Wednesday, May 4, 2011


A lot of liberal-leaning Catholics get pretty uppity about the topic of torture. I've seen several articles or posts about this in the aftermath of the Bin Laden news.

I highly sympathize with this position. Just as I sympathize with (and have written before about) opposition to the death penalty and with opposition to war (even with total pacifism). Obviously, none of this is good or ideal, and no one should take any of these things lightly or with any sort of glee.

However, I don't think it can be reasonably argued that the State cannot inflict pain in certain cases. This just seems inconsistent to me. Though perhaps we must make the technical (but important!) distinction that "torture" is absolutely condemned just like "murder" (ie, choosing pain or death directly as part of the moral object or intent), but that not all inflicting-of-pain constitutes torture just as not all killing constitutes murder.

The Church traditionally conceives of the State under the analogy of a juridical person, as a collective "body," the natural social-body which fulfills the role as regards material existence and bodies that the Church does for the spiritual and souls. As the two "perfect societies" in terms of being internally self-sufficient, these two may be treated in some ways as coherent organisms.

If I admit an affection for the idea of at least figurehead monarchs, it is for this reason; it seems symbolically appropriate to me to have the Head of State embodying the nation in an individual (just as the Pope as visible head embodies the universal Church) treated with the pomp of State ceremonial (I'd even call it "liturgy") and reigning for life rather than being an interchangeable figure chosen by public whim for a few years at a time. The State needs to be crowned again (and thus renewed) every so often. Sovereignty should be organically embodied, ideally.

But, whatever my thoughts on the symbolically-appropriate (which I believe does have a huge psychological effect on the populace and its conceptions of political legitimacy!)...the point is, the Church always admitted, cautiously, that the State has the right to execute guilty members for the good of the whole (just as an individual person may remove individual bodily members to save the life of the whole). It can also act in self-defense against other State-Bodies (ie, the case of just war).

In these cases, the individuals involved act not as private persons but as "hands" of the State. The executioner doesn't need to be personally threatened by the criminal for the killing to be justified as defensive or "medically necessary" under the authority of the State-Body. Soldiers don't need to always be acting in a personally self-defensive manner if the war as a whole is defensive; there can be individually offensive campaigns as part of an overall defensive war. Just as, in fighting off an unjust aggressor on the personal level, I can punch him in the stomach even though the member of his stomach wasn't specifically threatening the member of my fist.

Now, of course, there are caveats; the analogy isn't perfect exactly because the "person" of the State exists only for the good of human persons, of individuals. The members of our individual bodies are not persons, the members of the State-Body are persons. Our members exist for the good of our whole person. The State-Body, on the other hand, is the other way around: it exists only for the good of the irreducible individual members. Therefore, States do not have an indiscriminate right to kill innocent civilians "for the common good" exactly because the common good consists only in the security of innocent individuals. The ultimate temporal good that the medieval mindset saw as to be secured by the State is peace.

However, the theoretical right to execute guilty parties who have, in that sense, forfeit their own lives before the Law...suggests to me that condemnations of "torture," however emphasized by recent bleeding-heart Popes, are far from actually dogmatically absolute when it comes to what public agents of the State can do (as opposed to private individuals). Not all infliction-of-pain should be considered the condemned moral-object of torture (which, it will be noted, can admit of degrees) anymore than all killing should be considered murder. If the State can, under certain circumstances, induce Death for the common good (and it can!)...I have to conclude that it can certainly induce Pain.

Any punishment the State can mete out is some form of pain, first of all, if only mental. Putting people in prison (and I am no fan of the prison-industrial complex!) is an infliction of a pain it's certainly not a pleasant or comfortable situation (nor can we claim that the only valid purpose of incarceration is "restraint"). Extracting a fine or requiring attendance at rehab or some other inconvenience is minor pain-infliction even.

Really, anything causing an experience of unpleasantness is, even if only emotional. I think the way that we privilege physical pain in our society, what another blog called "the modern perception of treating the body as a sacrosanct locus of individual rights," is ridiculous and bizarre. In reality, these various forms of pain or discomfort inflicted are different only in degree, not nature.

Condemning "torture" on the part of States so stridently is thus just a semantic game. If the State can justly inflict minor pain or discomfort in a way that would be a venial sin for a private individual, it can assuredly also inflict a more severe amount of pain that would be a mortal sin of torture in a private individual. Just as it can inflict death, even though this would constitute murder on the part of a private individual.

Frankly, if I were caught stealing (if I were ever caught!) I'd probably rather be lashed however many times and have it done with than sentenced to any number of months in prison; even while also finding the lashing a more effective punishment given its tangibility and immediacy as a deterrent.

Certainly, in a "ticking-bomb" scenario where some nuke was about to blow up a major city and they could extract information from the terrorist only through the State inflicting pain, I really have no problem with that, though I think it's sick to take an attitude of anything other than a Stoic resign to the tragic necessity.

1 comment:

Mark of the Vineyard said...

You should read Dostoevsky's accounts of the crazy things soldiers would do to get out of physical punishments in the army.

On a related note, what's up with torture in American TV series? I've been following The Event and torture plays a somewhat prominent role in certain episodes. I don't watch much TV or other series, so I don't know if torture is common on many TV shows (from what I hear about Dexter, I'm guessing that it's getting to be quite common).
Torture/physical violence seems to be seeping into other factes of peoples lives, it seems, as one tends to hear more about BDSM. I was shocked the other day at a café when they were passing on MTV one of Rhianna's recent music videos, which was not far off from a fetish porn clip.