Mark Shea, Jimmy Akin, Fr. Harrison and the "Torture Debate"

In my last post (What do I think about torture?) I tried to lay out my thoughts on the subject and my own opinions on various issues discussed in the previous roundups. Mark responded by stating:

My assessment of what you wrote, Chris, is pretty much the same as M.Z.’s and Zippy’s.

I’m going to ask Mark to humor me one more time, as I’ll endeavor to illustrate a source of much confusion and disappointment.

When I read Fr. Harrison (circa Sept. 2005):

[T]here remains the question […] of torture inflicted not for any of the above purposes, but for extracting life-saving information from, say, a captured terrorist known to be participating in an attack that may take thousands of lives (the now-famous ?ticking bomb? scenario). As we have noted above, this possible use of torture is not mentioned in the Catechism.. . . My understanding would be that, given the present status question is, the moral legitimacy of torture under the aforesaid desperate circumstances, while certainly not affirmed by the magisterium, remains open at present to legitimate discussion by Catholic theologians.

His speculations on this matter ring no different to me than those of Jimmy Akin (circa June 2004):

The Catechism’s discussion of torture (CCC 2298) focuses significantly on the motive that is being pursued in different acts of torture. If it means us to understand that having a particular motive is necessary for an act to count as torture then it might turn out that some acts commonly described as torture are in fact not torture . . .

For example, the Catechism‘s list of motives for torture does not mention the use of physical pressure to obtain information needed to save innocent lives. It thus might turn out that it is not torture to twist a terrorist’s arm behind him and demand that he tell you where he planted a bomb so that it can be defused and innocents can be saved. Certainly the kind of things that Jack Bauer may do on 24 are very different morally from the kinds of things that happened in Soviet prisons.

I would be disinclined to go the route of saying that torture is not always wrong. I think that the Church is pretty clearly indicating in its recent documents that it wants the word “torture” used in such a way that torture is always wrong. However, I don’t think that the Magisterium has yet thoroughly worked out all the kinds of “hard case” situations one can imagine and whether they count as torture.

As Dave Armstrong suspected after his brief stint in the debate, the problem is semantics:

I’ve come to the conclusion that the debate on this comes down to mostly semantics and personal hostilities. I saw that early on when I realized that folks (including myself at first) were sloppy in differentiating the terms “torture” and “coercion” in various contexts, thus leading to further confusion (within the framework of cynicism and suspicion on both sides).

Fr. Harrison equates “torture” with “the infliction of severe pain.” This leads him to conclude that “the moral legitimacy of torture under the aforesaid desperate circumstances, while certainly not affirmed by the magisterium, remains open at present to legitimate discussion” — something which is incoherent, if torture is understood to be something that is intrinsically evil. (I’m well aware what “intrinsic” means and what it implies).

For Jimmy Akin, there are cases of torture (intrinsically evil). But there are also cases where coercion — even coercion by “the infliction of severe pain” — might be legitimate: “the use of physical pressure to obtain information needed to save innocent lives.” Thus for Jimmy, “Certainly the kind of things that Jack Bauer may do on 24 are very different morally from the kinds of things that happened in Soviet prisons,” and “it might turn out that some acts commonly described as torture are in fact not torture.”

I suppose if you posed the question to Fr. Harrison, he might agree with Jimmy Akin that there are acts which are “commonly described as torture” which are not, in fact, such. Jimmy Akin and Fr. Harrison may differ in their labeling, but they both seem to agree that in some cases (the “24” or “ticking bomb” scenario), coercion by physical force (to some degree) to obtain information for the purpose of saving innocent lives might be legitimate. Both appear to be mutually agreed that this remains an open topic of discussion among Catholic moral theologians (and Catholic apologists and bloggers to boot).

Now — Mark / Zippy — here is where I am confused:

1) You (Zippy) see Jimmy Akin’s stance as problematic. At least I have that hunch, given your insistence:

At some point, no doubt at a different point for each individual, it is going to dawn on people that “torture is intrinsically evil” and “under these different circumstances the same act isn’t torture and is therefore permissable” are mutually contradictory statements.

2)You (Mark), obviously see Fr. Harrison’s position as problematic, yet refrain from confronting Jimmy Akin, and likewise insist “I agree with Zippy.”

The confusion is compounded by the fact that the speculations of Tom McKenna — with respect to the Catechism — are hardly distinguishable from Jimmy’s.

Jimmy’s speculation that

“if [the Catechism] means us to understand that having a particular motive is necessary for an act to count as torture then it might turn out that some acts commonly described as torture are in fact not torture” . . . Certainly the kind of things that Jack Bauer may do on 24 are very different morally from the kinds of things that happened in Soviet prisons.

sounds much akin to these ears to Tom McKenna’s speculation that:

. . . the Catechism, by its plain language, it is directed at the motivation of the conduct, not the content of the conduct. Hence it rejects torture intended to produce confessions, punish the guilty, etc. But the methods we use against our enemies (which again, are not “torture” under civil law) are not engaged in to induce confessions. We use these methods to secure actionable intelligence about our enemies. What Lyndie England did might arguably fall under this definition, since she was motivated by hatred or some other illegitimate motive. What a trained interrogator might uncover through controlled, judicious use of such methods is clearly not encompassed by this definition.

(Indeed, as deplorable as those abuses which occurred at Abu Ghraib were, what is put on display by the Fox Network in the television show 24 could be said to be far worse. However, I do not intend to spark a specific discussion of the precise acts used under “desparate circumstances” — only the similarities of the arguments).

Here, again, I think Zippy would find both the reasoning of Jimmy and McKenna problematic. Yet Mark maintains a certain silence with respect to Jimmy, tears into McKenna, and insists to me that he “agrees with Zippy.”

But consider what Mark has to say, for instance, about the use of the ’24 scenario’:

The particular guy I cite achieves his sleight of hand defense of torture by quoting the Catechism and attempting to say that what the Church *really* means is that torture which is not committed for a good purpose is bad, but that *good* torture (done by decent folk for a good end such as saving Keifer Sutherland in the Real World of “24”) is okay.

The “particular guy” Mark cites is not Jimmy Akin but rather Tom McKenna — who, if you follow the link, didn’t even mention the television show.

Q: Would Mark’s criticism of the “24 scenario” apply to Jimmy Akin?

* * *

In February 2006, Jimmy Akin offered the following clarification of his earlier remarks on torture in Mark’s combox:

I believe that the Church has exercised its authentic magisterium in condemning the use of torture, and this cannot be safely ignored. The problem is that the Magisterium has not yet provided us with a precise description of what counts as torture, and thus it is presently a matter of debate whether particular practices are or are not torture.

I also would hold that, whatever torture is (when properly defined), it is intrinsically evil and thus cannot be justified by circumstances. The question is whether all things that are regarded by some as torture actually are torture. It may turn out that some things that some individuals call “torture” are not actually torture, just as some things that are commonly regarded as the sin of theft are not actually the sin of theft (e.g., taking food from a person who has plenty when you are starving and he will not sell it to you).

Again, I think Jimmy’s argument fails to elude Zippy’s criticism. If there are mitigating circumstances that would lead one to conclude that what appears as theft ISN’T theft, there might also be mitigating circumstances where “some things that some individuals call “torture” are not actually torture.”

I don’t think this kind of talk would wash with Zippy, whether it came from Akin or Harrison or Victor Morton or Tom McKenna. And to these ears, it all sounds pretty much the same.

Which is why I am puzzled by Mark’s reluctance to offer any further response to Jimmy Akin than:

Thanks, Jimmy. That’s pretty much what I took you to mean.”

Proceeding to spend the rest of this year, in post after post, laying into Fr. Harrison, Victor Morton, Tom McKenna, Chris Fotos, et al. in his usual vitriolic style — and insisting that his assessment of this position “is pretty much the same as Zippy’s.”

In a nutshell, this inconsistency in Mark’s approach is a cause of much consternation by those who have been on the receiving end of Mark’s deprecation at Catholic & Enjoying It.

* * *
Jimmy Akin, you come late into this debate and I won’t put upon you to read the reams of comments and heated exchanges between all of us. However, in your last post on the subject, you had mentioned “if folks are interested, I can try to offer further thoughts in the future.”

Sorry to put you on the spot here, but I would be most appreciative were you to follow up with your own analysis of Fr. Harrison’s two-part survey and conclusions drawn — and perhaps clarify your own position on the topic: under what criteria would actions “commonly described as torture” not, in fact, be such?.

If I’ve mistakenly interpreted your remarks on this subject, let me know and I’ll stand corrected. (Likewise to everybody else).

* * *

I’m going to cease blogging on this matter in pursuit of other topics (collective sigh of relief from the combox). There isn’t much more I can add at this point. I do thank Zippy and company at Enchiridion Militis for engaging my comment, and I’ll be following that discussion, as well as the other exchanges noted here.

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