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Waterboarding Reconsidered

In his blog post published earlier this week, What About Waterboarding?, Catholic Answers’ staff member Todd Aglialoro took a look at conservative firebrand Sarah Palin‘s recent controversial remarks on waterboarding (“[I]f I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists”). He offered his thoughts on whether or not waterboarding constitutes torture; and, if not, if it can be permitted for use in extracting necessary information from suspects with knowledge of ticking bombs.

This post sparked a wide discussion on various social media platforms, which led to my being tasked to provide an alternative point of view. Here at Catholic Answers we consider discussion healthy, and sometimes that discussion is not just external to the apostolate but internal, between staff members.

Nota bene: Todd emphasized in his blog post that “All my musings are mine alone and do not purport to be the final interpretation of Church teaching or the official opinion of Catholic Answers” (emphasis in original). Please keep in mind that Todd’s disclaimer is also my own. Neither of us purports to define the matter for the Church or to give the official opinion of Catholic Answers. And please note that these are personal blog posts; they are not in the same category of Catholic Answers’ publications as books, tracts, or magazine articles.

What Is Torture?

One of the strengths of Todd’s piece was the care he took to seek a definition of torture from Church documents. In this effort, he cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.

Todd gave the citation of “CCC 2298” for this definition. In fact, the correct citation is CCC 2297. Paragraph 2298 is actually an expansion upon 2297, and says, in part:

In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices [“commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order”] were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors (emphasis added).

Taken together, this section of the Catechism is a sharp critique of unjust means that governments have at times used to preserve law and order. The right of governments to protect citizens is upheld (CCC 2263–2267), but is always balanced by the necessity to respect the dignity and rights of human persons.

Not cited by Todd in his blog post, but not to be overlooked, is the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). In a document promulgated just twenty years following the world war that saw men, women, and children subjected to unimaginable horrors in the concentration camps (including experiments rationalized as means to discover ways to save “worthy” lives); the firebombings of civilian populations in Germany and Japan; and atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the Council Fathers wrote:

Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator (GS 27, emphasis added, the Vatican’s English translation).

Todd claimed in his blog post that the Church “does not specifically address [waterboarding]” and asked whether the practice of waterboarding specifically meets the criteria for torture in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I respectfully respond that it is not reasonable to expect that the Church foresee every possible means that man can torture his fellow man and outlaw it. I also believe that the Church knew well the human tendency to hunt for loopholes through which evil could be slipped, and so deliberately crafted the paragraph in Gaudium et Spes, cited above, to be as broad as possible. No fewer than three times in that single paragraph did the Council Fathers use the terminology translated into English as whatever to cast as wide a net as possible in condemning human cruelty.

Is Waterboarding Torture?

Discussing whether or not waterboarding is torture, Todd gave the practice one of the mildest definitions I have ever seen in print. His purpose may have been to find a definition with which all parties to the dispute could agree, but he offered a definition that is indistinguishable from rough play with Super Soakers:

This interrogation practice involves restraining a prisoner in a prone position and using water to simulate a drowning sensation. The aim is that this imposition of discomfort will motivate the prisoner to divulge important information (emphasis added).

Later in the post, he says:

[H]ow should we morally evaluate something like waterboarding, which is the practice of imposing discomfort on someone with the intention of eliciting proportionately important (e.g., life-saving) information to which one has a right in justice? [emphasis in original].

Finally, we have this claim to consider:

Catholic principles of self-defense say that one may use even lethal means to protect one’s life or the lives of innocents in the face of an unjust aggressor (CCC 2263–2265). It seems to follow, then, that in the same circumstances non-lethal corporal means are at least in-bounds (emphasis in original).

I think that the idea that waterboarding is “non-lethal” would come as a surprise those who died in CIA interrogations in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002 and 2003. And why would specialized, and once highly-classified, training be considered necessary for American military personnel to survive the infliction of a spot of “discomfort”?

At the very least, waterboarding is the infliction of extreme physical and mental distress to the point of fear for life, since one of the purposes, stipulated to by Todd, is to simulate drowning. Speaking as someone who very nearly actually drowned when I was twelve years old, I’m here to tell you that the experience does put you in fear for your life.

Is Waterboarding Necessary?

Many proponents of waterboarding claim that the procedure is a necessary tool for interrogators to use to extract important information from people believed to know where to find the ticking bombs. Of course, so far as we know, no person waterboarded to date since 9/11 has been thought to have the inside scoop on a currently ticking bomb. Rather these persons were believed to have information on terror networks that the CIA and other anti-terror organizations were working to dismantle. In other words, these people presumably were waterboarded for what they might know about possible future threats or the location of wanted terrorists who had committed past crimes. They most likely were not waterboarded to extract from them locations of active bombs that were in the process of ticking down.

Todd’s scenario that a suspect “know[s] where there’s a bomb that’s going to detonate and kill innocents” thus in all probability is a hypothetical that permits people to rationalize that lives hang in the balance unless a suspect is strapped to a waterboard and terrorized into spilling what he knows. It is also a hypothetical that assumes that the suspect on the waterboard knows something. But what if he does not? Does the waterboard then become the 21st-century version of the ducking stools used in centuries past to identify witches? Do we decide that if the terror suspect dies, perhaps he never was a terrorist to begin with, but now at least he never will be one?

Then there is the fact that before the horror of 9/11 provided a cloak of moral righteousness justifying the open defense of torture techniques, many interrogators eschewed physical force because they knew it produced unreliable information.

As but one example, in his book Hunting Eichmann, author Neal Bascomb tells the story of Mossad‘s capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1960. When Israeli agents grabbed a man living under the name “Ricardo Klement” and spirited him away to a safe house in Buenos Aires for questioning, they needed to find out very quickly whether or not they had Adolf Eichmann. Remember, time was of the essence because if the Argentinian government found out the Israelis had kidnapped one of its citizens on Argentinian soil while the Israelis were still in Argentina, every Mossad agent on this mission would be in danger of death.

When Bascomb introduces the interrogation of “Ricardo Klement,” this is how he describes the work of the Israeli interrogator Zvi Aharoni:

Aharoni wanted to begin his questioning straightaway, when his subject was at his most unbalanced. . . . [A]s an interrogator, he was without equal in the Shin Bet. He never used force, knowing it only led to false confessions. Instead, he wore his subjects down with staccato bursts of questions, twisting them in their own lies and hammering them with known facts until the truth was the only way out. He had studied applied psychology and, under CIA purview, had apprenticed in Chicago with John Reid and Fred Inbau, the authors of the standard text on interrogation (chapter 21, pp. 234–235, electronic book edition).

It turned out that “Klement” was indeed Eichmann and Eichmann quickly concluded that his jig was done. He readily admitted to his identity without much effort by Aharoni. There was no way that Aharoni could have known going in though that Eichmann would readily surrender the necessary information—and yet, as a matter of protocol, “he never used force.”

The Final Test

We have reviewed a lot of scenarios here, some hypothetical and some actual. Let’s look at one more scenario:

Suppose you live in a small corner of an immense empire, and your nation is under constant threat of being swallowed up by the empire. Your nation has some freedom of self-government, but it depends on maintaining law and order, and keeping the emperor happy. Not only that, but your nation is something of a theocracy. Now suppose that the small band of religious dissenters who have been pushing the strange new doctrines of their dead leader, executed for crimes against the state a few years back, is now growing larger every day.

You, being on fire for the defense of your nation and the purity of your faith, decide that this nonsense must be put to a definitive end. These extremists are putting the lives and souls of innocent men, women, and children at risk by their rebellion against legitimate authority and right doctrine.

Imagine that you have been deputized to round up these malcontents and break the back of their extremist network. Would it be licit to use physical force to coerce these rebels to give up information on their compatriots? Would God approve of this means of defending the lives and faith of his people? Well, let’s see:

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting (Acts 9:1–5).

Is this a fair scenario? Perhaps, if you consider that the converted Saul, St. Paul, spent the rest of his life drawing out the implications of Jesus identifying himself with those Saul was persecuting and made it a cornerstone of his theology (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:12–27).

If you disagree with me about waterboarding, if you believe that waterboarding is allowable in certain circumstances, we can agree to disagree and defer to the Church to settle between us. But keep in mind that the defense you give of your position should not be made to me. It need not even be made to a priest or bishop. Your defense of your position should be prepared and made ready for the day when Jesus Christ might one day say to you, “I was waterboarded and you approved” (cf. Matt. 25:31–46).


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