We live in an age where the real issues are so quickly and easily obscured by the flurry of scorecards keeping track of who’s winning and who’s losing. We are compulsive gamblers laying down bets on the contests among powerful political figures whose motives are often noble but whose tactics are frequently unsavory.
Torture is the latest topic in the mosh pit of political maneuvering, and the blizzard of scorecards is truly obscuring the real issues. Did Nancy Pelosi lie about what the CIA told her regarding the use of torture on Al Qaeda detainees? Should former Justice Department lawyers who defended the practice of torture, even though it was illegal, be disbarred? Are there times when the use of torture is justifiable? Can anybody really win a fight with the CIA in this town?
Only the people who were present in the House Intelligence briefings in 2002 actually know what was said, and the truth may well remain hidden in the layers of classification that accompany such moments. Speaker Pelosi, who was then Congresswoman Pelosi and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, claims that the briefers specifically said that waterboarding was not being used. The CIA now claims that she was specifically told that torture was, indeed, in play. Some people now claim that Speaker Pelosi has lied in order to gain political advantage. Others say that it’s not so clear; former Congressman Martin Frost has an interesting piece in Politico about the oblique language that often accompanies such briefings.
Unfortunately, the storm of controversy over what the Speaker knew and when she knew it now obscures the real issue: the fact that the previous administration deliberately and intentionally tortured people in U.S. custody in order to gain information.
Noble motives, unsavory tactics. The use of torture may have come from the noble motive of gaining information to protect U.S. national security and prevent further terrorist acts. But no matter how noble the motive, the use of torture is simply unacceptable.
In the body of Catholic teachings about the dignity of human life, the use of torture is clearly and specifically condemned. I’ve had some conversations recently with people who have argued with me that torture is not nearly as bad as abortion, and the two should not be mentioned in the same breath. In fact, the Church’s teachings on human life are quite consistent across a range of offenses to the human person, and torture is included in those teachings. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has published an excellent study guide on the moral problem of torture. Defending the right to life extends from conception across the entire span of human existence and through the full range of human activities.