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

February 18, 2010 § 11 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.

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