] month return to light blogging, the main focus of which was to drive a stake into the heart of the waterboarding/torture debate which had been plaguing the Catholic blogosphere for half a decade or more.  As an accident of […]

  • […] my waterboarding catalog to include an argument we’ve all heard many times but that my series failed to […]

  • […] invested in something profitable.  In the Jerry Bruckheimer film I imagine in my mind, failing to torture terrorist captives led to mass murder and destruction in Los Angeles.  Joining Team Litterbug was […]

  • […] rule-following I am guilty of on this blog involves my condemnations of usury and torture.  Close behind that is the way I am such a stickler for the just war doctrine, and how I […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Why I believe waterboarding prisoners is torture, and you should too at Zippy Catholic.


%d bloggers like this: