Cardinal Stafford: Torture of Terrorism Suspects 'Absolutely Forbidden'

TORONTO — A high-ranking Vatican official has denounced recent speculation in the American media on whether it might be morally permissible for authorities to use torture to extract information from terrorism suspects.

In a lecture given Nov. 16 at the University of Toronto, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, said such speculation is motivated by an unholy kind of “fear.” The former archbishop of Denver stated that the Second Vatican Council “solemnly declared” that “physical and psychological torture” is “intrinsically evil,” and therefore “absolutely forbidden.”

The media debate began with an article in The Washington Post Oct. 21, in which FBI sources claimed interrogators of four Sept. 11 suspects in New York might seek authority to use “pressure tactics” — such things as forced injections of sodium pentothal “truth serum,” or extradition to countries in which torture is legal.

The measures are reportedly being considered because suspects believed to have the fullest knowledge of the activities of the AlQaeda terror network are refusing to disclose any information to interrogators.

Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter wrote Nov. 5 that while “we can't legalize physical torture … we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that's hypocritical.”

In Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the fathers of Vatican II included “physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit” along with abortion, slavery, and genocide in a list of “disgraceful” acts which “infect civilization” and are “a negation of the honor due to the Creator.”

Quoting this passage in his 1993 encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), Pope John Paul II explained that such things are “intrinsically evil”; that is, they are wrong always and everywhere, regardless of the circumstances or the gravity of the situation.

Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things, said that the use of torture would be wrong even if it were aimed at getting information to stop a nuclear explosion.

“To use a very dramatic example, what if a 12-year-old girl knows the location of a nuclear bomb about to go off in Manhattan, which will kill millions — is it right to torture her to extract the information? No, in spite of the good which could be done with the information. There are some things which we ought never to do … if we wish to preserve civilization and our own moral dignity.”

Father Neuhaus explained that moral goods are higher even than the good of life itself in some cases.

“It is unacceptable to treat another human being as an object,” he continued. “Anything which violates the dignity of the human being as an acting subject, which takes away his freedom or power to consent, is wrong.”

The United States has signed and ratified the United Nations' Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which forbid physical and psychological torture. The Convention Against Torture states that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

Extraditing suspects to countries that use torture is also forbidden.

In its 1999 report to the UN committee monitoring implementation of the Convention Against Torture, the U.S. State Department stated that the laws of the United States also forbid the use of torture: “Torture is prohibited by law throughout the United States. It is categorically denounced as a matter of policy and as a tool of state authority. Every act constituting torture under the Convention constitutes a criminal offence under the law of the United States. No official of the government, federal, state, or local, civilian or military, is authorized to commit or to instruct anyone else to commit torture.”

The State Department added, “No exceptional circumstances may be invoked as a justification of torture [including] a ‘state of public emergency.’”

The Washington Post article noted, however, that lying to suspects is not illegal in the United States. Also, not all forms of psychological pressure in an interrogation would be classed as torture.

What Is Torture?

Father Neuhaus said that while any form of torture is wrong, it is necessary to clarify “what we mean by psychological torture. There are certain [common] practices of police interrogation designed to elicit information, which may be used when authorities are morally certain of someone's guilt [or knowledge of some criminal plan].”

Authority over such matters is exercised by the Department of Justice. The department's Public Affairs Office did not respond to the Register's request for an interview by press time.

Opponents of torture say that apart from the moral issues involved, torture is not an especially reliable investigative tool. National Review Online columnist John Derbyshire argued Nov. 16 that “as a means of discovering facts … torture doesn't work very well. Under physical torture, some people will lie, some will say anything to make the pain stop, even just for a while; and a surprising number will refuse to yield.”

Derbyshire cited a source indicating that while only one in a hundred people tortured by Stalin's secret police refused to confess, most of them were in fact innocent and therefore were “confessing” to false events.

David Curtin writes