Torture is wrong in any possible circumstance. It sees the victim only as a resource – not a person. Any bad definition hinders the use of concepts in politics.

One of the funniest lectures I have ever attended was on view of the Church on torture and capital punishment. I agree this sounds weird. These topics are really not funny and very serious. But the reaction of two of my fellow students to these topics was very strong and opposed. This resulted in a very interesting situation for the lecturer. He had to explain to a fellow from Malaysia that torture is wrong under any circumstance and to a woman from the Netherlands that capital punishment might be permissible in some situations. This was understandably difficult. The expectation is to see these answers on different sides of the political and ideological divide. But the cultural difference between the students made it even more difficult. For a Malaysian it is quite difficult to face Islamic terrorism in his home country and reject the tool that promises more safety. For the Dutch woman, after living through the Rwandese genocide in 1994, it was unfathomable that killing might ever be permissible, let alone of a prisoner.

All the same in violence?

Faced with this impossible task the lecturer gave the best explanation I have ever heard. He explained the difference in the object of the action. With capital punishment, the objective is to protect society and other men and women from a threat. The death of the person posing the threat is in this case not intended. It is but a second effect that one needs to accept if the first and intended effect is to be achieved. So obviously the capital punishment loses its justification, if there are alternatives to protect people without killing the person that poses the threat. With torture the objective is different. Here the intent is to inflict pain, suffering, discomfort or all combined, so this pain, suffering and discomfort forces the person to do what you want. This is usually the disclosure of information. In this case the final goal of information is not directly intended. It cannot be. The desired information is in another person’s consciousness and therefore outside of any direct reach. Torture truly intents the suffering of the victim, because this suffering is needed to elicit the desired response.

Applying torture definitions to reality

To define torture, the previously given explanation is summed like this:

Torture is the intentional infliction or threat of suffering (trough pain, discomfort, fear or any other means) so that the suffering or fear thereof forces the victim to act in a desired way.

With the application of this definition to various forms actions it becomes clear what needs to be treated as torture. Beatings, electric shocks, starvation and sleep deprivation fulfill the requirement of torture if used to elicit a response. The suffering in these cases is clear and also clearly intended to lead to a response. Punishments trough these techniques also fall under the definition of torture. The suffering of the victim is used as the punishment and to deter further dissent. Apart from these clear cases there are actions that might or might not be torture. The most controversial of these actions is water boarding. It is often classified as an “enhanced interrogation technique” and not torture. The reason being, that there is no permanent harm done and no excruciating pain administered. But compared to the definition of torture it becomes clear that this qualifies as torture. Waterboarding uses the discomfort of being restrained and the perception of drowning to get people to do certain things. The use of suffering for the achievement of a goal is present. Therefore the definition applies.

Alternative view of torture

A different definition of torture was offered by US presidential candidate Ted Cruz while defending the use of waterboarding as not being torture.

“Under the law, torture is excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems, so under the definition of torture, it is not.”

This definition is fairly common and has been used before to legitimize water boarding. Not to argue about the question if this reflects the law in any way, there is a huge problem in this definition. It cannot differentiate torture from possible life saving procedures or the use of force in self-defense.

While anesthetics are fairly widespread, there are instances where they are unavailable or cannot be used due to side effects or its effects on the awareness of the patient. Under these instances, like combat, life saving actions might have to take place. This can range from amputation or other surgical procedures to just transporting somebody from one place to the other. Being moved while severely injured is massively painful. In all of these instances a pain “equivalent to losing organs and systems” might be inflicted. So under Mr. Cruz’ definition this would be torture.

A good example of this can be seen on the TV documentary “Inside Combat Rescue”. Several times the medics have to administer an IO. They know the sedation they can offer cannot prevent the patient from feeling the excruciating pain of the needle in their bone. They still need to do it to safe the life of the patient. This meets Senator Cruz’ definition of torture, but we intuitively know it is not.

Most problematic applications

Even more to the point is the case of self-defense. In the case of administering medical aid it can be argued the good you do for the person negates the possibility of torture. This argument would already significantly alter the given definition, into “excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems [and not in service of the person feeling the pain]”. But with self-defense this is not the case. The use of force there is not in the service of the attacker. The attacker will be injured or killed, not for his own good, but for the good of the one he was attacking. But calling this torture is incorrect even in this instant.

The definition of Mr. Cruz clearly fails to provide a proper understanding of the issue at hand. But also the before mentioned “Use of Suffering” definition meets some problems when applied to specific situations. A normal police interrogation could fall under this definition of torture. A suspect’s situation might possibly be described as “suffering”. This can be avoided if “suffering” is properly understood and not applied to any and all unpleasant situations. To spell this out is the topic of another article or even a full on book. But the proximity of this definition of torture to police interrogations serves as a reminder of the inherent danger in any police interrogation. It can very quickly get out of hand and devolve into an ethically problematic situation.

The gravity of the issue

On the political plain the issue of torture should appear in the same level as abortion and euthanasia. Granted torture is not, necessarily, killing a human being, but it is negating the very core of the person. It violates what Karol Wojtyła called the Personalistic Norm. As a person is the source of its goals and actions. It might never only be used as a means to an end but always also as an end in itself. It is a person’s right and responsibility, to able to determine and pursue his or her own goals. This is necessary to be a true Person and to do anything meaningful. Acts like loving, (self)-giving or forgiving require having a true author. They require a free decision to become meaningful. This can easily be seen with a gift. Something that is not freely given, but had to be given, cannot be a gift. It retains all its other properties. It might still be beautiful, interesting or useful. It is not a gift. As authors of our actions these actions need to originate in us and must not be the result of stimuli and reaction processes.

Torture negates all of this. It takes away freedom. The action is no longer decided by the person but forced trough outside stimuli. This denies the fundamental value of the person. The person is not seen as an end in itself. The victim is only seen as the location of an information or the agent that can perform a desired act.

A quick word on the death penalty

This article is about torture so I will just quickly address the issue of capital punishment. The Church is not fundamentally opposed to the death penalty (CCC 2267). That said it states that it is only permissible if it is the only option to protect other lifes. This is not the case anywhere in the world today. It is permissible in a situation like this: There is no functioning prison system to hold prisoners for long periods of time and there is a person posing, for whatever reason, a threat to others. This person cannot be let go, because it endangers innocent lifes and it cannot be held forever in a dungeon that is not designed to house people for indefinite amounts of time. If in this situation the state or other governing body kills this person, this act is intendent to protect others. Again I like to stress: In our current developmental phase it is possible to hold people for indefinite amounts of time. There is no place in the world where a functioning jail system cannot be installed. There is also treatment available that might help them to no longer be threat. For this reason the Church is opposed to all capital punishment in our world today. Pope Francis made this point as well as Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI many times over.