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BY Mark Shea
One of the things sin does is numb us as it kills us. Things which we once felt as a shock become commonplace. So, for instance, G.K. Chesterton writes in The Everlasting Man:Let any lad who has had the look to grow up sane and simple in his day-dreams of love hear for the first time of the cult of Ganymede; he will not be merely shocked but sickened. And that first impression, as has been said here so often about first impressions, will be right. Our cynical indifference is an illusion; it is the greatest of all illusions; the illusion of familiarity.
Our Manufacturers of Consent, working in the commanding heights of culture, know that. So the goal is always to define deviancy down and make acceptable, at earlier and earlier ages and as broadly and popularly as possible, whatever sins they wish to popularize in order to achieve whatever goals they wish to achieve.
So, for instance, we have witnessed various pushes to re-define homosex as natural and wonderful. In the process, the Love That Dare Not Speak its Name has morphed into the Stridency That Won’t Shut Up. What used to be the Plea for Tolerance has become the Demand for Approval and the ruthless silencing of anybody who continues to think homosex a sin.
In the same way, when Roe was handed down by our Robed Masters in 1973, the rhetoric in favor of abortion centered on the struggle by pro-aborts to define abortion as something other than the taking of innocent human life. Billions of gallons of ink and galaxies of electrons were spent on the attempt to pretend that abortion is not the murder of a human being. The concerted effort to create euphemisms for every plain English word in the conversation was an Orwellian spectacle that is, to any person of common sense, our very first clue that a work of Satan is in progress.
Eventually, of course, the facts were overwhelming that pro-aborts were lying through their teeth and that the victim of abortion was, in fact, a human being and not “fetal material”. But by this time, the pro-abort regime was so entrenched that they could begin to roll out the next audacity by defining deviancy down again. “So what,” they said, “if abortion is murder? What’s so bad about that? Sometimes you have to do bad things for the greater good. If a fetus has to die so that a young mother can have a chance at a future and a career and a happy family life later, then so be it. In fact, we will not longer say that abortion is a necessary evil. Abortion is a blessing and abortionists do holy work.” That is, curiously, an argument many people have no idea how to answer, because most people (especially in America) are confirmed consequentialists who do, in fact, believe the ends justify the means and that you can do evil in order to achieve the good. And so, we now live in a culture in which a significant number of abortion defenders no longer feel the need to mince around pretending they aren’t advocating the murder of innocents. They embrace it openly and say, “Sometimes you gotta break a few eggs to make an omelette. Life is complicated.”
One expects that from post-Roe Liberalism, since it is untethered from and hostile to the Christian tradition. But for the past few years, the bulk of conservatives in the US have been engaged in exactly the same process with respect to torture. Once the Bush/Cheney Administration chose to make torture the policy of these United States, apologists for the Administration were committed to defending it. The first line of defense, as with apologetics for abortion, was to engage in the game of euphemism and pretend endless bafflement about what O what torture is. The basic line was “Oh! We agree that torture is bad. But, golly, it’s so puzzling! Can we ever really know if somebody who was beaten to death, frozen, or subjected to waterboarding was, in fact, tortured? We think it’s awfully mean of critics of the Bush Administration to say that. What they do is just “enhanced interrogation techniques”, not torture.”
Now, however, that support for torture has become a defining tenet of what it means to be a Republican, just as abortion support is a defining tenet of what it means to be a Democrat, we appear to be moving into the second phase of torture apologetics. Here’s Jonah Goldberg, for instance, dropping the pretense that torture ceases to be torture when you call it something else and moving into full Phase Two Mode:Torture is a taboo word, and for good reason. Like incest, bigotry or, in some circles, censorship, the word torture separates good from evil, right from wrong. Once we decide something is torture, we end the debate over what the right policy should be. The right policy is to never torture.
That’s one reason why supporters of waterboarding reject the term torture, preferring “enhanced interrogation methods” or some such; because conceding that it’s torture is like surrendering. It’s also why opponents of waterboarding are so intent to win the argument that it is torture. I don’t doubt they believe it, but they also recognize that the taboo value of the term is their strongest weapon against the practice. They certainly aren’t going to win much ground trying to muster sympathy for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
And so the discussion descends into a battle of semantics, dictionary entries and checklists. Joe Carter lists a bunch of definitions and if he persuades the reader that waterboarding fits the definitions, bada bing: he wins.
My problem with this taxonomical approach, as I’ve written before, is I think context and intentions matter. The Catholic Church — as Carter and Marc both know far, far better than I — has a theory of just war. That means war is sometimes justified, right? It also means it is sometimes evil and criminal. The question depends on the circumstances. Similarly, killing is sometimes murder and sometimes it is self-defense or (for some) lawful and justified execution.
No one has ever explained to my satisfaction why torture, or let’s say some kinds of torture, is objectively and in all ways worse than killing. Which would you rather happen to you? Would you rather be waterboarded or killed? Which would get you a stiffer criminal penalty, waterboarding someone or murdering them? Why do you think that is? Which do you think deserves the greater criminal penalty?
Some background is necessary here. The context of this remark is that another NRO contributor, Marc Thiessen, was making a morally absurd pitch for torture predicated on the moronic contention that one either supports torture or accepts the label “radical pacifist”. Joe Carter, writing for First Things, took this moronic contention apart, sparking an argument between Thiessen and Carter in which Thiessen was definitely receiving a sound drubbing as he attempted to maintain the pretense that a) torture isn’t torture and b) besides if you oppose it you are a radical pacifist.
Goldberg briefly feints an agreement that “the right policy is to never torture” (his tip of the hat to the old “Oh, I don’t support torture, just enhanced interrogation” strategy—and then immediately takes it back by saying, in effect, “Let’s not quibble about semantics. Let’s grant that torture is torture and not this “enhanced interrogation” euphemistic twaddle that we’ve all been spouting. But granting that, I now want to suggest that sometimes the right policy is to torture.”
And away we go. We are now entering—tentatively—the phase in which The Thing That Used to Conservatism stops pretending that it doesn’t advocate torture and begins saying, “Hey! Heck yes, we torture! Let us do evil that good may come of it! What does the teaching of the Church matter when it says (in Veritatis Splendor 80, among other places) that torture is intrinsically and gravely evil? Torture is a blessing and torturers do holy work!” And if guys like Thiessen get their way, we may even soon be hearing that opposition to the grave and intrinsic evil of torture is “radical pacificism” and (incredibly) rejection of Just War teaching or the American Way. Just to refresh memories, Just War teaching says that prisoners must be treated humanely. What “the American Way” says is basically up to the shifting sentiments of Americans. Currently, the American Way says, “Purported good ends justify any evil means we feel we can get away with, whether it be abortion or torture.” Nice to see that the Thing the Used to be Liberalism and the Thing That Used to be Conservatism have so much in common.
PS. In answer to Goldberg’s question: the reason we don’t torture prisoners is the same reason we don’t shoot them: they’re prisoners with human rights from God and are now in our power. The suspense thriller fiction of the Ticking Time Bomb aside, the reality is that when you open the door to torture, you effectively assert that any human being whom you suspect of being a danger (or whom the State wishes to portray as a danger) is stripped of all rights and human dignity and is now reduced to a thing who can be tormented to death. It *seems* an efficient approach, but it is a consuming fire that will destroy a society once you adopt the premisses—which are, by the way, the exact same premisses as the case for abortion. We like to imagine that only Bad Guys will be tortured. But torture is done because you *suspect* somebody is a Bad Guy, not because you know they are. Result: you torture and kill innocents, as we already have done multiple times. And under the lash of fear and hate, torture soon gets applied to those whom you suspect might now be used as leverage against Bad Guys—as we, in fact, did when we threatened the children of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
It also soon gets used to deal, not only with foreign Bad Guys, but with domestic ones too—or at least with those we suspect are Bad Guys (and their families). And the more fearful and suspicious a society becomes, the more its citizens become tempting targets for torture and short-cutting of human rights. After all, if “saving American lives” is the rationale for torturing terrorists, why not make it the rationale for saving American lives from gang members, petty thieves, and anybody else we think might present a threat to Americans?
And the irony is, torture is documentably counter-productive, resulting in massive amounts of junk information that send us on expensive and resource-draining wild goose chases, as well as providing terrific recruitment propaganda for our our enemies.
It turns out God knows what he’s talking about. When Holy Church says something is gravely and intrinsically evil, that’s God’s way of saying “Don’t touch. You’ll get burned.”