What constitutes torture, and did the United States cross a line in its treatment of certain prisoners held in the war on terror?
The debate surrounding the Bush administration's controversial decisions regarding such techniques as waterboarding has been reignited by the recent revelation that the International Committee of the Red Cross had concluded in 2007 that torture was used by the United States in secret CIA prisons. Based on interviews with prisoners held by the CIA who had been sent to Guantanamo Bay, the report cited such actions as beatings, sleep deprivation and extreme confinement and temperatures.
It concluded that such treatment "constituted torture" and "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
Now a long-simmering debate on whether there should be a congressional investigation or some sort of Truth Commission has been resurrected, even though the Obama administration seems uncomfortable with either prospect.
Torture is a staple of the entertainment media. Counterterrorism official Jack Bauer on the popular Fox television series "24" routinely uses torture to extract information from terror suspects. Mitch Rapp, the popular hero of the Vince Flynn novels, is similarly inclined. In such fictional presentations, torture is a tool for preventing immediate threats, and those who condemn it are bureaucrats or moral pantywaists who don't understand how the real world works.
The truth is, as always, more complicated. Some military and police experts argue that information extracted under torture is generally of low value, though others say the secret nature of the war on terror precludes one from drawing such conclusions: We don't know what has worked, so we have to trust those who are on the front lines.
While the debate about the definition and value of torture will continue, the Church's teachings in this area are clear and consistent: The ends do not justify the means. Torture is an affront to human dignity and has been labeled by the U.S. bishops as an "intrinsically evil action" in their 2007 document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," along with abortion, the destruction of human embryos, genocide, racism and targeting noncombatants.
All of these actions deny the immutable dignity of human life, and all are condemned. Pope Benedict XVI himself said in 2007 that "means of punishment or correction that either undermine or debase the human dignity of prisoners" must be avoided. "The prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstances."
That the ends justify the means -- be it for abortion, euthanasia or embryonic stem cell research -- has become the rationalization of choice for a host of questionable actions that our society now approves. Torture certainly fits within those categories.
What we surrender when we make such accommodations with evil, however, goes much further than simply the moral diminishment of our country and its ideals. By using legal legerdemain to justify the unjustifiable, we give cover to more despotic nations and weaken the internal restraints that keep our own society from resorting to more debased actions.
As with abortion, by appearing to tolerate and even justify an evil such as torture, Americans hasten the erosion of the moral values upon which all civilized society must be based.
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