March 12, 2006
Produced under the auspices of the Peace and Justice Committee of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Crofton, Maryland."

Reflections on Torture

A nation that condones practice of torture by its military or other personnel is violating international conventions and the moral law. People who know of torture being practiced and remain silent are culpable in condoning criminal behavior. Torture is a political, legal, moral problem; it is also a religious problem and so we offer reflections on it from a faith perspective.

The torture that is considered here is that condemned by the United Nations in 1975: "Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he has committed, or intimidating him or other persons."

The Geneva conventions condemned torture in 1949. Since the U.S. is a signatory of these and other covenants, torture is illegal in the U.S. In 1984 the U N declared, "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

Severe human rights abuses at U.S. installations like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan have been reported by Amnesty International, Human Rights' Watch, the International Committee of the Red Cross and by military personnel who had direct evidence of the torture of prisoners. Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba has detailed "incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" that were inflicted on several detainees. Many others testify that the torture was systemic and not the deviant behavior of a "few bad apples." There is evidence that torture is accepted in the chain of command and condoned at the highest civilian levels of the administration. There is also widespread opposition in the military and among civilians to the use of torture. It is generally agreed that torture is an unreliable way to obtain information and co-erced testimony is not accepted in courts although US courts are now regrettably changing the law on this.

The Pentagon has a long history of condoning and teaching torture. The School of the Americas (SOA) admits it has trained more than sixty thousand soldiers and police, mostly from Latin America, in counterinsurgency and combat-related skills since it was founded in 1946. During the 1980's graduates of the SOA (now called the Western Hemisphere for Security Cooperation) participated in the torture, murder and disappearance of thousands of children, women and men in Latin America including religious, priests and bishops.
How should we respond to torture?

We listen to our church which now condemns torture unequivocally. Pope John Paul (in 2004) called for universal condemnation of torture. Pope Benedict XVI in his first World Day of Peace message (2006) declared that "international humanitarian law ought to be considered as… binding on all people." Cardinal Renato Martino, commenting on this said the pope was urging all countries that have signed the Geneva Conventions barring torture to "respect" them. He said that the Church does not allow the use of torture to extract truth.

The Catholic Catechism states: "Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity" (2297).

To resist torture we should write to our representatives and urge them to bring political pressure to bear on the administration and the military to renounce all use of torture. We should also pray for the repentance and conversion of all torturers and for the healing of their victims and we should do this especially when we celebrate Eucharist when we become the Body of Christ who was tortured and assassinated for our liberation and who renounced all violence.


Also from the Peace and Justice Committee of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Crofton, Maryland

Can A War be Just?

Our poor world has grown so accustomed to wars that we may see them as an inevitable reality, like death and taxes. Asked by the disciples about signs of the end of the world, Jesus replied, "You shall hear of wars and rumors of wars." In 1965 at the UN Pope Paul VI cried out, "War never again!" with about the same success as King Canute who ordered the ocean tides to retreat a millennium earlier. There have been lots of wars since 1965.

Even though war brings anguish and despair, destruction, slaughter and mutilation, rape, hatred, tragic waste of resources, they keep recurring with no end in sight. Yet when citizens question the utility of a nation's current resort to violence, they are apt to have their patriotism impugned.

Does war in our age of incredibly lethal weaponry make sense? Pope John Paul II, an inveterate critic of war making, said, "War is the most barbarous and least effective way of resolving conflicts." Americans were never made aware that this pope spoke out 56 times against the first Gulf War, in which 13,000 civilians were killed directly and 70,000 died as a result. Benedict XVI, our current pope, when asked about war in our nuclear age, replied, "Today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a 'just war'.

What is a 'just war' and what would permit a nation to risk the carnage that war entails? An age old test for deciding if taking up arms against an enemy is not simply an exercise in organized mass murder is the 1600 year old 'just war theory.' The first condition to be met is a just cause, which means the defense of one's country against an evil assailant. According to just war theory, the enemy must be attacking or posing an imminent threat of doing so. Another condition is that non-combatants must be shielded from harm.

A military strike against an enemy threatening immediate violence is an act of "preemptive war". Cardinal Ratzinger noted that this term is not found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A resort to war based on a merely hypothetical threat contradicts the accepted tenets of the just war theory and is termed a "preventive war." In March 2003 the U.S. elected to wage a preventive war, claiming that Iraq was an emerging threat because of its weapons of mass destruction and implication in the terrorist attack of 9/11. However, since Iraq did not have any weapons that could endanger the national security of the U.S. and had no part in the tragedy of 9/11, an attack on that nation lacked moral justification.

Further, on the basis of an imagined threat, civilians in Iraq were subjected to terrible losses in violation of the principle of immunity from harm. In just one city (Fallujah) in a couple of days, the U.S. using banned weapons like cluster bombs, depleted uranium and white phosphorus, destroyed up to 36,000 homes and killed large numbers of women and children. In the first two years of the invasion, by conservative estimates, 24,865 Iraqi civilians were killed and 42, 500 wounded; the U.S. military accounted for 37% of the casualties. Our leaders would have been wise to heed the counsel that declared repeatedly there were insufficient reasons to unleash a war that would result in such disproportionate harm to the innocent.

Catholics who are distressed by any or particular wars may invoke the church's teaching of conscientious objection, a topic we may visit if parishioners are interested.

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