Cicero, Catiline, and the American Left

One of the unfortunate byproducts of the fact that, for many years now, nobody has studied Latin in school is this: Hardly anybody remembers Cicero and the conspiracy of Catiline. If we could remember this, it would be helpful in thinking about what those on the American Right call “enhanced interrogation” and those on the Left call “torture.”
The story, briefly, is this: It was the year 63 B.C. Catiline, a talented, restless, ruthless, and ambitious Roman senator from an old patrician family, had for a number of years been plotting to seize power in Rome. He hoped to do what Sulla had done before him, and Caesar would do after him: namely, make himself the sole ruler of the city and empire. He gathered round himself many young men who, despite being from good families, were in dire financial need: young men who stood to profit from a revolution that would turn the Roman world upside down, giving license to assassination, the cancellation of debt, and the confiscation of property. Twice Catiline stood for election as consul, and twice he was defeated at the polls.
Following his second defeat, which probably took place in October of 63 B.C, Catiline decided to make his move. He had confederates at key places throughout Italy, including in the city of Rome itself. One of his men headed an army that was being assembled near what is now the city of Florence. In Rome, the plan was to throw the city into a state of chaos and panic by means of widespread arson and assassination, including the murder of the strongly anti-Catiline consul, Cicero, the great lawyer, orator, and man of letters. With the city in chaos and panic, the army from Florence could attack, power could be seized, and Catiline could become dictator.
Cicero, however, foiled the plot. By adroit detective work he learned what was happening, arrested a number of key conspirators who were in the city, and revealed the plot to the Senate. (You can read these revelations in Cicero’s four anti-Catiline orations.) The Senate, convinced that strong measures were urgently needed, passed what is known as “the Ultimate Decree” — that is, a decree that urged the consul to take whatever steps may be needed “for the safety of the republic.” That was a euphemistic way of saying: “Put the conspirators to death — immediately and without trial.” And this Cicero did.
The trouble with these executions, even though they may have saved the republic (at least for the time being: less than 20 years later, Caesar, a far more brilliant leader than Catiline, would extinguish the republic forever), was that they were, strictly speaking, illegal. According to the law of Rome, a citizen could never be put to death by the authorities without first having a trial. The fact that the Senate had authorized the executions didn’t make them legal, for the Senate was neither a legislative nor a judicial body; it was simply an extraordinarily influential advisory body.
Cicero was faced with a choice: Do I break the law, or do I let Catiline and his friends make a coup d’etat? When he saved the republic by breaking the law, he had every reason to believe that he would never face prosecution for his deed. The traditional Roman attitude had been to look the other way when some savior of the city cut legal corners. It was a sign that traditional Rome was coming to an end when, a few years after the execution of the Catilinians, a political enemy of Cicero indicted Cicero for the illegal executions. This political enemy was a reprobate by the name of Publius Clodius — who, among his other claims to ill-fame, was at one time the adulterous boyfriend of Caesar’s wife. To avoid standing trial, Cicero was forced to go into voluntary exile, leaving Italy for a few years, although eventually he came home when political tides shifted.
For the sake of argument, let’s grant that the enhanced interrogations at Guantanamo really did constitute torture, and that they were illegal under either American or international law. And let’s further grant that they did some real good in protecting the United States from further terrorist attacks. What would Cicero say? He would say, “Go ahead and torture.” He would say, “Necessity knows no law.”
Keep in mind, however, that Cicero was a man of high ethical standards. He was one of the most notable moralists of the ancient world: see, for example, his work De Oficiis (On Duties). It is one thing for a good man to feel that he has a license to break the rules; it is something else for a bad man to feel he has that license. Were Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld good men doing illegal things (assuming, for the sake of argument, that they did illegal things), or were they bad men doing these things? Today’s American Left would have us believe that they were bad men. This, to my mind, is an utterly preposterous accusation. Clearly they were well-intentioned American patriots, even if their judgments may not have been error-free.
There was a time when Americans were politically wise enough, like traditional Romans, to look the other way when the nation’s leaders cut legal corners for the good of the republic — for instance, when President Lincoln illegally suspended habeas corpus in the early days of the Civil War. But this wisdom has now deserted many of us, in particular those on the American Left. Imitating Publius Clodius, they want to prosecute those who authorized the enhanced interrogation/torture that took place at Gitmo. If the indictment of Cicero by Clodius was an ominous sign that the Roman republic was on its last legs, I fear that the widespread leftist desire to put Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. on trial is an ominous sign that something dreadful is happening to the American political system.


David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

  • Aaron

    Legality is one thing, morality another. We can be shrewd enough to recognize that a law fails in a given situation, and accordingly look the other way. But the debate over torture involves a line that may not be crossed by anyone, regardless of the utility, and if that line has been crossed we cannot look the other way. It’s one thing for a society to disregard its own laws when they are seen to be defective, quite another for that society to disregard the natural law, which undergirds arguments from human dignity (we’ll save the excursus on defective conclusions from the natural law). Now, don’t get me wrong – if we’re just talking legalities I think the parallel a good one. I simply wish there were more attention to the possibility of intolerable immorality which could not but undermine the common good.

  • Mary Anne

    I am a pretty conservative person, but your argument doesn’t work. First, the ethical standards that Cicero upheld were a far cry from Jewish or Christian morality. Like most of the ancient world, he held a eudaimonistic ideal in which you should strive to live the “good life” by using your choice of secondary goods to cultivate the virtuous life — the life in which the Stoics thought, your father could be murdered and your mother raped, but you would feel no disturbance in your life of virtue.

    For another thing, Cicero did not break the law by discovering the plot; only by carrying out the executions, which were illegal. Whatever the case in ancient society, we would have means of preventing a plot’s being carried out without necessarily taking the step of killing the perpetrators; it may not have been the same then. How necessary is a breach of the law in our modern world? As far as torture goes, the ancient world not only permitted torture, but was inclined to suspect the reliability of information when the informant had NOT been subjected to torture. Again, the analogy is quite inaccurate.

    I do not know in my own mind, whether the techniques to extract information used in the post-9/11 world were morally acceptable or not. Certainly, such a judgment involves knowing whether lives were at immediate risk (even if the issue did not rise to the standard of the terrorist with the bomb to go off in L.A. in ten minutes hypothetical we hear so much of!) and whether, if so, there were realistic alternatives to obtain information. We will never know these facts for sure.

    And really, unless we are in the position of having to make these decisions, what we think is not really very important. Passing judgment on others serves no purpose here other than to promote one political party or another. The real question for each of us, should we ever be in the situation of having to make this decision, is how we would decide, not how others, on facts unkonwn and unkowable to us, made the decisions they did.

    I do not think this kind of analogy from a pre-Christian culture with values to which we should not wish to return is helpful.

  • Joe H

    Two things.

    1) “Clearly they were well-intentioned American patriots”

    It isn’t that clear. It is possible and I’m willing to grant the benefit of the doubt, but no, it isn’t ‘clear’.

    2) “There was a time when Americans were politically wise enough, like traditional Romans, to look the other way when the nation’s leaders cut legal corners for the good of the republic”

    Look the other way? Are you serious? Our leaders did not merely “cut legal corners” – they sanctioned torture, offenses against the inherent dignity of human beings.

    There are people whose heads can’t be moved an inch to look more deeply into the circumstances of poor immigrants who have entered the country illegally. I don’t know if you are one of those people.

    But men in power must always be held to account for what they do. This isn’t the Roman republic. This is a country whose founders established a Bill of Rights outlining what the government may NOT do to its citizens – the idea being that the law doesn’t merely protect us from one another, but from the very people we entrust to lead the country.

    What you have advised here – to ‘look the other way’ – stands in direct contradiction to every serious statement the Church has ever made about the responsibility of citizens to hold government to account, particularly in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, paragraph 597. It also stands in contradiction to what the Church has taught about the moral basis of governmental authority, in paragraphs 396-398.

    I sincerely hope no one ‘looks the other way’ if or when the day comes that sincere, practicing, public Christians are declared troublesome enemies of the state.

  • Joe H

    paragraph 567.

  • Austin

    The American Left has a lot more wrong with it than its lack of knowldge of Latin and Cicero, and I am disappointed in the article. The past few articles by David Carlin have been simplistic and superficial, often clumsy attempts at barbing the Left, but really failing to do so in an elegant manner.

    I am a conservative and enjoy seeing the Left jabbed, but it should be done in an intelligent manner, perhaps even with a touch of humor. I might even enjoy an article by Father Richard McBrien followed by a thoughtful rebuttal by a conservative writer who can intelligently point our Father McBrien’s errors. Unfortunately, we do not seem to get this.

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    A fine article, excepting its gloss on “cutting legal corners.” From Cicero to Lincoln (and also Churchill with less success at the end of WW II), the public safety was protected, not by trimming justice, but by invoking the concept of “outlawry.” This maintained that rights should not be guaranteed to persons who relinquish their social responsibilities (eg. terrorists and combatants who do not follow the rules of combat by concealing arms and not wearing uniforms.) English Common Law got this probably less through Roman roots, than through Anglo-Saxon law and Viking “utlagi.”

  • Andy

    The question that Cicero faces (and to some degree we face) is: is the Republic worth preserving at all costs? When does the cost of saving our way of life become too steep to be worth it? Will we even recognize that point when we see it?

  • Sir Geoff

    I’m amazed at the outrage being shown in the previous comments about “looking the other way” in world history.

    The hard Left Democrat Party in the 1940s bombed Dresden to ashes and incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Left has perfected the art of “looking the other way.” You Leftists have now been called out on it.

    So having disposed of the basis of “outrage” over the claim that Americans “look the other way,” let’s get to the real point: these show trials are not ends in themselves, they are tactics to intimidate and criminalize political opposition. And, as Mr. Carlin points out, they are also ominous warning signs.

    Mr. Carlin is right.

  • R.C.

    David, I agree.

    Yes, it is far more plausible that these were good men — and, yes, patriots — trying to do the right thing, than that they were bad men doing whatever the hell they pleased. Merely examining the prior reputations, and actions and known character of the persons involved, and the prior testimonies of those who knew them, is sufficient to demonstrate that.

    The only folk who believe that Bush, Rice, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Ashcroft, and the rest were evil or amoral men and women when they made these decisions — I’m not talking about the morality of the decisions, mind you, but the type of men and women we had making them — are those predisposed to think so because of their political leanings.

    Unless one holds the free market, pro-life, traditional morality, low tax, anti-gay-marriage, pro-private-gun-ownership, pro-private-and-homeschooling, unashamedly and publicly Christian combination of policies and attitudes to be suspicious or inimical to begin with, one can’t find decisions or behavior prior to those regarding captured illegal combatants able to support an accusation that these were wicked human beings. Those on the left thought them evil to start with (just as they do all the rest of us who hold such opinions) and added this to their list of reasons.

    One sees a corollary with the (I’m quite confident) one-time rapist, Bill Clinton: He is obviously, in the eyes of the left, a great supporter of the equality and dignity of women: For, regardless of his personal behavior, he agrees with the left politically, and in their view, what other sign of character is there? Pope John Paul II opposed abortion; he is therefore a nasty old male patriarchal loutish oppressive chauvinist pig, no?

    It’s an old problem: The difficulty of seeing the humanity, the good qualities, the good intentions, in persons with whom we have the most strenuous of political disagreements.

    I mean, Nancy Pelosi, after the benefit of a personal audience with the Pope (!), in which he specifically instructed her on the topic of respecting life (!!), still remains a supporter of abortion (!!!) and of federal funding for it (!!!!) despite those funds being extracted against their will (!!!!!) from the taxes faithful Catholics and others who’re opposed (!!!!!!).

    Now in my view, that kind of behavior, on the most vital civil rights issue ever, takes us about 60% of the way from “We should vote the scumbags out…” to “When in the course of human events….”

    And yet…yet…I’m willing, despite that, to agree that when she and other Democrats, who’re currently making loud noises about the evils of the Bush policy on interrogation of unlawful combatant detainees, originally learned of the waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” methods and said nothing…I’m willing to admit that their silence and assent and occasional worry about whether we were giving interrogators enough leeway was not because they were evil people who delight in human suffering, but because they were good people trying to do what was needful in a dangerous world.

    (And I even hope and pray for the salvation of Speaker Pelosi’s soul: For the United States of America is a temporary and ephemeral thing next to that.)

    So let us get real. Some Catholic writer (Chesterton perhaps? Or something I read here on IC? Not sure…) once commented that when even Adolf Hitler passed Eva Braun the salt, he was in some small way ministering grace to a loved one.

    And Bush, for all the ravings of the left, ain’t Hitler. He never was.

  • R.C

    Fr. George:

    First let me express that, without intending it, you’ve become a stumbling-block to me, sir: For I find myself coveting your classical education! (So: Forgive me, Father….)

    And I too have wished for a revival of the notion of outlawry, and a reduction of sloppy sentimentality in such discussions myself.

    In a previous thread, I made the remark that I longed for terrorists and pirates to be “decently hanged,” and it wasn’t really an exaggeration. It is one of the ways in which we are less civilized, I think, than our 18th-century forebears, that we are not willing as they were to put to death those who do not merely break the laws of civil society, but actively work to ignore or destroy civil society altogether.

    We are less civilized in this regard, because our change of policy comes not from an increased respect for the rights of accused individuals (if we’d increased our respect for innocence, we’d hardly have legalized abortion!) but rather from civilizational tiredness, and cynical boredom with living, and a greatly decreased thirst for justice on behalf of innocent victims.

    That said, Fr. George (…or should I be saying “Fr. Rutler?” One deficiency in my education is I don’t know whether the title goes with your first or last name, and I don’t wish to sound presumptuous), that said, the concept of “outlawry” doesn’t authorize an actually immoral thing, even to be done to outlaws. One can decently hang them; one can’t decently put ’em in an Iron Maiden. (Unless one is referring to a rock concert, not an old-school torture device.)

    What, then, are the limits of the “extreme prejudice” one may exercise against “outlaws?” Are they any different from the limits we exercise against normal criminals when their crimes are particularly severe? And if not, what’s the point of declaring their actions to fall under the category of “outlawry,” instead of just calling them either criminals (the muddle-headed leftist approach) or non-Geneva-protected unlawful combatants (the rather-better American-conservative approach)?

    I look forward to your insight on this, sir.

  • Kevin J Jones

    This essay rejects the idea that the government must be law-abiding when it counts.

    If you don’t want people to be prosecuted for torture, then make torture legal for future cases. A government can’t pick and choose what laws to follow. Arbitrary government is inimical to freedom. In the long term, it’s even more dangerous than terrorists.

    Perhaps Cicero’s “extra-legal” action helped destroy the republic in order to “save” it.

    How was Tully any different from the rebels? He was acting outside his authority, as were they. You don’t suppress a rebellion by becoming a rebel.

    Torture was condemned by Vatican II and Pope John Paul II. Citing Cicero as a contradicting authority is a form of neo-paganism. Quit poisoning the faithful.

  • Matthew Mehan

    This argument is quite muddled; or, I should say, this piece muddles two arguments: (a) charity is the perfection of the law, so mercy and charity are in order with respect to prosecutorial discretion–especially in cases involving those burdened with care of the state–and (b) justice is sometimes out of harmony with conventional, positive law. Unfortunately, your desire for merciful Democrats (a) has led you too call torture just (b). That is, by minimizing the terrible wrong done by Bush et al. (not b), you have essentially degraded the opportunity for virtue, honor and glory by means of mercy on the part of the prosecutors (not a).

    As Cicero would have taught you, the truth is always the most persuasive appeal. Here is what you should have argued, and, happily, it is also the truth which you have either inadvertently obscured or willfully marred:

    Torture is an abominable injustice, and we now know that the Bush administrators approved and condoned repeated and sustained waterboarding, as well as a variety of psychological “techniques” that, when taken together and repeated for months on end, amount to the sort of treatment we can say approximates torture–for torture is as much or more about breaking the spirit than it is about breaking the body–ask Solzhenitsyn. That said, the current political rulers in the Justice Department, the White House, and the Congress ought to show mercy on those most responsible, namely the ranking officials in DOJ and the White House–the lawyers and the leaders. Such mercy would be more than legal justice; rather, it would be the kind of supra-legal prudence, justice, mercy, and charity which even our laws recognize in the form of executive pardon and, for the Congress and the bureaucracy, in the form of prosecutorial discretion. It is lawful for the government to investigate nad prosecute for these deeds; but you Democrats and bureaucrats, you lawmakers, executives, and judges–you have the opportunity to rise above the law in the only way such a thing can be good and glorious: you have an opportunity for true wisdom, higher justice, and godly mercy, forgiveness, and charity.

    This piece falls short, I am afraid. Read more Cicero, and think less Bush. It will keep your arguments more just and more charitable, two excellent desires that your piece tells me you have in abundance.

  • Thomas More

    I agree that the Republic seems to be on its last legs. We cannot even muster any real outrage for the real Torture President, Barack Obama.

    Instead we have decided to call good men who might have gone too far on terrorist eligible for the death penalty for international war crimes criminals.

    This is a disgrace and a distraction to the actual human rights violations that are occuring under this President.

  • Austin

    Chesterton died in 1936, so I don’t think your quote about Hitler and Eva Braun was by him, as much of the Nazi madness occurred after 1936. Also, those of use who are critical of Bush are not all Leftists, nor do we believe that he is as bad as Hitler. Bush is pro life, which is commendable and a very big plus, however, his launching the nation into an unnecessary and unjust war cannot be excused. Thousands of dead and maimed Americans, tens of thousands of dead Iraqis are not something that can be swept under the carpet of history as not consequential. As a “true” conservative, I am appalled at Bush and his power grab by the Federal Government, his ill conceived and botched war in Iraq and many other issues.
    I am against abortion and grateful to Bush for his pro life policies, however, these rights do not erase all of the many wrongs of his administration.
    You do not seem to be able to distinguish a true conservative from the Bush Kool Aid drinkers. Bush could invade every country on the Asian Continent, get thousands more killed, but all he has to do is to start ranting about gay marriage, and the Kook Aid drinkers fall into line and think he is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
    Bush is not evil, or a bad man, but he is not Pope JP II or Pope Benedict: he is NOT infallible. He was right about a few things, such as abortion, but wrong about a lot of things. It amazes me that at this late date the Kool Aid drinkers cannot bring themselves to think of Bush as anything but a secular Pope, rather than as the deeply flawed President that he was.

  • Sir Geoff

    What is differentially relevant about the year 2009 that makes it a matter of utmost urgency that the former President of the United States be prosecuted? What is different about this particular case that calls for such an extreme and unprecedented act at this particular time in our history?

    We are owed an answer, because any schoolboy knows it is a matter of historical fact that many if not most former Presidents at one time or another arguably crossed the line by denying their internal and external enemies their due human rights.

    Indeed, President Obama to this day, shamelessly likens himself to two of those prior Presidents, one of whom (Lincoln) suspended habeas corpus in what is now recognized as a violation of human rights, and another (FDR) who interred Japanese citizens.

    My suspicion is that Leftists want there to be two standards of justice, one which gives them a free pass, and another to be used against their political enemies.

    It’s fine if you hard Leftists want to change the rules, but you’re not acknowledging that you’ve upped the standard, at a time that conveniently coincides with the departure of the man you wrongly believe stole an election from you.

    There’s an injustice here, for sure. It’s being committed by militant Leftists.

  • Austin

    “you hard leftists?” Well, I voted for Bush in 2000 [but not in 2004] and am a lifelong Republican, not to mention a former US Marine and cradle Catholic with a degree from a Jesuit College, so i don’t think that I am a “Hard Letist.” Actually, I voted for every Republican since Nixon in 1972, including Bush in 2000, but the gross incompetence and weird policies of the man caused me to vote for Ralph Nader in 2004 as a protest vote. One of the reasons that the Republican party is in the toilet today is the fact that Bush & Co. have driven most people with a triple digit IQ out of the party. There is more to politics than “Guns, God and gays” and I only wish the pathetic double digit IQ remnant of the GOP would realize this.

    Obama is not the answer. He is a narcisstic lightweight, but Bush has run the nation into a ditch and destroyed the Republican party. Other than his being pro life, I defy anybody to say anything good about him.

    Note to David Carlin: try to be less simplistic and cultivate a sense of humor…..if you can.

  • R.C.


    You’re quite correct about Chesterton; I almost certainly read it elsewhere. Thank you.

    As to your other responses? Well, careful, there, about the assumptions you make about me:

    Those of use who are critical of Bush are not all Leftists, nor do we believe that he is as bad as Hitler.

    As I myself am deeply critical of the non-conservative moves Bush sometimes, made, I of course agree with you. I strongly wish the man had been a true conservative.

    …his launching the nation into an unnecessary and unjust war cannot be excused.

    Knowing what we know now, it was unnecessary and therefore unjust; knowing what we knew then, it was logically and reasonably thought to be necessary and the decision was not thereby made unjust. It was, I think, unjust for other reasons: Most prominently because it was unwinnable and one may only start a war with a reasonable chance of success (Just War Doctrine). But it was only unwinnable for reasons which were at the time invisible to me and, I think, most others, so of course I supported it at the time.

    Thousands of dead and maimed Americans, tens of thousands of dead Iraqis are not something that can be swept under the carpet of history as not consequential.

    Who has? Not even those who, unlike me, still say it was the correct call given the information we had available at the time, say that. They say, instead, that given what we knew at the time, the harms of not removing Saddam were worse than the harms of removing him, despite how “consequential” they are.

    You disagree, of course! But take care to disagree with their actual argument and not a straw-man.

    As a “true” conservative, I am appalled at Bush and his power grab by the Federal Government…

    Right there with you, brother. What I’d have given for a “movement” conservative instead of a “compassionate” conservative — as if that term wasn’t either a redundancy, or an insult! No Child Left Behind, my behind.

    …rights do not erase all of the many wrongs of his administration.

    Certainly not. But when one narrowly focuses discussion on a particular “right” or particular “wrong,” must one constantly bring up all the other ones? Or is it alright to ignore what isn’t currently topical?

    You do not seem to be able to distinguish a true conservative from the Bush Kool Aid drinkers.

    Well, we’re all “true conservatives” when we define conservatism as what we happen to believe. Trying to define it by a more objective or external standard quickly gets murky. I believe, of course, that conservatism is a sufficiently well-defined thing to distinguish it from leftism or from the wishy-washy moderate-ism of both Bush presidencies. But being the internal Inquisitor for the conservative movement is an attempt to draw sharp distinctions in a realm of finer gradations, and therefore doesn’t lend itself so easily to facile excommunications.

    But more importantly than that, I fear you’ve fallen into an error similar to the one I described in my earlier post.

    As I’m running out of room, I’ll continue in another post….

  • Fr George W. Rutler

    R.C’s points are well taken. Outlawry does not justify recrimination, only self-defense. Last week the Pope canonized St. Nuno Alavres Perreira who used basically this principle for his third major battle and the invasion of Castile – with the Blessed Mother’s name engraved on his sword. As a monk later on, he wore his armor beneath his habit. Thomas Jefferson and George Bush invoked this respectively against the Bashaw of Tripoli and Saddam Hussein. Outlawry sanctions “shoot to kill” as still obtains in public riots, although torture is not condoned by its “extreme prejudice” against outlaws save as self-defense during threatened attack on innocent lives. This was stretched, pardon the pun, when Pope Nicholas V offered King Henry VI the services of the papal torturer. Not to justify casuistry in a serious matter, I think this is complex beyond the capacities of dilettantes in moral theology who would be the first to run at the sound of a gun. As one who was at the World trade Center on September 11, I am more convinced by the experience of those who were there than by the speculations of naive people who from remote venues view that day as a curiosity.

  • Faciamus

    The ends never justifies the means.

  • R.C.


    Just as it’s tough for me to remember that Pelosi, Obama, et alia, are often good and generous people because I disagree with their policies and philosophies, so too it’s occasionally tough for me to remember that the same folk are intelligent, despite their believing some really silly and illogical things.

    An observation from Peter Kreeft is helpful to me in this regard: He says that there are some things so ridiculous that only someone with a PhD is stupid enough to believe them, because you have to be especially clever to hide the truth from yourself in such a spectacular way.

    So, when you say…

    Bush could invade every country on the Asian Continent, get thousands more killed, but all he has to do is to start ranting about gay marriage, and the Kook Aid drinkers fall into line and think he is the greatest thing since sliced bread…he is NOT infallible. It amazes me that at this late date the Kool Aid drinkers cannot bring themselves to think of Bush as anything but a secular Pope.

    …I think you’re making the same logic error. Expressed as a syllogism, it might go something like this:

    1. These folk aren’t as disgusted with Bush as I;
    2. I’m convinced the reasoning which leads me to feel as I do is correct reasoning;
    3. Therefore these folk therefore aren’t reasoning correctly regarding Bush;
    4. Therefore these folk are generally poor reasoners, either by willful self-deception or because they’re just generally imbeciles;
    5. Therefore my characterizing them as “Kool Aid Drinkers,” or caricaturing their arguments, or attributing ridiculous and imbecilic views to them, is justified on the merits.

    And of course the correct reply to this is: Not so.

    I suspect you and I agree on roughly 90% of political topics, Austin. So it is as an ideological ally that I ask you to have a bit more care.



  • Kevin J Jones

    Remember when defenders of Clinton would say “it’s only a lie about sex!” and “perjury isn’t a high crime or misdemeanor”?

    They come to mind when somebody says “it’s only a little enhanced interrogation. Quit dividing our country! Who can say what perjury is, anyway?”

  • Gabriel Austin

    Am I mistaken to remember that it was the Democratic Party in control of Congress which voted to continue the war in Iraq?

  • Mark

    “I think this is complex beyond the capacities of dilettantes in moral theology who would be the first to run at the sound of a gun. As one who was at the World trade Center on September 11, I am more convinced by the experience of those who were there than by the speculations of naive people who from remote venues view that day as a curiosity.” – Fr. Rutler

    Yes, but the day may come when wars are fought in classrooms and you will be made to eat these words.

  • Joe H

    To the devil, I say, with this ridiculous notion that the basic impulse to hold leadership to account is a “leftist” one.

    Someone invokes the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as if those of us denouncing torture today would automatically justify something a Democrat did over 60 years ago. Really? Seriously?

    To look the other way when the powerful commit crimes that affect the entire country – and the torture issue does this in many ways – does more than enable bad government; it is also a violent offense against truth, something which no Catholic ought to abide by.

    To be honest going after the neo-con cabal that committed even more crimes against the country during its eight years in power isn’t my top priority. It isn’t even close to the top. But I certainly don’t oppose it, or dismiss it, as a purely leftist ploy.

    Is this what it will come down to in the end? Not even “my country, right or wrong”, but “my narrow ideological subset, right or wrong”? To what miserable depths will some people sink to avoid even the slightest appearance that they might hold the slightest sympathy for an idea or a cause held by ‘the other side’? When the other side says that there is a cliff right in front of us, will we continue marching like Lemmings into the abyss out of spite and contempt, not even crooking our heads to see if there is truth in the claim?

  • R.C.


    Perjury by a politician is not a high crime, but a misdemeanor;

    Removal from office for high crimes and misdemeanors is not a judicial action but a political one under the U.S. Constitution, hence the role of the Senate;

    The decision to not remove President Clinton from office was the (politically) correct one because the misdemeanor wasn’t sufficient to warrant the removal of a (then) second-term president who couldn’t run again;

    It’s sad, however, that he wasn’t prosecuted, tried, convicted, sentenced, and imprisoned for it as any private citizen would have been, which process could easily have taken place after he left office;

    That President Clinton perjured himself is a matter of fact;

    It is for the law to define “what perjury is, anyway,” and it does define it, and the definition of perjury in law is not at all vague with regard to President Clinton’s false testimony;

    U.S. law did not, at the time the Bush policy on interrogating unlawful combatant detainees was implemented, define waterboarding as implemented by U.S. interrogators as torture…I suppose it now does, but whether it does or not, it’s now belatedly illegal;

    The non-criminality of, and lack of a definition in law regarding waterboarding, makes your analogy to a well-defined offense like perjury unsustainable in a logical argument, though it retains its usability as mere invective if that’s what you wish to do;

    Everybody should quit dividing our country, left and right…except on those topics where it’s worth dividing the country!

    In fat-and-happy peacetime, perjury in a matter unrelated to national policy either barely made the cut or (my view) barely missed it. (Nobody would have given a frog’s fat fanny in wartime.) But Republicans were anxious to go forward because it irritated them that Clinton, though so tawdry, was so slick. So that tipped the scale for bad reasons.

    In wartime where there is an immediate existential threat, the waterboarding debate wouldn’t make the “worth dividing the country” cut, either. But as there is no immediate existential threat, it does. Hence the current debate.

    But within that debate, intelligent and well-meaning people can hold different opinions, even though they can’t all simultaneously be correct.

    Because they can’t all simultaneously be correct, we should fervently debate in favor of what we believe to be correct, as many of us are doing, here. But while doing so, our mannerisms should be respectful toward those who disagree, proportionate to the respectability of their other behaviors.

    Anybody got a problem with that?

  • Jared B

    First, the ethical standards that Cicero upheld were a far cry from Jewish or Christian morality.

    That is the most sensible comment made on this article so far, and it was one of the first. There have been many comment sections on many articles that turn into an extended debate over the “is/was enhanced interrogation/torture justified” debate, and the historical lesson of Cicero vs. Catiline does take an interesting new angle on it.

    But I think the more interesting discussion right now would be: Why is Dr. Carlin using a Classical example as a model for Catholic moral reasoning at all? And why is Fr. Rutler more or less backing him up?

    Anyone have any thoughts on the appropriateness of invoking Cicero in the first place? I am all for more and better Classical education in general, but on a web site called, it seems to be reaching a bit when a contributor relies on a Classical source and doesn’t include a single reference to any particularly Catholic moral teaching or insight. This omission is especially glaring when Dr. Carlin muddles his argument with talk of “good men” and “bad men”—Augustine would have been much more illuminating right there than Cicero, IMHO.

  • Crispus

    The extra-judicial executions of the Catilinian conspirators — over Gaius Julius Caesar’s passionate objection — was one of the reasons he suspected he would get no justice from the Senate when it recalled him from Gaul 13 years later (especially given lingering suspicions of his own involvement). We know how that turned out.

    Note his words — and warning — in defense of the law, according to the admittedly partisan Sallust:

    But, you may say, who will complain of a decree which is passed against traitors to their country? Time, I answer, the lapse of years, and Fortune, whose caprice rules the nations. Whatever befalls these prisoners will be well deserved; but you, Fathers of the Senate, are called upon to consider how your action will affect other criminals. All bad precedents have originated in cases which were good; but when the control of the government falls into the hands of men who are incompetent or bad, your new precedent is transferred from those who well deserve and merit such punishment to the undeserving and blameless.
    The Roman Republic didn’t fall because the Senate held too few summary executions, but precisely because the rule of law and respect for the institutions had broken down, following precedents like this. Your historical example undercuts your thesis.

    Caesar, who would prove the truth of his own warning, continued prophetically — and here I’ve replaced a couple names to bring it up to date:

    For my own part, I fear nothing of that kind from President Bush or his administration, but in a large country there are many different dispositions. It is possible that at another time, when someone else is president and is likewise in command of an army, some falsehood may be believed to be true. When the president, with this precedent before him, shall draw the sword in obedience to this Senate’s decree, who shall limit or restrain him?

    Who indeed? If it was fine for President Bush, why not for President Obama? And what if that ‘falsehood believed to be true’ happens to be that pro-lifers or small government conservatives are immediate threats to the country? What then?

  • Policraticus

    My response to Carlin’s piece over at Vox Nova:

    Needless to say, it is disconcerting to see this sort of reasoning dignified at Inside Catholic.

  • Barbara Bush

    Sorry Austin,

    Try this for starters; Bush saved 1.1 million African lives:

    Use reason and clear thinking; don’t let your emotion (contempt? hatred?) get the better of you.

    Long live Bush

  • Thomas More

    Question: Is burning a criminal to death torture? If waterboarding is torture, I can’t see how burning heretics isn’t torture.

    But check out the following quote.

    Condemned Error of Martin Luther by Pope Leo X: “That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit”

    I really think a more comprehensive look at this issue is needed and it is in no way similar to the obvious instrinsic evil of torturing and killing innocent babies.

  • Austin

    Long Live Bush? of course, I hope he lives to be 100. I just don’t believe that he was a good President. Do you drink Kool Aid too? I am amazed at this late date, after everything that has happened, some people still believe that he was a good President. “Denial” is not just a river in Egypt….

  • Joe H


    It has already been pointed out to you once, on another thread: the Church now rejects the tortures of the Middle Ages, presumably including burnings as well. It’s right there in the Catechism in the section on the 5th commandment. Torture, it turns out, was not necessary after all, and we need to do everything we can to abolish it today.

  • Michaelus

    …tormenta gubernat dolor, regit quaesitor, flectit libido, corrumpit spes, infirmat metus, ut in tot rerum angustiis nihil veritati loci relinquatur (pain reigns in torture, the
    inquisitor rules, desire sways, hope corrupts,
    fear weakens, so that in such straits no place is left for
    truth)” – Pro Sulla XXVIII

  • Barbara Bush


    No I didn’t drink the Kool Aid. I’m just saying that, let’s wait for history to judge. Truman was considered a dud. If there is a terror attack on America on Obama’s watch, game over. “At least he kept us safe” will be on everyone’s lips. There are a lot of people jumping on the Bush-was-bad bandwagon. Time will tell, either way. From my standpoint, he’s looking better all the time. That’s not to say he didn’t make many mistakes, but he did liberate Iraq from a cruel dictator and he was right on the surge.

  • Mark

    Well said Barbara Bush … not to mention the fact that if Christian tolerant democracies spread throughout the Middle East, George Bush’s legacy will be the equivalent of “tear down this wall”

  • dave carlin

    Jared B wonders why I would cite Cicero and not a Christian. For one thing, I’m not citing Cicero’s opinions. I’m citing his example. I could just as well have cited Abraham Lincoln’s example when he illegally suspended habeas corpus early in the Civil War.

    But even if I had cited Cicero’s opinions, so what? Catholic thinkers have been citing Cicero’s opinions for centuries now. Cicero was one of history’s great champions of the idea of natural law, and this idea has been a favorite among Catholic thinkers almost forever.

    If we were to ask Cicero for a philosophical justification of his execution of the Catilinian conspirators, I think he’d say that the execution, while not in accord with the letter of Roman law, was in accord with the dictates of the higher law, i.e., natural law.

  • Colm


    I’m wondering, is the clarity of the Church’s position on toture such that you’re forced to dip into pre-Christian and pagan examples to justify the USA’s torturing of terror suspects? The Catholic Church seems to have made it extremely clear that (a) what was done to those terror suspects *was* torture and (b) that torture is never ever ever moral or justifiable. Let me put it another way: The Church’s teaching on, torture, the application of justice and the integrity of each person’s (even the terrorists!) basic human rights far outweigh whatever a long dead Roman politician of limited influence and questionable character had to say or did.

  • dannyboy

    I am not a political liberal, and I have read plenty of Cicero in Latin. I have never voted for a politician who was not clearly Pro-life (crazy that I have to say that in order to not be immediately branded as a lefty wingnut).

    But this is a nation of laws, which, as I recall used to be a good thing in the minds of political conservatives.

    Investigate Bush. If there is a solid case that he broke the law (not likely), prosecute him. Investigate Pelosi. If there is a solid case that she broke the law, prosecute her. Then let the courts decide.

    If Obama wants to pardon people, as Mr. Mehan suggests perhaps he should, let mercy temper justice. If not, let justice be served.

    And if it ever seems like Obama broke the law, investigate him and prosecute him and let the courts decide.

    That’s how lawful nations work. I refuse to give political leaders the sense that they are above the law. Even in a republic like ours, that is a recipe for serial tyranny.

    A true patriot loves the very laws that may condemn him for attempting to protect his country using illegal means.

    The example of Socrates might be more useful than the example of Cicero here.


  • James Cagney

    The saying is WWJD, not WWCD.

    What would Jesus do about waterboarding? Can anyone honestly argue Jesus is for painful interrogations? Conservatives argue America was founded on Biblical Christian morality. Do the Bible and the Ten Commandments allow waterboarding?

    Fact: the US used cruel interrogation against some innocent people (Maher Arar, Khalid El-Masri). Other interrogatees were terrorists, but because torture-based evidence is ‘extralegal,’ the US could not convict them and they may go free (including the 20th 9/11 hijacker, Mohamed al-Kahtani). Others died during interrogation, destroying valuable sources of terrorism information. Sources report that innocent children were raped and sodomized in front of their mothers as a US interrogation tactic.

    Some interrogatees predictably gave false information to stop the pain (Abu Zubayda, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed). This diverted our limited counterterrorism resources away from keeping America safe. We should not let captured terrorists like KSM further weaken or endanger America.

    People should NOT be asking whether America has the right to torture in order to make itself safer. This question is a disingenuous diversion. Professor Carlin did not address the real question: whether torture really makes America safer. Facts suggest that torture puts Americans in danger at home and abroad. Our “enhanced interrogation” program gives aid and comfort to the enemy. It helps terrorists recruit new terrorists, lessens our political power to get world powers to help us prevent terrorism, and puts our troops in danger of being tortured or killed. What we need is honest unbiased thinking and facts, not a sociology professor’s story about ancient Rome that has nothing to do with torture.

    The Geneva Convention outlaws torture, to protect our troops. On this Memorial Day, let’s not further endanger our soldiers.

  • Pat

    Mr. Carlin’s essay is a good, clear exposition of the Benthamism which comes so intuitively to Americans– consider the fire-bombings in Japan and Germany, the Lusitania fraud, the midwinter burning of Atlanta, etc. etc. The pedophile who justifies his crime by the extent of his perverted desire, the robber who justifies his by his desire for money, are both extending the same logic a little further. The only thing that could make an act wrong would be that its alleged end was wrong. This sort of argument, as I have said, is quite compelling to post-Bentham America, and I will not make any effort to refute it, but will limit myself to pointing out that it has been consistently and explicitly condemned by Christians of all sorts, not to mention Scripture (as Gideon discovered) the saints and prophets. Mr. Carlin is doubtless a very nice man as I sincerely believe most Americans are, who yet believe that a danger to the American state justifies torture and the mass extermination of noncombatant civilians. If Christian dogma is correct, however, our Lord would much rather we die at the hands of terrorists in hope of the Resurrection than that we sin in such a gross and deadly manner.