Waterboarding series summary

February 20, 2010 § 1 Comment

This series has covered why I believe waterboarding prisoners is torture and why you should too. Three kinds of reasons were given: reasons from history and law, reasons from intuition, and reasons from argument. The part on reasons from argument includes a pair of “live documents” that I’ll update over time. Here are the posts:

I know we’ve had lots of esoteric arguments about moral theology in the past. In this series I’ve tried specifically to frame things such that those particular and highly nuanced disputes do not come into it: hopefully the series doesn’t depend on anything too complicated or deep.

We’ve also had lots of disputes over elections, voting, political action, and such. This series doesn’t address those questions. We can pound a stake into the heart of the contention that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture without resolving every other dispute about all of those things.

”For true and false will in no better way be revealed and uncovered than in resistance to a contradiction.” — St. Thomas Aquinas

Abortion is more important than torture

February 20, 2010 § 14 Comments

Given the foregoing series of posts, one might get the impression that I think torture, and specifically waterboarding, is a more grave issue than abortion.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

For the person actually doing it, and for any persons formally cooperating with it, appeals to the greater gravity of abortion carry no water. Tu quoque or “less evil than the competing brand” isn’t recognized as sound moral reasoning in any serious ethical theory of which I am aware, let alone in Catholic moral theology. When an act is evil we ought not do it, and we ought not formally cooperate with it, by the nature of what is meant by “evil”; no matter how venially evil it happens to be, and no matter what consequences follow from not doing it. That is what “evil” means.

Nevertheless different evil acts, though evil as pertains to category, do differ in their moral gravity. We should never perform an evil act; but some evil acts are worse than others.

Still we are comparing apples to oranges, because the pro-choice position is that abortion should be legal, not that it is not immoral. Lets stipulate.

The problem though for Catholics who approach it that way is a little document called Evangelium Vitae. Evangelium Vitae makes it astonishingly clear that it is also gravely wrong to support the legality of abortion; and furthermore, that there is a grave positive duty to oppose its legality as enshrined in a legal pseudo-right.

Failing to oppose the legality of abortion, in the will and intentions if not always in particular acts, is also gravely wrong. Our day to day behavior will inevitably reflect whether our will and intentions are where they should be on the matter.

As stated above, there is a difference between whether an act is wrong and how gravely wrong it is. Furthermore, the abortion holocaust and the torture regime are not individual acts, but whole ensembles of vast numbers of acts and social implications: what Pope John Paul II referred to as “structures of sin”. As I mentioned recently in a previous post, and in many places in times past, the gravity of the abortion holocaust as a structure of sin is immediate and vastly larger than the gravity of the torture regime. As tacticians or strategists looking from the outside in, opposed to both, it is clear which is the higher priority.

Suppose there are two switches on the wall, on opposite sides of the room. One switch will permanently end the “right to abortion”. The other will permanently end state-sanctioned waterboarding of prisoners. The switches are only active for the next fifteen seconds, you are standing in the middle of the room, and you’ve gotta start moving right now.

The priority is manifest.

We do have to be a little careful with the word “priority”. Each of us as individuals has a vocation or vocations, and just because opposing the “right” to abortion is a vastly higher priority in general than torture, because of our circumstances, that doesn’t imply that every individual must make abortion his highest priority. Not at all. It is really a false choice. And it also would be easy to underestimate the gravity of the torture regime because, unlike the abortion regime, it is in its infancy.

But when Horatio stands on the bridge of legal abortion, it is one thing to oppose the torture regime because it is evil in itself and because of the harm it is doing to him; it is another to use it to knife him in the back.

A catalog of failed arguments

February 20, 2010 § 34 Comments

”For true and false will in no better way be revealed and uncovered than in resistance to a contradiction.” — St. Thomas Aquinas

This is going to be a live document listing failed arguments which contend that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture. It is the fifth article in a series of seven, which starts here.

An old story: the Knights of Columbus got so used to telling the same jokes to each other over and over again that they started referring to them by number. During a meeting, Sam called out “number seven!” and the whole room roared with laughter. Ted called out “number twelve!” Dead silence. The Knight sitting next to him whispered “Sorry Ted, you just aren’t as good at telling a joke as Sam”.

This will start out sparsely filled and I’ll just edit and publish as I go. Linked posts will contain the refutation, though they may not necessarily be about the refutation or only the refutation. I might (reluctantly — I’d rather work with existing material) write new posts focused specifically on a given refutation if I see a need; but this document will be the index, for now, unless I become convinced that it has to be done in another format (in which case I’ll link from here). (How is that for a run-on sentence?)

For any given argument there are probably tens or hundreds of discussions out there in the ether where it was demolished, so if you think there is a better already-existing refutation let me know. Some of them may be difficult to find, especially the ones in comboxes given the alteration of comment systems over the years. Feel free to make suggestions in the combox, including suggestions about the nosology (the categorization of the errors). I plan to finish up the series and publish a top-level post for it, and then this can be filled in at leisure, over time.

The kinds of errors, again, are catalogued in the previous post, which is also a “live document”. Where the argument in question is simply based on a false premise I’ll say “false premise”. Where it is based on a commonplace fallacy I may also name the fallacy. These are some of the actual erroneous arguments themselves.

It would seem that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture because …

  1. … CCC 2297 doesn’t list “to extract life-saving information”.
    Consequentialism, appeal to finer detail
  2. … executing the guilty is not intrinsically immoral. Omitting facts in an analogy, appeal to an incomplete definition
  3. … we waterboarded SERE trainees.
    Omitting facts in an analogy, equivocation. Furthermore, our own government has expressly said that “the SERE waterboard experience is so different from the subsequent Agency usage as to make it almost irrelevant.” (See the memorandum itself in PDF form here, page 43, footnote 51).
  4. … it gives Islamic prisoners an excuse to tell us what they know, under their religion.
    Appeal to an incomplete definition
  5. … Catholics are free to disagree about it.
    See no evil.
  6. … the Magisterium has not said so specifically.
    Appeal to finer detail, see no evil
  7. … ticking time bombs have really bad consequences if we don’t defuse them.
    Consequentialism, appeal to an incomplete definition.
  8. … you would do it if your own family was threatened.
    Consequentialism, ad hominem
  9. … the terrorist captive is an attacker, so waterboarding him is an act of self-defense
    False premise
  10. … it is justified under the principle of double-effect
    Consequentialism
  11. … spanking children is not torture
    Appeal to an incomplete definition, omitting facts in an analogy
  12. … we don’t have a single, authoritative, precise, and complete definition of torture.
    Appeal to an incomplete definition, appeal to finer detail, see no evil
  13. … it falls under the just war doctrine.
    Consequentialism
  14. … it does not cause permanent harm.
    Appeal to an incomplete definition
  15. … the CIA men who did it are brave, professional men protecting American lives.
    Ad hominem, begging the question
  16. … it works.
    Consequentialism, raving non-sequitur
  17. … to oppose it you have to be a radical pacifist.
    Raving nonsequitur, reverse ad-hominem
  18. … the only kind of people who think that are people who hate actual anti-abortion groups.
    Raving nonsequitur, reverse ad-hominem
  19. … modern waterboarding does not include some of the elaborations used by medieval waterboarders.
    Raving nonsequitur, appeal to an incomplete definition
  20. … because Christopher Hitchens agreed to be waterboarded, but did not agree to have his teeth pulled out with pliers.
    Raving nonsequitur, appeal to an incomplete definition
    See also the argument from SERE training.
  21. … we only did it three times to three high value targets.
    Raving nonsequitur. Also see here.
  22. … people who think so are insisting that we treat our enemies better than our own soldiers.
    This is just the old SERE argument already addressed above combined with an extra dash of raving nonsequitur and reverse ad-hominem.
  23. … you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
    Consequentialism, Matthew 16:26 gambit
  24. … Bob is a good Catholic and a daily communicant, and he doesn’t think waterboarding a prisoner for information is torture.
    Ad hominem
  25. … I’m a good Catholic and I don’t think waterboarding a prisoner for information is torture. How dare you suggest that I support something evil?
    Ad hominem
  26. … if you don’t waterboard, that’s revealing in that you don’t trust that you and God can come to a reconciliation. You’d rather maintain your spotless moral record than actually help people.
    Matthew 16:26 gambit, raving non-sequitur
  27. … it isn’t torture if you do it to illegal combatants.
    False premise, raving non-sequitur
  28. … waterboarding KSM stopped an attack on the Library Tower in LA.
    False premise, raving non-sequitur
  29. … a captured terrorist is an unjust aggressor who retains the power to kill many thousands by withholding information about planned attacks. Therefore waterboarding him for information falls under self-defense.
    False premise
  30. … it is only objected to by morally vain gentry liberals.
    Raving non-sequitur, reverse ad hominem
  31. … not doing mild stuff means we’ll have to let the Pakistanis do the real bad stuff.
    Raving non-sequitur, argument from dishonor
  32. … complaining about treatment of prisoners makes U.S. troops kill enemies rather than accept their surrender.
    Raving non-sequitur, argument from dishonor
  33. … if waterboarding is torture that must mean we can’t do anything but give milk and warm cookies to terrorists.
    Raving non-sequitur
  34. … the Church hasn’t absolutely prohibited mutilating the guilty, so mutilation isn’t inhumane treatment. Furthermore all mutilation is worse than waterboarding. Therefore waterboarding is not inhumane treatment, and cannot be torture.
    Appeal to an incomplete definition, appeal to finer detail, mutilated analogy
  35. … Saints have engaged in self-flagellation as penance.
    Raving non-sequitur, omitting facts in an analogy
  36. The terrorists get away with doing worse things to our people when they capture them.
    Double-clutching the standard
  37. … the argument.
    Link to refutation.

(Next in the series)

The Gasping Grimoire

February 20, 2010 § 17 Comments

And so. The reasons from history and law lead to the conclusion that waterboarding prisoners for information[1] is torture. The reasons from intuition lead to the conclusion that waterboarding prisoners for information is torture. I think these in themselves are quite conclusive, and further demonstration is not necessary. But still we are often presented arguments that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture.

I can’t possibly estimate how many of these not-T arguments have presented themselves over more than half a decade. It has been quite a few. These arguments have been presented by highly motivated and intelligent interlocutors. I have yet to see a single one which held up to scrutiny. (Sometimes they even conflict with each other; but the sheer volume of fallacy at work here already puts that beyond the scope of the current series of posts).

If half a decade of highly motivated disputation cannot produce a single valid argument with true premises that waterboarding is not torture, contrary to the verdict of law, history, and intuition – if there is no respectable argument that despite all the quacking and waddling and the right genetic sequence what we have is not, as it turns out, a duck – then we simply must conclude that waterboarding prisoners for information is torture. In the abstract, yes, it is possible that the Lost Argument is out there somewhere, just as it is possible that the duck is a robot sent by the betazoids to spy on us. But it isn’t one, trust me: it’s a duck.

These arguments fall into many different categories or modes. These modes of error are often combined into a single argument: this makes the argument doubly invalid, since it fails on both modes.

Consequentialism, or an appeal to the reasons why the prisoner is waterboarded, may be the most common. The canonical example is the argument that while waterboarding for punishment (say) might be torture, waterboarding for information to save lives is not. This is consequentialism because no intrinsically immoral act can become a not-intrinsically-immoral act simply by changing the reason why you do it. A sub-genre is the classic ad hominem, to wit, would you really let your own family die screaming in pain rather than waterboard a hardened terrorist? Needless to say, this challenge performs no work in terms of assigning moral categories.

The Matthew 16:26 gambit takes this a step further. The consequences of failing to waterboard the prisoner are proposed to be enormously large; the certainty that doing so will save the day complete. Those who maintain the claim that it is still torture and therefore still wrong are often said to be obsessed with the strict letter of the law, at the (putative) expense of permitting a terrible event to unfold, in order to maintain a psychological sense of purity. Sometimes it is argued that one simply must waterboard the prisoner in such a case, and trust in God’s forgiveness.

One problem with this argument is that it proves too much: it applies just as much to methodical evisceration as to waterboarding. Another is that the certainties involved are purely hypothetical. But in any event it boils down to consequentialism with large doses of drama to help it go down.

A brief note about ad hominem, even though it is a standard fallacy covered elsewhere: An argument of the form “Q because Bob is a good guy and he believes Q” is just as much an ad hominem as the more common “not Q because Bob is a bad guy and he believes Q.” What ad hominem represents is an attempt to redirect attention onto various personalities and away from the substantive matter at hand. While that may often lead to colorful discussion, it performs no work in terms of demonstrating that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture.

Appeals to an incomplete definition are an interesting variation. For all these years it has supposedly been a weakness of the anti-torture position that there is no single, authoritative, precise and complete definition of torture. In point of fact this works against the pro-waterboarding arguments, not in their favor, now that we are discussing a concrete act. Shoe, meet other foot. In casting this spell, the person arguing that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture commits (implicitly or explicitly, because his argument depends on this commitment whether he realizes it or not) to some particular definition and then proposes that waterboarding a prisoner for information does not meet that definition. But unless the definition he proposes can distinguish between torture and not-torture in every case, the move is vacuous. All that needs to be done to falsify it is to provide a single example where his definition fails to distinguish between torture and not-torture.

Taking a typical example, the notion seems to be that by adding “because there is a ticking time bomb” as a fact about the act, what would otherwise be defined as torture becomes not-torture. But it is obvious that this change in circumstances cannot make an act of torture into not-torture: surely the fact that it is done while a bomb is ticking cannot change crucifixion from torture into not-torture.

Maybe another example will help, since this one is a bit subtle. Marc Thiessen argues that waterboarding Islamic prisoners gives them an excuse to cooperate. (In fact this extends the irony of waterboarding-as-baptism-parody: Islamic prisoners receive absolution for betraying their consciences through the anti-sacrament). But surely the fact that it gives them an excuse to sing like canaries wouldn’t justify crucifying them: crucifixion doesn’t go from torture to not-torture by mixing in a little “it gives him an excuse to talk”. The distinction in question is clearly incapable of conjuring the desired category change.

Omitting facts in an analogy is common, often combined with an equivocation. Two factually different acts are given the same label, setting up a supposed if-then relation. If “waterboarding” troops to train them to resist torture is not torture, then “waterboarding” prisoners for information is not torture: even though (just as some examples of factual distinctions) trainees are volunteers in friendly hands who can end the session at any time through a special signal; while prisoners are captives in hostile hands upon whom the procedure is repeated until they break down and start singing. Under this form of argument asserting the same label somehow magically transforms two very distinct kinds of acts into the same thing, despite clear factual differences.

Another canonical example is the notion that because execution of a tried and convicted criminal meets the requirement for humane treatment, waterboarding must also be humane treatment, and therefore not torture. Yet clearly the analogy to execution doesn’t work. As Tom of Disputations has pointed out, the idea seems to be that because we can chop off a particular man’s head, therefore we can chop off his toes; we can electrocute a man’s heart, so why not his genitals? Responses to pointing out the failure in the analogy tend to be very verbose forms of “my thoughts exactly: if we can execute him, why can’t we do any of these other things to him?” Since this analogy, if valid, would permit many specific acts which clearly are torture, “waterboarding is not torture” isn’t a valid conclusion from it. An inadequate analogy is every bit as incapable of distinguishing torture from not-torture as an incomplete definition.

When the analogy and its putative concomitants are pressed to the point of elaborate confusion, we might call it a mutilated analogy[2]. For example, there are those who would claim that some forms of mutilation are licit punishment, and that therefore (!) waterboarding is not torture. Lets grant the premise for the sake of argument: stipulate that there exists some form of mutilation which is a licit punishment. (Presumably the person making this argument would not say that all forms of mutilation are licit punishment). The problem with the analogy to this specific form of mutilation, whatever it happens to be (I haven’t seen a specific form of mutilation proposed to fill in this place in the argument), is basically the same as the problem with the analogy to execution in the previous paragraph. Even if we could say “X is a licit form of mutilation for punishment”, it doesn’t follow from this that it is impossible to torture through something other than mutilation, or that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture. Shocking a man’s genitals with electricity until he tells us what we want to know is torture, even if we do it in such a way as to cause no mutilation of his body. The presumption seems to be that if some unspecified mutilation X is licit as punishment, anything “less than” X cannot be inhumane treatment; that waterboarding is “less than” X, and therefore not torture. The best one can say of this argument is that it is grossly incomplete: it gives us no reason to believe that there is some number line (?) of “badness” (?) of acts upon which we can place all forms of mutilation, with waterboarding on that same number line, where waterboarding is “less than” all forms of mutilation, and torture is defined as such by the position of the act on that number line, etc. It probably goes without saying at this point, but “waterboarding is not torture” doesn’t follow from an incomplete jumble of analogies and assertions which we have clear reasons to disbelieve.

A classic in the history of the St. Blogs torture wars is the see no evil: the contention that torture doesn’t signify anything definite other than the disapproval of the person making the accusation of torture. Yes, this argument was actually made at one point. A more subtle variation is the claim that Catholics are free to disagree, as if that automatically ends every discussion over what is true. Er, ok. Just realize that “free to disagree” is indistinguishable from “I’m shutting up now, and I wish you would too”. And “I’m shutting up now, and I wish you would too” does not have the capacity to make waterboarding prisoners not-torture.

Another fallacious mode of argument is Magisterial positivism, or more colloquially an appeal to finer detail. Waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture because the Magisterium has not specifically said that it is. But of course the Magisterium has not said that suction aspiration of a living fetus is an abortion either. On the one hand, the Magisterium imposes latae sententiae excommunication on anyone who procures or performs an abortion. On the other hand, how can we know that the person procured an abortion if the Magisterium hasn’t defined suction aspiration as abortion? The appeal to finer detail is one of those gifts that keep on giving: like a small child saying “why” over and over again, there is no answering it. Even if the Pope himself declared ex cathedra that waterboarding is torture, some Catholic would claim — indeed some Catholic has already claimed — that, you see, there is waterboarding, and then there is waterboarding. (Er, ok).

The argument from dishonor suggests that if we don’t waterboard prisoners our troops will respond by violating rules of engagement and summarily executing combatants in the field who try to surrender, and further that we will render prisoners to others (like Pakistan) who are willing to perform worse tortures on them than we would. Obviously this argument is incapable of making waterboarding not-torture. In addition it represents a kind of extortion to evil: if you don’t let us do this mildly evil thing, you are going to “force” us to do this much worse thing. Apparently the folks who advance this argument are capable of simultaneously holding in their heads a genuine support for our troops intermingled with contempt for them.

Then we have, for lack of a better term, the raving non-sequitur. A premise is followed by a putative conclusion which does not follow from the premise. Often this is stated in the form of a reverse ad-hominem, where it is suggested not that the conclusion is ludicrous because of the man but the man is ludicrous because of the conclusion. The problem, of course, is that the conclusion doesn’t in fact follow from the premise. The suggestion that anyone who thinks waterboarding is torture is thereby a radical pacifist is a canonical example.

Double-clutching the standard is when the existence of a putative double-standard is invoked as an excuse for doing moral wrong.  This is a form of the raving non-sequitur.  A canonical example is the claim that what the terrorists do to our people is worse than what we do to theirs.  It goes without saying that this fails to establish that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture.

I am going to make an “open post” of this: that is, I’ll add modes of error to it over time, if it makes sense to do that, and tweak existing ones. The next post will also be an open post: in it I’ll catalogue some of the more interesting arguments by summarizing the argument and either briefly stating or linking to what makes it invalid; and I’ll add to the list as more come up or (as is more likely) old ones rear their heads again.

My bottom line motivation, as usual, is laziness. The next time someone asks me why he should believe that waterboarding prisoners for information is torture, and why it matters, I’ll just have to pass on a link.


[1] I state it that way because some of the arguments that it is not torture depend on the “for information” part, so it is only fair to include that fact in the description.

[2] I considered “assuming a single dimension and transitivity” as the name of this invalid argument form; but part of the goal here is to make the arguments as easy to understand as possible, and most people respond “huh?” when I say things like that.


(Next in the series)

Rough Ride Ahead

February 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

There are many fallacious arguments which contend that waterboarding prisoners is not torture. Before we begin crafting a nosology of those arguments, I am going to reiterate and expand a little on why waterboarding is the San Juan Hill of the torture debates.

It isn’t because the problem of torture can be reduced to “just three guys waterboarded,” at all. There are many other battlefields which are just as important or even more important. Broken down very generally, there are alleged cases where prisoners died under officially sanctioned torture. There are allegations of renditions. (Links provided just as examples: fully documenting all this is beside the point, as we’ll see in a moment). There are the allegations of forced nudity in front of women, and the sexual stuff. Beyond that, there is the issue of alleged abuses occurring in a kind of “gray area”, where currently-illegal things were done to prisoners with the approval of superiors, before the officially sanctioned “enhanced interrogation techniques” were put into place. Beyond that still lies illegal abuses putatively brought about by the “climate of abuse” that all this entailed, and still further along the chain of Being are the “Jack Bauer” culture and the formal cooperation of millions of individuals with torture. It is important to keep all of these distinct, and there may be other distinctions as well: it isn’t my intention here to provide a comprehensive or even particularly coherent account of all of it, let alone to pass particular judgments, in this paragraph.

Because when we focus in specifically on waterboarding prisoners as a moral issue for Catholics, the word “alleged” goes away. One thing that everyone now agrees on is the background facts: we waterboarded those three prisoners until they broke and they started singing. And we did it with full authorization from the top down.

If by doing that we are guilty of torturing prisoners, this implies that we must repent, we must turn back, we must forsake the direction which took us to that point. Once you plant a seed, it grows: there is no standing still. Griswold vs Connecticut led directly to Roe vs Wade. If what we did was torture that means that there is no way further forward: that the way forward leads to Hell, and we must turn back from it.

Waterboarding isn’t the whole battle, by any means. It is a very small part of it, in truth. But it is the tip of the spear in the torture debates.

Showdown at High Noon

February 19, 2010 § 12 Comments

Well, technically it was 12:40.

Before I continue my series on the pathologies of the “waterboarding is not torture” idea and why it is (and is not) significant, a brief mention of another matter. My new friend Austin Ruse and I had lunch yesterday in Washington, DC. (It was just lunch. The following are impressions from lunch. This does not imply that I have done comprehensive due diligence on everything Mr. Ruse has ever said and everyone with whom he has ever associated, or that I am interested in debating his character, or in rehashing the details of the combox encounter, or anything of the sort. You know who you are. Stow it.)

Austin and I first “met” in the comboxes of this shootout at The American Catholic. As the transcript reveals, we decided to meet in person.

Mr. Ruse is a gentleman: warm, genuine, and smart, one of those guys who is really interested in people, their organization into formal institutions, and the activities of those institutions; the kind of guy who will wander around with you and introduce you to everyone he knows with handshakes and smiles and talk about all the various groups and programs and things going on in the community. A very likeable man, with a great love of the Church and a passionate devotion to protecting the unborn.

The whole debate – the substantive part of it – is new to him. His impression of anti-torture Catholics was formed, prior to this recent encounter, almost entirely by interactions with Catholics of a certain sort: the kind of Catholics who will see marchers at a protest of Roe vs Wade and snarl under their breath “Pro-life! If you were really pro-life you’d be out there helping get the Obama health plan passed!”; as opposed to, say, “Bless them. I really should be doing more myself.” You know the type I mean.

It was just a nice lunch between two Catholic guys with rather different personality traits and personal interests. But there is one substantive matter relating to the earlier thread which I should address. Tom summarizes the concern thus:

I suppose there are three possibilities:

1. He’s mistaken; decrying torture will not hurt his interests.

2. He’s correct that decrying torture will hurt his interests, because he has accidentally scoped his interests too narrowly (I think in particular of his implications that voting Republican is a necessary good, which may simply be a means he’s become accustomed to seeking uncritically).

3. He’s correct that decrying torture will hurt his interests, because his interests are not wholly directed to the common good. (This is essentially the Vox Nova position, that organizations like C-FAM are merely Republican or called-conservative-but-as-liberal-as-they-come shops.)

Before reading his own words, I would have dismissed possibility #3 out of hand.

I think the real answer is a variant of (1):

When you are deeply committed to protecting the unborn, the holocaust of whom is possibly a worse stain on humanity than even the large-scale atrocities of the last century, and one of your personal passions is organizing people into formal institutions to engage in political action; and when you further see nothing but unprincipled political hatchet jobs coming from people who literally hate anything resembling an existing actual formally organized anti-abortion group; and when a principal weapon employed in these hatchet jobs is this particular issue — when all of that is true, you can’t help but have a particular impression of this whole debate.

Until, that is, you encounter orthodox Catholics who are also deeply passionate about protecting the unborn on that same side, the side forming the edge of the hatchet, under the “stopped clock” theory, of this particular issue.

In fact, being the sort who does the organization think-tank policy dance every day, he was enthusiastic about orthodox activist-anti-torture Catholics getting involved at that level and in that manner. A great idea; though probably a job for someone other than myself.

Well met, Austin.

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.

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