Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
We are all familiar with that little mantra, I trust? It’s one of those things said by abortion supporters with a guilty conscience who want to have their cake and eat it. Abortion “saves lives”, doncha know, so we have to keep doing it. And besides, it’s harmless, so there’s no problem at all.
Yet mysteriously, these same people also insist we should make it “rare”. Why? If it saves lives and is harmless, what’s the problem? Why gingerly talk about making it rare as though there is some moral problem with it?
I think of that as I read the constant apologetics for another form of grave intrinsic evil being emitted by some of the most powerful and influential leaders of another political tribe that only bothers with Catholic teaching when it is useful:
“You’ve heard endlessly about waterboarding. It happened to three terrorists.” - Dick Cheney, May 21st, 2009 in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that has constituted the standard talking point guideline for every conservative torture defender ever since.
Indeed, summing up the consequentalism of the right, one blogger puts the enthusiasm for torture succinctly: “If it saves one American life in this war, I’ll help carry the water.”
It’s not a rare sentiment. And make no mistake, it’s not about the endless tergiversation over the question of “defining torture” either. Charles Krauthammer, a leading and widely respected conservative pundit doesn’t bother his head making fine distinctions between “enhanced interrogation” and torture or trying to say “torture is wrong but waterboarding is not torture.” Nope, he flat out said:
Let’s take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He’s not talking.
Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?
Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.
“Bra-vo!” say a not inconsiderable number of conservatives! Finally, some moral common sense! No beating around the bush here. No definitional mickey mouse games about “What O what is torture?” Not even the fine-tuned jesuitical sophistries about whether torture is gravely evil. Just the refreshing and straight forward claim that we must do evil (“terrible things”) that good may come of it. And what are the criteria for hanging a man by his thumbs? Not “evidence”. Merely “the slightest belief” that he might know something. What could possibly go wrong in a criminal justice system based on that kind of thinking?
Oh, but wait. That was Krauthammer in 2005, when the ground was still being softened to get us used to the idea of torture. Back then, he was saying it is a moral duty to torture to save millions of lives. But as time went on, he “progressed” in his thinking. Eventually, he arrived at this: Forget a million innocents. Just one will do:
An innocent’s life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy.
Which confronts us with a question: namely, if waterboarding (let alone the other forms of torture which defenders of simulated drowning studiously avoid discussing, despite the dozens of fatalities they caused) is such a harmless life-saving measure, why does Mr. Cheney boast that it is safe, legal, and rare? If our apologists for waterboarding are to be believed about its efficacy and harmlessness, then surely Mr. Cheney was absolutely derelict in duty by not deploying it constantly both abroad and at home to deal with a host of evildoers? And why merely to “save lives”? Why not all the time for every sort of serious crime on every suspect? After all, if things are as the torture defenders would have us believe, then it would appear that inflicting this harmless splash of water (“dunking” was the euphemism Mr. Cheney preferred) on three people was denying the rest of us the great benefits of its immense power to fight evil. Indeed, as a reader right here on NCR put it:
If even one American life was saved by waterboarding, it was worth it.
Those who are willing to permit innocent people to be maimed or killed, out of concern for making some al Qaeda leaders briefly uncomfortable, are beneath contempt.
In fact, for every innocent life that could have been saved but for the political pressure to stop the use of such techniques, the obstructionists are morally culpable as accessories to murder and crimes against humanity.
If the State is prohibited from waterboarding, then those who stop the state will be accessories to murder guilty of crimes against humanity! We not only may waterboard and torture, we must! If we have the “slightest belief” it will save live, we must!!!
And it is right here that we discover the little failure in foresight that Catholic defenders of waterboarding and other forms of torture consistently commit: they forget that, in addition to being wrong, support for torture is stupid. For if Caesar hears the prayer of these Catholic torture defenders, he may indeed say, “Yeah! Why do we limit the use of this? It’s safe. It’s legal. It saves lives and fights evil! It would be criminal *not* to use it! So let’s use it on anybody we have the slightest belief may be planning evil, including those dangerous prolifers on our terrorist watch list who might be planning to shoot an abortionist! If we don’t, and a single abortionist dies, then the obstructionists are morally culpable as accessories to murder and crimes against humanity! And what about those Catholics? What are they hiding when it comes to those pervert priests? As Faithful Conservative Catholics have themselves been arguing for years, it’s a harmless procedure! Let’s do it For the Children! Those who are willing to permit innocent children to be raped or abused, out of concern for making some pervert Catholics briefly uncomfortable, are beneath contempt. After all, as Mr. Krauthammer says, if I have the slightest belief it might save a single life from murder, abuse, or some other serious crime, I have a moral duty to do it!”