Theology of the Body in Pain

Someone else asked me, “Do you believe in anything?” I said to him, “I believe in Allah.” So he said, “But I believe in torture and I will torture you.”

— sworn statement of Amin Sa’id al-Sheikh 
on his experiences in Abu Ghraib

Elaine Scarry’s 1987 study The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World is really three books in one. The second and third sections are often poetically written, but ultimately unsatisfying, examinations of war and of various forms of creation and imagination.

But the first section is a profound analysis of torture. This is the only section I’ll be examining here, as it’s the only section absolutely necessary for Catholics seeking to understand the theology of torture — an issue that has become more immediate than anyone could have imagined before Rush Limbaugh defended what happened at Abu Ghraib.

Scarry writes from a purely secular perspective. But she nonetheless articulates why torture should be abominable to everyone who believes in a Creator God. Christian analyses on torture often focus on how torture violates the imago Dei, the image of God, in which even the most helpless — and even the most criminal and repugnant — human being is made.

Scarry’s analysis goes further. In The Body in Pain, she shows how torture violates every single aspect of the created world:

The contents of the [torture] room, its furnishings, are converted into weapons: the most common instance of this is the bathtub that figures prominently in the reports from numerous countries, but it is only one among many. Men and women being tortured . . . describe being handcuffed in a constricted position for hours, days, and in some cases months to a chair, to a cot, to a filing cabinet, to a bed; they describe being beaten with “family-sized soft drink bottles” or having a hand crushed with a chair, of having their heads “repeatedly banged on the edges of a refrigerator door.” . . . The room . . . is converted into a weapon . . . made to demonstrate that everything is a weapon, the objects themselves, and with them the fact of civilization, are annihilated: there is no wall, no window, no door, no bathtub, no refrigerator, no chair, no bed.

An essay in Christianity in Jewish Terms (ed. Tikva Frymer-Kensky et al.) notes that one Jewish view of “incarnation” is that all objects in the world are words spoken by God. Scarry shows how torture replaces God’s creating and sustaining imagination with the destructive imagination of the torturer — distorting and ruining all the words that make the world.

In torture, every action is used against you: standing, sitting, even swallowing. (Scarry notes that forced, repeated swallowing was used as torture in Greece, where it was called “making knots”: “Only when a person throws his head back and swallows three times does he begin to apprehend what is involved in one hundred and three or three hundred and three swallows, what atrocities one’s own body, muscle, and bone structure can inflict on oneself.”) Every bodily function is used to hurt and humiliate. Torture creates a horrific mirror-image of St. Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures. Compare his canticle — “All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Water, so useful, lowly, precious, and pure” — with this testimony from a victim of waterboarding, collected by the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International:

Nasim, a survivor of waterboarding from Ethiopia, who does not want her last name in the press, says that she is “brought back to the torture chambers every time I hear the sound of splashing water. In the shower, when water hits my face, I must remind myself that I am not strapped to a board and that my lungs will not fill up with water until I lose consciousness.”

Torture warps language. Torturers, and their apologists, retreat into newspeak terms like “enhanced interrogation”: jargon to hide the reality of muscles in agony after hours of “stress positions,” or the hallucinations of sleep deprivation. Scarry notes, “Standing rigidly for eleven hours can produce as violent muscle and spine pain as can injury from elaborate equipment and apparatus, though any of us outside this situation, used to adjusting our body positions every few moments before even mild discomfort is felt, may not immediately recognize this.”

Torture seeks to make the victim complicit in his own suffering. The torturer seeks to replace God’s world, in the victim’s mind, with the torturer’s world. In a detention camp near Fallujah, one Iraqi man who worked for Reuters news service said, “Every time I mentioned God they would beat me.” Frederica Matthewes-Green writes of an Eastern Orthodox priest tortured by the Soviets:

Fr. George recalled being compelled to say, for example, “I lied when I said ‘I believe in God.’ I lied when I said, ‘I love my mother and my father.'” This was extremely painful, as it was designed to be. The intention was to undermine the prisoner’s memory and personality, to infiltrate his consciousness with lies until he came to believe them.

This is why torture is indifferent to truth. We hear a lot, these days, about the possibility of gaining information through torture. We no longer hear what used to be common knowledge, that torture is a machine for producing false confessions.

Scarry’s analysis has one major lacuna: She never addresses humiliation as a means of torture, when humiliation is central to torture. Humiliation is how torturers attempt to make their victims complicit. It is the necessary first step to dehumanizing the subject. To describe practices like forced nudity and hooding (obscuring the most obviously human and individual characteristic, the face, and exposing the genitals in defiance of modesty) as “only” humiliation is to misunderstand the entire logic of torture: Dehumanization is the definition of torture, and humiliation is the primary means of dehumanization. Recall that two of the most searing photographs from Abu Ghraib — an American woman with a naked Iraqi man on a leash, and a hooded, shrouded man on a box — depict “only” humiliation and “stress positions.”

Last year, a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that only 29 percent of Americans said that torture of suspected terrorists could “never be justified.” The poll didn’t use Bush-era euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques”; it just asked about torture. Religion didn’t seem to make much difference: Just over a third of white mainline Protestants opposed torture, like 28 percent of white evangelicals, 26 percent of Catholics, and 25 percent of “secular” respondents.

In a country where almost three-quarters of Catholics are “cafeteria Catholics” on this issue, it may take a secular work to recall us to the fidelity that drives out fear.


Eve Tushnet was born in 1978 and grew up in Washington, D.C. She was received into the Catholic Church at Yale University in 1998. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy. Her writing can be found on her blog and She writes a lot about being gay and Catholic. Her patron saint is Elizabeth of Hungary. She has worked full-time for the National Catholic Register and the Manhattan Institute (one year each), and part-time for the Institute on Marriage and Public Policy, the Bible Literacy Project, and the National Organization for Marriage. She has written for publications including Commonweal, the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Weekly Standard. Mostly she writes the art reviews for publications people don't read for the art reviews.

  • Ender

    The most basic need in any discussion of torture is a definition of the term, something most presentations lack. This article defines it as “dehumanization” which is an interesting concept but I’m not exactly sure what to do with it. Ultimately we need to know how to draw the line between unpleasant-but-allowable practices and torture. I’m still looking for an answer.

  • Mark Shea

    Church teaching does not say, “Tiptoe right up to the line called “abuse” and see how much you can get away with.”

    Church teaching says “Treat prisoners humanely”. That does not mean, as torture excusers are wont to say, giving prisoners fluffy pillows and tucking them in at night. It means, basically, treating them as our honorable nation treated them on Sept 10, 2001 and preceding. It’s all in the Army Field Manual. This only became an issue because the Bush/Cheney Administration chose to make torture policy and now excuse-makers for that policy have to pretend to be confused by pretending to try to find some non-existent Bright Line where torture “begins”. The problem is, hell is murky. You can get away with lots of torture while people argue the definitions. But Catholic teaching is not about getting away with as much torture as possible just so long as you can call it “enhanced interrogation”. It’s about respecting the human dignity of the prisoner. it’s also, by the way, about having more productive interrogation of prisoners. The lie at the back of so much of the torture debate is “Only Sin Will Keep us Safe.” What actual interrogators say is that torture tends to result in crap intel and in drying up pools of information. But regardless of this, the fact is the Church has given us instruction here: Treat prisoners humanely and you will not accidently torture them. (That is, assuming the goal is not to get as close to torturing them as possible. If it is, then we are not listening to the Church. We are merely searching for loopholes.)

  • Mark Shea

    You so totally rocked the house with this piece! Bravo! Thanks for telling the truth in this time of lies and euphemism.

  • Francis Wippel

    The main focus of this debate since the inception of the war on terrorism has been about water boarding known terrorists to obtain information which can be used to prevent future terrorist attacks against America.

    However, the one problem we all have to deal with when discussing this issue is hypothetical situations. If I know (and we have been told this by our government) that water boarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed prevented at least one terrorist attack on America, then I cannot agree that taking this step to prevent an attack on our country is immoral. Would it have been more moral for us to simply stand by and hope that we find the necessary information needed to thwart this attack by other means, and take the chance of another terrorist attack on the United States? Do we have the right to defend ourselves?

    Quite frankly, the most horrible form of terrorism I can imagine was that imposed on those trapped in the WTC towers on 9/11. Those victims had to choose between burning to death, being crushed in the rubble of the tower

  • Mark Shea

    That’s why it’s intrinsically immoral. And “intrinsically immoral” means, according to the Church, that it is *never* justifiable. Ever.

  • Charles Miller

    My boys thought that “time out” was torture. Not in my perspective.

    It’s an inane line of thought, but is serves to point out that it matters what your perspective on dehumanizing or humilitating is. I have been to DeHoCo (the Detroit City Jail built in 1914) as a teenage construction worker, and I am still terrified of the memory of the place. If that place wasn’t dehumanizing and humiliating, I don’t know what is.

    The upshot is that we still need practical guidelines for interrogation measures. And that brings us back to ‘try to find some non-existent Bright Line where torture “begins”.’

    The derisive tone belies the complexity of the issue. I am not a torture apologist. Torture is wrong. Period. I hate Guantanamo; it gives our enemies a rally point, the NYT crowd something to crow about, and serves as a lightning rod for the Bush-haters. The government talking about waterboarding is stupid, it only serves to confirm the “widespread” use of “torture”. However, I look at this from a different perspective. I am retired from the military (in 2002 – so fairly current), and feel I have some resonable experience to comment.

    To simply label any mode of treatment in captivity that is dehumanizing or humilitating to be “torture” serves only as intellectual eye-candy. “Bright line” or no bright line, you have to be specific in the nature of how captives are treated and interrogated. Anything else simply opens the door for real abuse or failure of the essential reason for capture in the first place.

    Final thought. From 1993 to 2001 we had the following attacks on direct US interests:WTC first bombing, Khobar Towers, Cole Attack, Embassy Bombings, 9/11. Since 2001:

    That’s not an apology for widespread torture (which simply is not happening anyway, whether you believe that or not), but I wonder if all the talk about it serves as a deterrent. Or something else is at work?

  • Chris Carroll

    The church still allows that capital punishment is acceptable if it is performed by the legitimate authority and no other means can remove the threat to its people (CCC 2267).

    Given that we can licitly take the life of a prisoner in order to protect society why aren’t certain “torture” practices – which do not cause lasting physical harm and do not kill – allowed?

  • John C. Hathaway

    Advocates of unethical vaccines say that the lives that could *potentially* be saved by vaccinating that one child outweigh the personal sin of profiting from abortion.

    Advocates of embryonic stem cell research say that the lives that could *potentially* be saved outweigh the embryos’ right(s?) to life.

    People who’ve shot abortionists argued that they are preventing the abortionists from killing hundreds of babies.

  • Gabriel Halsmer

    Torture, much like killing, would have to be considered a grave sin. Yet not in an absolute sense. I know the Catechism has given examples, where to defend ones own life or the life of loved ones, you may have to kill an attacker. I think Jesus makes it clear that he doesn’t want us to condemn other people. He points out that we have all fallen short of the glory of god, and that condemning others would akeen to condemning ourselves. We should hold at hope, even for the very worst of human beings, the possibility of their salvation.

    Nonetheless, we may have to condemn the ACTIONS of others. There is such a thing as wrong or evil actions, and we have some power – in our individual choices – to stop it. Jesus perfers we stop the actions of an attacker without killing him. But if a non-violent option does not exist, if the only options are to kill him or let him kill others, a moral obligation is upon us to make a choice of the lesser of two evils. We’d have to decide if the killer (who is not a hopeless person – but would be if we kill him) should be killed, or if his victims should be left to die through our inaction, because we didn’t kill the killer to stop his actions.

    Similar situations can exist with torture. In order to stop evil actions, like a ticking bomb. Information about the danger, and how to stop it, has to be extracted through violence from the bomb planter. This really is a moral obligation. I’m not sure how it could be viewed any other way.

    But I do think there is another danger, when we bring up these extreme and very rare examples of where torture is a moral necessity: modern society might not be able to see the distinction clearly, and may begin to think torture is permissimble in other situations. Compelling others to do your will, through the application of fear through pain, is a highly seductive notion for those that long for power. And I’ve wondered, with American society’s recent self-realization of their country’s large political, economic, and military disparity compared to the rest of the world, thoughts of dominance have entered the head of at least a few Americans. If this is true, then torture would be an appealling concept to them.

    P.S. One side note: I’ve wondered – in that situation where you choice to kill the killer or let his victim die – if you knew that the victim was destined for heaven – would that be a reason to let them die? That you trade them, the good of their life, for the chance to redeem the killer, who you know is not ready for heaven. That is a bit of a hard concept to grasp, but the movie “The end of the spear” made me think of it. How those missionaries didn’t carry guns with them when they attempted to make contact with the violent natives. They said they were prepared if need be to lay down their lives because they knew they were ready for heaven while the natives were not.

  • Howard Canada

    Perhaps someone could explain to me the difference between the following real-life scenarios, and then answer my questions in my post.

    We recently had in Kirkwood, MO a terrible instance of a man barging into a city council meeting and killing five people before he was shot dead by a policeman. Was the policeman wrong to have shot at this man, perhaps with the intent to kill him, and save the lives of others in the chambers? (There were dozens of people in the room and the shooter had two guns and remaining ammo, had killed an officer on his way into the building, and another in the council chambers.) Should the policeman only have tried to restrict the killer’s efforts by restraining him somehow, while disarming him, IF he could, or was his moral duty to save the lives of others and his own, even if it meant the attacker died?

    We had on 9/11 the worst ever civilian attack on this country by a foreign entity, al-Queda. Fully expecting future attacks (since the attacking entity threatened that there would be more), elements of our government took action – waterboarding and others, including bombing massive areas of Afghanistan – to stop the promised attacks. Their efforts have kept other attacks from happening on our soil, and so it would seem their actions have saved American lives here.

    Other than the element of time (without debating the term “imminent attack”) what differentiates the Kirkwood policeman’s deadly defense from that of a government sworn to protect it’s citizens who are threatened with attack?

    Which is the lesser evil: killing the murderer in the council chambers and denying him any opportunity to be redeemed in this lifetime, OR, torturing someone who has killed thousands, vows to kill thousands more, and has a plan to kill, BUT allowing him to live another day – perhaps to be redeemed – while stopping a planned mass murder?

    Is a “just war” not guilty of torture when it leaves combatants maimed physically and/or mentally for life? Is a “just war” not guilty of torture when it leaves non-combatant victims of “collateral damage” in a war maimed physically and/or mentally for life?

    I struggle with the nuance.

  • Craig David

    A Review on the subject: No easy Answer other than to avoid such practices, unless the “aggressor” vows, shows, proves that he/she will continue to DO HARM to the innocent and (for a lack of complete thought) cannot or does not want to be REDEEMED of DOING HARM against the INNOCENT would be totally another ISSUE that many don’t want to consider or give complete moral, ethical and human thought…

    CCC 2265. Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

    CCC 2266. The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: As far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.

    CCC 2297 Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. 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. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.

    CCC 2298 In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices 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.

  • Gabriel Halsmer

    So I think its pretty clear. 2297 never mentions torture to extract information (e.g. asking the bomb planter where the bomb is). By omission, I think its clear that torture in this event is a moral necessity. In fact, I’d probably go a little further and say that its common-sense. In that situation, we all know what our sense of moral duty would compel us to do.

    2297 lists four common reasons torture is used, and the evil in each is fairly obvious:

    1) extract confessions – if someone was shocking my balls, I’d probably confess to being Adolf Hitler if that’s what they wanted me to confess to. But its just a forced lie. Its not information.

    2) punish the guilty – Jesus told the Pharisees to learn the meaning of the phrase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. Punishment is a useful (and sometimes necessary) teaching tool (e.g. parent’s spanking a child). But in many situations (particularly as it applies to adults) mercy is a much more profound tool to teach another human being what is right.

    3) frighten opponents – Barbarian king’s used a variety of tactics along these lines to send a message to their potential enemies. The message was simple: “oppose me and the consequences will be severe”. Saddam Hussien was praticularly effective at communcating this message to his people. But what did it gain him? Yes, the immediate gain is obediance, but only at the surface level. What is in the person’s heart? How peacefully does such a king sleep? In the long-run, is it worthwhile to trade such superficial obediance for your inevitable destruction?

    4) satisfy hatred – This is a rather deep subject I don’t have time to go into. Like many sins, Hatred’s origin is Pride, because in Pride we believe our point-of-view is supreme. And through this belief, we can have a profound hatred of any action that does not conform to our view. It could led to the diabolic, where we enjoy destroying another person because they just didn’t do what we had wanted/desired. C.S. Lewis had one of the best explanations of Pride and where it can lead in his chapter “The Great Sin” of Mere Christianity.

  • Jim Thomson

    Critics of ‘torture’ seldom take notice that the confederates those being ‘tortured’–and the objectives of their criminal actions–advocate and practice genuine and severe torture themselves (for each of the reasons mentioned in the CCC) whenever they get the chance.

    We thus have hypercriticism of US ‘torture’ in support of others actual and widespread execution of torture.

  • Liam

    Let us not neglect the fact that the Church not only has a series of proscriptions about what cannot be done, but it also prescribes what must be done: see, eg, CCC 3213’s prescription for humane treatment of prisoners.

    Which, btw, accords with standard US policy pre-Bush: we do not as a matter of policy do unto prisoners anything that we would complain of being done to our own. Sounds suspiciously like something some hoplessly idealistic commie peacenik from Nazareth “suggested” to folks. The Great Suggestion (only follow when it’s easy, of course).

  • Seamus

    The church still allows that capital punishment is acceptable if it is performed by the legitimate authority and no other means can remove the threat to its people (CCC 2267).

    Given that we can licitly take the life of a prisoner in order to protect society why aren’t certain “torture” practices – which do not cause lasting physical harm and do not kill – allowed?

    Given that we can licitly take the life of a prisoner in order to protect society, why isn’t the selling of detainees into lifetime chattel slavery allowed?

  • Joel

    Interesting article and comments. As a rule, I am against torture but, at the same time, if it truly saves the lifes of other people, it seems to be a little less black and white.

    As the capital punishment issue shows, a government can practice capital punishment in cases where the protection of the people demand it. My understanding is that the CIA only water-boarded? the people they couldn’t break any other way. So, if a nation can kill someone to protect its citizens, then why can’t it torture someone for the same reason. I think it would require that every other alternative be used first.

    Just a thought…

  • B Carlson

    There is a profound concept which Christ teaches and which Socrates/Plato wrote on even prior to that.
    A good man cannot be harmed by an evil man. That which makes you good, whether it is your immortal Christian soul, or your pursuit of Plato’s ideal, is not carried in your physical person, your material wealth nor your reputation amongst the public at large.
    You are the only one who can damage the essential element of what makes you good.
    Evil people only harm themselves (become less good) by injuring your body, stealing or destroying your material goods or by spreading lies.
    How do you ask would any good person voluntarily sacrifice the unassailable intrinsic good in them? By doing the same things listed above and as is relevant to this article, torture (harming someone’s physical body) would be among them.
    Philosophers as far back as Greece and Rome struggled with the conflict between utility and justice, but there is seldom a conflict between justice and justice. The problem occurs when what is useful or productive becomes confused with what is just.
    It may be useful or productive to waterboard prisoners, but that does not by definition make it just.
    Sadly, I fall short of Socrates and Christ on this account and often find myself making decisions based on utility, or even worse, convenience, rather than justice. That does not mean it is excusable in me or in anyone else. It is however forgivable, thanks to one of those guys I mentioned above.

  • Nick Palmer

    This is an excellent and thoughtful article. The comment section, too, is rich with seemingly honest and well-intentioned perspectives.

    I believe, however, that Mark S too quickly dismisses Ender’s call for clarity. I wholly agree with Mark that on issues of morality the clear Christian imperative is to stay far, far from whatever “line” may exist. Yet, that perspective presupposes a line to exist. Hence, “torture” is a broad word. I’m not going to put words in Mark’s keyboard, as he does quite well on his own. That said, while I believe that he and I generally agree, I’m not certain. If his perspective is that anything under the rubric of “torture” is wrong, one needs to understand what that word means.

    If I threaten a person with no dinner if he won’t answer a question, is that torture? No dessert? No meals all day? All week? What about yelling loudly? Good-cop/bad-cop?

    Clearly, electrodes to the naughty bits falls beyond the line, at least to me. What about sleep depravation?

    The definition of torture as anything that humiliates is not operational. Being captured, to a fanatic soldier, is humiliating. Should we release her?

    Gabriel H does a very nice job of beginning to think through the details by laying out four absolutely wrong scenarios for coercion. While intent is not the sole driver of right or wrong, it plays a very important role.

    And, no, I’m not nit picking. If someone kidnaps my son, am I torturing him if I grab him by the neck, hold him to a wall, and yell, “Tell me where my son is, NOW!”? Lacking a definition, the concepts Mark puts forth of “tiptoeing right up to the line” or “see what you can get away with” lack meaning. In a yes/no world, there is no line. It’s the definition of “torture” or “abuse” that animates the concept of a “line” or “boundary point” along a “spectrum.” Once we’ve set up the line and spectrum, we do well to stay far from shouting distance of that line.

    What has frustrated me in the years-long discussion of torture is the habit on one side of dismissing any call for definitional clarity as moral equivocation by Neanderthals and Nazis, and on the other of positing unrealistic efficacy to “coercion” and an ability to skirt fine moral lines with ease.

  • Kamilla

    I am probably going to put this unfairly, but only because I lack the proper vocabulary:

    Some time back I had an email discussion with a friend about something I had heard on EWTN radio that struck me as being a bit too careful about things. The call-in host was answering a caller’s question about Holy Water and how much unblessed water may be added in a sutation of urgent need where it would remain remain Holy Water. I don’t remember the proportions/answer exactly, but it was very precise. When I pressed my friend on the matter, saying I thought it sounded unduly legalistic, he answered that, “on the contrary, it is very pastoral” — to let people know the legitimate uses, etc.

    What I don’t understand about this discussion is why the same sort of principle should not apply? Why wouldn’t it be pastoral or an instance of proper catechism to define more clearly what is and what is not torture, what crosses the line of violating human dignity, what is genuinely humiliating and what is merely culturally taboo.

    That sort of discussion would make for an excellent follow-up article, I think.


  • Barbara

    Eve: Thanks for this excellent article. You bring up a really good point which doesn’t appear to often in these discussions, and that is how torture distorts and destroys everything in the mental, social and spiritual reality of the tortured and probably the torturer himself. It destroys language, emptying it out through elision and metaphor. It shatters and inverts symbols, roles and moral codes. Doctors are often employed to keep the torture victims alive so they can be tortured again. Sexuality is used to humiliate and subjugate victims, wives are raped while their husbands watch, or torturers will pick a favorite female victim and rape her repeatedly fantasizing her as “his” in a complete warping of conjugal relations. Female torture victims are also told that they are being “taught a lesson in how to be more feminine” by their rapists. Not even religion escapes from it. Military personnel have their weapons blessed. Priests are brought in to hear the bloodstained confessions of torture victims. In Argentina there are testimonies of women being tortured in front of images of the Virgin Mary and told to “repent” for the sin of being “communists.” Morality is inverted so that the torturer convinces himself he is doing right by applying stress positions, water, electricity to the tortured. He is saving lives, he is protecting the nation.

    Torture is the absolute enemy of truth. It is a sticky mass of lies within lies that seeps into the truth and breaks it apart, as can be seen with the obfuscating rhetoric that keeps coming out whenever Mark Shea posts anything on it, the “define torture” “but my kids complain when I send them to bed without supper, is THAT torture?” the “but what if torturing one man saves a thousand lives.” These questions aren’t designed to clarify but confuse, to create a kind of verbal mist around the truth behind which unspeakable evil can take place and the torturer can hide himself. Torture is the absolute violation of the sacred, the body created in God’s image. It is repugnant to Him.


    I wonder how many people who call advocates of water boarding “Cafeteria Catholics” use artificial contraceptives? The use of water boarding- whatever one thinks of it – is a ridiculously minute fraction of the number of Catholics who contracept life and blithely receive Communion without confession. Why the disproportionate attention to a politically-correct issue? Some may feel prophetic standing up in a modern university and condemning water boarding before a smiling audience. Would they be so eager to stand up and address birth prevention?

  • Stephen Wise

    An American soldier involved with torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib was asked why she photographed a particular prisoner. She said that “he looked like Christ.”

    As bad as the sex abuse scandal is in the Church, the widespread Catholic support for torture and the wars in Iraq/Afghanistan are as bad if not worse.

    The “military mindset,” within and among conservative Catholics, needs to be overcome for the Church to be renewable.

  • Bryan

    How odd to use the acts in Abu Ghraib in this discussion. Those responsible were sent to prison, as I recall.

    In any case, the observation that we really need a definition is spot-on, despite claims that a search for clarity is, itself, a mark of a sick mind.

    This was, after all, John Yoo’s point (he, the “Torture Memo” author). He says, you know, it’s all noble and good to denounce torture and assert that we do not do that bad thing; but what do we mean by the word? Turns out, the idea is very similar to obscenity, a thing we are against but which is not obviously defined.

    And, just as with obscenity, it hardly does any good to pound the table about how we don’t want to see how close we can get to the line and how we shouldn’t be attempting to see how much we can get away with.

    In the view of the previous administration, there are clearly things which are torture — a short list can be found in the activities in Saddam’s chambers or the violations at Abu Ghraib — but that certain activities are not properly called torture, including water-boarding as practiced by the U.S. Obviously, there is room for disagreement on this question, but it is the right and necessary question.

  • Someone in Pain
  • Nick Palmer

    Look, I agree that there is a line beyond which one may never, ever go. I also believe that there are situational lines on the “good” side of that absolute one, e.g. when my daughter fails to do her homework versus when someone has kidnapped my family.

    Nevertheless, I’m tired of those who casually dismiss other’s calls for some definition of torture as if we’re miscreants or simpletons. Such a dismissal is intellectually lazy and arrogant. Why is the question wrong?

    Barbara writes, “These questions aren’t designed to clarify but confuse, to create a kind of verbal mist around the truth behind which unspeakable evil can take place and the torturer can hide himself. Torture is the absolute violation of the sacred, the body created in God’s image.”

    Okay, why? How do they confuse? If I capture a known terrorist on the battlefield, may I question him? What if he objects and claims such questioning would humiliate him?

    Many of we, the unwashed (Bryan, do you wash?) await an answer to our childish bleatings. May I holler loudly at an Al Qaeda terrorist? May I withhold his dessert?

    Unless someone is prepared to demonstrate one, I have heard no on/off definition of “torture” or of “coercion.” There are degrees. Does anyone deny that?

    If so, please edify me. If not, do we not need to discuss the point along that spectrum where one dare not go, ever? Where we violate the other’s sacred body? I cannot be satisfied with an “I’ll know it when I see it” answer.

    But, maybe that’s just me.

  • Barbara

    Why is the question wrong?

    Barbara writes, “These questions aren’t designed to clarify but confuse, to create a kind of verbal mist around the truth behind which unspeakable evil can take place and the torturer can hide himself. Torture is the absolute violation of the sacred, the body created in God’s image.”

    Okay, why? How do they confuse? If I capture a known terrorist on the battlefield, may I question him? What if he objects and claims such questioning would humiliate him?

    Many of we, the unwashed (Bryan, do you wash?) await an answer to our childish bleatings. May I holler loudly at an Al Qaeda terrorist? May I withhold his dessert?

    I can

  • Nick Palmer

    Barbara, please read rule #2 above. So now you suggest that a) my purpose is to find justification to do horrendous things, certainly not because I actually am trying to work my way through a difficult line of reasoning on an extremely important topic; b) that I am akin to a banana-republic generalissimo looking to torture for fun and profit. Thanks. Is your last name Kreskin by any chance.

    Look, I am seriously interested in this topic. You still have not answered a single question that I, or the others with a similar perspective have asked. I am not saying that anything goes. I wholly believe, as I’ve stated over and over, that there is a line beyond which there is NEVER justification to go. I also believe that I as an individual, and we as a society must stay far from that line in all cases. Why don’t you believe me when I state this?

    You write: “Torture is the purposeful dehumanization and infliction of pain on another human being for the purposes of revenge, extracting information, and intimidating potential opposition. It is intrinsically evil.” Let’s parse this.

    First, what does “dehumanization” mean. If you have children, you’ve probably endured frequent accusations, as have I, of something similar. Yet, I at least, do not believe that I’ve crossed any line, ever in dealing with my children. You’ve just jumped from one abstract word, “torture,” to another equally abstract one, “dehumanizing.” No progress here.

    You go on to describe some absolutely horrific practices. Why? Do you suggest that I would accept these under any circumstances? Thanks, again. But, NO, your mind reading fails yet again. What you describe is so far beyond where I would suggest a line as to be indescribable. Were you looking to shock? Exposing a prurient streak? Merely citing some awful, totally unacceptable behavior by some does not obviate my point that there is a spectrum. It reinforces it by showing acts that help to define the “unacceptable” end of the spectrum.

    Second, you list three aims or purposes. I would argue that your first and third — revenge and intimidation — ought never to be used to justify even chiding of my children, much less waterboarding. The second — extracting information — is more a more nuanced case. You exclude punishment, but let’s group that with the first and third for now. As I’ve quoted you, let me now quote myself:

    “If I capture a known terrorist on the battlefield, may I question him? What if he objects and claims such questioning would humiliate him?

    Many of we, the unwashed (Bryan, do you wash?) await an answer to our childish bleatings. May I holler loudly at an Al Qaeda terrorist? May I withhold his dessert?”

    While you, too, quoted this, you did not answer a single question therein.

    Third, let me turn churlish, as I’m tired of repeating myself and I’m getting cranky (there, you don’t have to bother trying to read my mind now). Your second sentence quoted begins with, “It.” Well, “it” is what we call a pronoun. It takes the place of a noun. What noun are you replacing with “it” in this case? If it is “torture” we’re back where we started.

    Finally, your abortion parallel falls flat. Unlike “torture” which falls along a spectrum, abortion is yes/no. Either the baby is killed (=abortion) or not. And, adding to my pique, I am aggressively against abortion, and against capital punishment, too. Please do not suggest that the fact that I have questions on this topic places me in the pro-abortion crowd. It doesn’t.

    I’m not going to try to read you mind. If you’d like to respond to the questions I’ve asked, I’d be glad to engage in discussion. If you choose to ignore me, that’s fine. Many do, and for good reason. If you choose to, yet again, regurgitate the same your-just-a-bad-person rhetoric, please don’t bother for my sake.

  • Kevin O’Brien

    Nick, you’re getting a bit snarky here.

    The game Barbara claims Torture Apologists are playing is one that resists any attempt to define something that actually exists, in the hopes thereby of excusing it. And by “it” I mean torture.

    Nick, if you think there’s a line we can’t cross, then define that line. You tell us what torture is, since you apparently can’t find anybody to tell you. If you think it can’t be defined, then I suggest you fit the profile Barbara is painting.

    So give us your best shot.

  • Kamilla

    Barbara claims to not speak for others, then she rather blithely proceeds to read their minds and judge their motives.

    I’m just wondering why it is more difficult to get a sensible answer about what constitutes torture, dehumanization and humiliation than it is to get unsolicited (and too graphic for my comfort) descriptions of particular instances of same which no one seems to be defending.


  • Nick Palmer

    Kevin, yes, I was getting snarky. I think I actually copped to doing just that. I’d just been accused of various crime,s perversions and immorality. Not nice. Not in fitting with rule #2.

    As for defining the location of that point, no, I don’t feel compelled to do that. If you follow the thread, we arrived at this point with some, or at least me, suggesting merely that “torture” is not a thing, it’s a concept. And, I assert that that concept can be fleshed out by providing some behavioral specifics. That’s all.

    My principal contention, and all I’m intending to show, is that one cannot sensibly say “torture is always wrong” unless one has defined torture. Once one accepts that “torture” is an elastic concept, then if follows that there is a point on that spectrum where one goes from acceptable (no dessert) to inherently evil (some of the things Barbara attempts to accuse me of sanctioning). One could argue ’til the cows come home about the location, but that’s not the point.

    So we have the A-or-B camp, and the spectrum camp. All I stated was that there is a spectrum, and no one has budged my conviction on that point.

    I continue to believe that Mark S is spot on, that, given such a point-of-unacceptability, I as a Catholic or merely an attempting-to-be-moral human being, need to stay far, far, far from that point. Yet I don’t find “no dessert” to be beyond the pale.

  • Kevin O’Brien


    To say that torture is a concept not a thing is wrong. Torture is a thing and we’re trying to find a definition (i.e., a concept) to match what that thing is.

    I wonder why you will not define the line you say you believe can not be crossed – the line that makes a thing torture. Why are you reluctant to acknowledge the line you say exists? For if a line exists, as you claim it does, than torture’s not a spectrum issue, is it?

    I’ll help.

    TORTURE is the use of physical pain or psychological anguish to coerce the spirit, to break the will or dominate the pysche of another, for whaterver reason – interrogation, sadistic pleasure, revenge, etc.

    The infliction of physical pain or psychological anguish without this element of coercion and “playing god” with your victim (see the article we’re commenting on) is not torture. It may be corporal punishment, self-defence, or a number of things, but this dehumanizing element is what makes a thing contrary to human dignity.

    There’s my definition. If you continue to refuse to give yours, I will begin to suspect that Barbara is right and that you’re not being intellectually honest here. But I will not jump to that conclusion, so I give you the benefit of the doubt, and I am trying my best not to violate rule #2A – No Snarkiness.

    God bless you with your intellectual quest here, Nick. Those of us who are veterans of the Online Torture Wars can be jaded, but I do encourage those who are legitimately seeking.

  • Barbara


    You can dial down the defensiveness a tad. I wasn’t trying to “read your mind” or “ascribe evil motives” to you. You completely misconstrued the point I was trying to make which was that the constant focus on “definitions” is not only futile, but if we are honest, is more often than not a form obfuscation.

    Let me explain my point more clearly, and hopefully answer your questions at the same time. You claim to be passionately against abortion. Did you ever at any time need a definition of abortion to come to that position? or do you oppose it because, like most Catholics you believe in the sanctity of life from conception to natural death? If you faithfully believe in what the Catholic Church teaches about the sanctity of life you will oppose anything that violates that sanctity, whether it’s abortion or euthanasia. There is no need to start defining the different types of killing that Catholics oppose with an eye for details. We oppose the taking of a human life, simply and clearly. It’s a clear, consistent position. The act of defining good killing vs. bad, actually plays into the sinful intellect’s tendency to start looking for loopholes in the moral law where it can reap the excitement of sin without the moral condemnation that comes with it.

    Similarly a definition of torture is not needed in order to oppose it if you believe in the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of the human body. Any act that violates human dignity and the sacredness of the body is automatically opposed as sinful and evil whether it’s rape, torture, abuse or violence.

    In wartime, respecting the dignity of the human person extends to the just handling of captives and prisoners. I will concede that a definition of just treatment is useful in these cases. These definitions are already provided in abundance by army field manuals and the Geneva Convention. This is not the same thing as a definition of torture. Defining just treatment is a “positive definition” in which guidelines are set for how prisoners are to be held and interrogated with an eye to preserving their human dignity, not a negative definition in which we parse out which painful acts can be visited on their bodies while still remaining on the “go side” of the torture line. Thus to answer your questions following established procedures for humane interrogation of course you may question him, you may imprison him and monitor his activities. You may not pull out his fingernails or punch him repeatedly until he tells you whatever you want. You may not suffocate him with water or anything else until he passes out.

    My bringing up the Latin American generals was not meant to put you in the same box as them, but rather to demonstrate that playing the definition game is, wittingly or not, falling into a diabolical bait-and-switch deception in which evil is called less evil, then only evil in x y and z scenarios, finally called good. No torturer ever defines his actions as torture. Your comments about them torturing out of “fun and profit” is not born out by history. The truth is these men tortured, not out of their sadistic love of torture, or because they were somehow more barbarian than the rest of us, they tortured because they believed in the righteousness of their cause and they covered their actions in rhetorical gymnastics and a veneer of patriotism and legitimacy, placing the line of torture just outside of their actions. I bring up the Chilean example because Chile is not a “Banana Republic” it is a country with a long democratic history whose military had a very high-minded, idealized view of itself and it’s role in the nation (not all that different from the USA). Yet all of those atrocities I mentioned happened right there, under a misty layer of legitimacy, rhetoric and national heroism.

    If one of these guys can gaze at a burned and broken body on a metal table with wired up genitalia and say to himself, in all sincerity, “this is not torture”, even though he has committed all of the acts I have just mentioned, then what good is any definition of torture? The boundary lines just get pushed a few feet in front of whatever action the person wants to, or believes it necessary to commit against the prisoner.

  • Barbara

    Thinking about it, I think the definition game might not merely be an issue of obfuscation but also a form of self-deception, and more charitably, a way to avoid facing the painful truth that one’s government and professed political ideological movement is responsible for committing or supporting a horrible act. If I can draw the circle of torture outside of the acts sanctioned by my government, then I can continue to believe in its goodness, and the goodness of the political ideology I profess. I don’t believe this is the case with you, Nick, but I suspect it is the case with a lot of torture apologists which is why the “define me” question keeps coming up. It’s also why the abortion/contraception issue keeps getting pushed into the discussion at odd intervals (Such as Bill Russell’s comment above). I’m not referring to expansion of the discussion to other intrinsic evils, but the abortion/contraception issue’s use as a diversion tactic: i.e. “why are we talking about torture when there is SO MUCH aborting/contracepting going on and the government passing laws to make abortion more accessible etc. etc. etc.” We’re all tempted to believe in the intrinsic goodness of ourselves, our nations, and the ideas we live by. When evidence emerges to the contrary it’s a hard pill to swallow and most people prefer to look for a way out of swallowing it, either by focusing on the greater sins of others, or by trying to argue and define out the sin itself.

  • Mark

    “TORTURE is the use of physical pain or psychological anguish to coerce the spirit, to break the will or dominate the pysche of another, for whaterver reason”

    Psychological anguish to coerce the Spirit for any reason? How does throwing a human being in a cage like an animal for years or decades not rise to this definition.

    Kevin and Barbara, I hope for the sake of consistency and honesty, you both agree that the prison system rises to the level of torture. Especially those who are falsely imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.

  • Bryan

    I can

  • Barbara

    “TORTURE is the use of physical pain or psychological anguish to coerce the spirit, to break the will or dominate the pysche of another, for whaterver reason”

    Psychological anguish to coerce the Spirit for any reason? How does throwing a human being in a cage like an animal for years or decades not rise to this definition.

    Kevin and Barbara, I hope for the sake of consistency and honesty, you both agree that the prison system rises to the level of torture. Especially those who are falsely imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.

    Actually since you asked. Throwing someone in prison as punishment for a crime is not the same as torture for the simple reason that inflicting pain is not the main purpose of the imprisonment. In cases of torture all actions are done in order to inflict pain as their primary objective, with the secondary objective being to obtain information or achieve retribution (and if we were honest, we would admit that the first reason is more often than not a cover for the second). The purpose of imprisonment is to keep someone from committing further crimes and to induce rehabilitation. A similar case can be made for surgery, which causes pain to the body, but is not torture because the objective is not to cause pain but to remove the problematic organ or growth. You can see the difference by how the tactic would change if the subject reacted with pleasure rather than pain at the action. If the criminal enjoyed being imprisoned, it wouldn’t cause any change in his sentence. He would still be sent to prison since causing the criminal pain is not the primary objective of imprisoning him. If he were an extreme masochist with a cancerous tumor, the doctors wouldn’t veer from their plan of surgery because the patient would find it pleasurable. However if a torture victim were an extreme masochist and found pleasure in beatings and waterboarding, the torturers would change tactics and find a way to “pain” him. That is because the principal objective of any act of torture is to cause pain and suffering to the individual in order to obtain a secondary objective.

    This vital difference between torture and punishment is also why the spectrum argument falls flat. The spectrum is as imaginary as the pro-choice “spectrum” in which a baby is only a baby after x number of weeks. Acts of torture are acts whose objective is to cause the maximum amount of pain to a subject with ideally the minimum amount of damage (too much and he would be killed, which is why torturers often use medical personnel to stay their hand when it looks like the guy might die and to revive him out of the mercy of unconsciousness so he can be tortured again). This is not the same as punishment, in which the objective is a correction of behavior or protection of the public and pain is at times a by product.

  • Bryan

    In cases of torture all actions are done in order to inflict pain as their primary objective, with the secondary objective being to obtain information or achieve retribution (and if we were honest, we would admit that the first reason is more often than not a cover for the second).

    And thus Barbara has defined US policy as NOT torture, since the explicit goal is only information and not retribution.

    Thanks, all for playing. And goodnight.

  • Nick Palmer

    Barbara, please read your earlier post that engaged my “snark reflex.” You use the passive voice, but refer to my comments. Who is trying to obfuscate or cast a fog. Others? Me? Might my interpretation be more correct of your target and generalizations?

    Then you do an odd thing. You start down the road that I’ve been trying to lay out since way back when in this thread. First, you refer to the Army Field Manual and the Geneva Convention. Both seek to define the activities and place limits. I would add to the two of them the notorious John Woo memos. Now, by citing these I am NOT, let me be very clear, NOT agreeing with the limits defended in ANY of these three sources. Yet, they all do begin to flesh out a framework for defining the limits, which has been my point all along. Maybe Kevin will be satisfied that I’ve now agreed that the three cited references provide a framework, NOT answers — or at least not my answers. I don’t have an answer, yet.

    Then, Barbara, you actually begin to define your spectrum. At the “acceptable to Barbara” end we have: “of course you may question him, you may imprison him and monitor his activities.” Good, I agree that this falls completely in the “okay” zone. Then, you peg the “unacceptable to Barbara” end of the spectrum with: “You may not pull out his fingernails or punch him repeatedly until he tells you whatever you want. You may not suffocate him with water or anything else until he passes out.” Good, again. Here I agree with you, too. Any of these actions (the key word being “actions”) is heinous, and absolutely wrong. Even if Jack Bauer were to do it!

    Since you’re willing to engage this far, let’s keep on with it. There is a vast gulf between incarceration/monitoring, and genital mutilation/electrocution. There is, for example, playing loud music. It’s a fairly straightforward task to peg the “obviously acceptable to any reasonable person” and the “never, ever.” The difficulty, and where I don’t know where I stand, is when we move into that area between them. Again, I maintain Mark Shea’s admonition that even when we’ve move into that area and defined a “break point,” we should stay far, far to the safe side of it. (Sorry, Mark, if it’s a poor paraphrase of your comment…)

    Because the truth is, that to address these things we need to provide real, definable guidance to real people. That implies a list of “do” and “don’t” actions. Bar and locks — okay. Aggressive manicure — never okay. These simply do not provide actionable guidance.

    Folks, perhaps the problem is again one of the abstract moral concept versus real-world active direction. In the moral world, God will judge me based on my intent, not its outcomes. Let’s assume that you and I both get drunk, get into our cars and head off. I get home safely. You run a red light and kill a family of four. I, in my mind, am equally guilty in God’s eyes.

    Likewise, only God really knows my state of mind and intent as I go in to interrogate a terrorist suspect. You could do something I would consider unacceptable, yet be morally fine, while I could do something apparently “less bad” yet be far more guilty. God will judge.

    But, in the city of man, our leaders need to provide guidance to those tasked with making real decision about real actions. These people face pressures and deal with situations that most of us could not imagine. The leaders can neither judge nor prescribe intent, although they can and should try to police behavior.

    In the end, here’s where I stand. If you define “torture” as a “morally unacceptable activity,” I cannot logically gainsay you. But, that statement is devoid of useful content. Equally, if I define “wornok” as “the residue I clean from the dehumidifier filter,” you cannot gainsay me. You may question my sanity, but that’s another topic. My reaction in this and other discussions stems from my “opponents” tautological definition of “torture” as a priori “evil.” End of discussion. I’m striving for a more useful dialog, and for a framework to guide real-world behavior.

  • Barbara

    In cases of torture all actions are done in order to inflict pain as their primary objective, with the secondary objective being to obtain information or achieve retribution (and if we were honest, we would admit that the first reason is more often than not a cover for the second).

    And thus Barbara has defined US policy as NOT torture, since the explicit goal is only information and not retribution.

    Thanks, all for playing. And goodnight.

    Um…bzzzt! wrong. Waterboarding, stress positions and sleep deprivation are designed to cause the victim pain and anguish so that they will talk. (Result A: induction of pain…leading to Result B: information) The information doesn’t wash out of the poor sot’s brain, or leak out of his sweat glands into a pan below where the military can examine it later which would be the case if the objectives were reversed (Result A: release of information leading to Result B: Pain) What distinguishes acts of torture from acts of punishment is that the former’s primary objective is to inflict pain on the victim, while the latter’s primary objective is something other than the infliction of pain (preventing further offenses, rehabilitating the prisoner) with pain being a follow up or secondary result. People who torture need their victim to experience suffering. The suffering of the victim is vital to the process so that he will provide the torturer with what he wants (mental and physical dominion over the victim, a sense of retribution or specific information…usually all three at once). Punishment doesn’t require the victim to suffer, only to be separated from the rest of society. He may love prison and feel totally at peace there. It has no bearing on the punishment. A torture victim who enjoys being tortured renders the act of torture itself useless and a waste of time.

  • Julianne Wiley

    The grave moral offense involved in torture is the directly intentional choice of inflicting pain and humilation as a means to coercing a confession, extracting information, or
    any end whatever.

    “Directly” and “intentional” are the important words here. If you have to tie up a resisting prisoner and compel him by harsh force to remain under control while in transport, it may get rough: but the “roughness” consists of physically forcing him into the restraints: this is not the same as the coercion of his will by pain and fear. Pain and fear can be tolerated as collateral effects— as they are expected and tolerated in war — but cannot be chosen as a means to an end, however desirable that end might be.

    To give an example: if I give disease-preventive medicine via shots to children who find the experience painful and terrifying, it is justified by the fact that both the means (medicine) and the end (disease-prevention) are good choices, the pain of being “stuck” is smaller than the trauma of getting th disease, and the pain, while foreseen, is an unintended side-effect.

    The painfulness of inserting the needle is not a means (the medicine doesn’t work “because” the needles hurt), and I am obliged to try to reduce the child’s pain to the extent that I reasonably can.

    But if I stick needles into people for the direct purpose of inducing pain and terror, this is wrong whether the victim is whimpering 3-year-old of Osama bin Laden himself.

    It is simply not true that if a soldier may (under certain circumstances) kill, he may therefore do a “lesser” thing (like torture) as well. A torturer directly chooses pain and fear to degrade the will of the torturee, as the means to his ends. It is more comparable to rape: “If a soldier can kill, why can’t he rape?”

  • Bryan


    Inflicting pain as a means to any end whatever.

    OK, let’s start there. Police train to use submission holds (another dastardly euphemism, no doubt) which are specifically designed to bring pain to a resisting subject, with the promise of more pain to follow unless the subject complies with the will of the policeman.

    Now, it seems to me that this clearly falls within your definition of torture. Would you agree?

  • Julianne Wiley

    As a person who has several times actually experienced “come-along holds” and “pain compliance,” as a result of prolife arrests, I would say yes, that’s torture.

    I was passively resisting leaving the abortion clinic. If they had been justified in removing me at all, they should have pushed me along, or carried me.

    In justified war or justified police actions, I think the soldier or police officer has to use proportional force to make an aggressor stop aggressing, and comply with removal. That proportional force might range from putting on the cuffs and forcing them along, to knocking out an active resister, to injuring or even killing an aggressively violent resister.

    It’s is just to do what needs to be done to physically stop an aggressor from aggressing. That being the “end.” The “means” should not be pain, injury nor death, though pain, injury or death may be plainly foreseeable and tolerated even on a large scale as secondary effects.

    I would argue that using fear and pain to coerce the will is wrong; using physical force to coerce the body is morally right, under the usual conditions of justice, discrimination and proportionality.

    In legitimate professional police work or a just war, I am sure there is lots of pain, but if pain is not the means, it is not unjust.

    Please discuss on. I’m listening.

  • Nick Palmer

    Julieanne, thanks for diving into an interesting thread. Here’s one problem with your reply to Bryan: you’re mixing your actions and motives with the police officers’ response. This runs the risk of being kill-the-messenger thinking. No one contributing to this thread was at those protests, so we have no first-hand information by which to judge either the police or you.

    Let’s imagine that you had been passively and peacefully sitting on the curb gently telling people of the wrong that is abortion. Many here would wholly sympathize with you, and might feel the police had behaved wrongly. On the other hand, if you had been spraying mace at all who entered the clinic, even many virulently anti-abortion types might concede that the police response was appropriately proportionate.

    You’re presenting a situation where most of us here are predisposed to connect strongly with the “rightness” of your cause, and to give you the benefit of the doubt. On the flip side, however, the police may have seen the incidents differently. I cannot get upset at a cop for giving me a speeding ticket in accordance with local laws. I may be ticked off, but, it’s his job.

    We get into very, very muddy waters legally when motive and cause come into play. Many who are apprehended by the police feel unfairly treated. Likewise, many terrorists (as Reuters wants us all to know) feel the rightness of their cause, and would invoke your line of reasoning to condemn someone even apprehending them, much less aggressively questioning them. (An aside, this is why so-called hate laws are so dangerous and potentially unfair. Imagine a world — some might call it Canada — where a Catholic can be prosecuted and legally persecuted for merely speaking his Church-supported position on homosexual marriage.)

    All through this thread, my concern has been to tease apart God-observed morality of situations from the need to provide actionable guidance to real human beings in real-life situations where we/I are not omniscient and able to read motives and rightness directly.

    Our final dispensation, during our own exit/entrance interviews with St. Peter will be based on intent and many unobservable factors. When I — as a commander of, let’s say, a group of 19-to-25-year-old Marines — need to provide concrete rules, they cannot possibly be contingent on the suspect’s state of mind and internal motives. They need to be based on observable-to-humans reality. That’s why Mark Shea’s admonition many lines of text above is so important — whatever the rules and wherever the “line” we must stay far, far from it.

  • Julianne Wiley

    Nick, I am terrifically grateful that you responded so quickly and so thoughtfully, too. I see I made my point somewhat incompetently, and got us off on a wrong track. Put that in a big parenthesis and let me try again.

    For the record, we were sitting on the sidewalk singing, as aggressive as a musical doormat. But let

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