Friday, November 26, 2010

Some Family History

Against chanting voices, above the din of war hammers, amidst the bleating of scattered sheep, I cried out, "De profundis clamavi ad te..."

My great-grandfather (one of four --- most of us have four!) was a landscape painter. During the Great War the British Army paired him with pilots of those new-fangled biplane things, to sketch the German positions. In his spare time he sketched and painted the soldiers around him; he was not himself a soldier, and did not take part in combat. Being frequently at or even behind the front line, however, he knew the stress of battle, and was caught in "Mustard" gas at least once. When he came home he lived in a small appartment with his wife and their son and daughter. They had one bedroom, which he used at night alone, while the other three slept in the front room.

The reason for this strained arrangement is that he was not a safe companion when sleeping. If disturbed in the night, he'd thrash and throttle the first thing he could wrap his hands around: it was as though he no longer had a working triage mode, and went straight to panicked self-defence.

Now, among Men I was unthought-of before he died, and even his son my grandfather didn't survive to my birthday, I can't claim from any familiarity that the War or any particular part of it was torturous to him. Nonetheless, it's clear that this tale from one branch of my family is hardly unique, and the capacity for reason we all share speaks clearly that something broke the proper relationship between soul and body in him, and it seems likely to have been something he experienced during the War.

This is all by way of bringing both some context and some content to a disputation simmering in my real-world neighborhood.

If anyone suggests to you that "waterboarding" is essentially "a little water up the nose", you might point out that if it's harmless then it shouldn't change the cooperativity of any interrogation subject; you might point out that it's quite a different proposition from offering someone a neti pot (oh! the horror!) or a saline spray. If they admit "sure it's unbearably uncomfortable, but it isn't torture", you might ask how they distinguish between unbearable discomfort and torture. You might alternatively mention "not all is torture that is condemned". The terminology of Gaudium et Spes, quoted at length in Veritatis Splendor is quite broad: as inherently disordered it includes
quaecumque humanae personae integritatem violant, ut mutilationes, tormenta corpori mentive inflicta, conatus ipsos animos coƫrcendi

whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit
It has been said that waterboarding might be favoured by interrogators owing to forensic difficulty in detecting it after the fact: unless the subject develops a suspicious bronchitis, it leaves little visible scarring. Note, however, that the text of the pastoral constitution explicitly distinguishes between mutilation (a direct violation of the body's integrity in itself) and torture of two sorts. We see, then, that our Church recognizes the possibility of a category of illicit act violating the integrity of the person while seeming to preserve the integrity of the body. Ultimately, this willful attempt on personal integrity is the objection to torture, whether physical or mental. Physical torture seeks to coerce by upsetting the primacy of the soul over the body; mental torture seeks to coerce by upsetting the primacy of reason (practical or moral) over will.

I should submit further that mental torture is in fact the more pernicious sort; for in seeking to invert will over reason in others, it acts as a mode of contagion: reason itself, guided by the natural law, should tell us that mental torments are reprehensible, and thus one who attempts it has permitted his will to rule over his reason.

Considering then the soul of the perpetrator, we see the longer-lasting evil done by any evil act; for while torture may scandalize its victim, it otherwise moves the victim closer to God's pity, while moving the toturer further towards God's avenging justice.

What shall it profit a man, though he save for a time the lives of the whole world, if he lose his soul?


Lindsay said...

Wow, your great-grandfather has quite the history!

You know, I find it sad that this argument even needs to be made. It means that there are actually people who take the view which you've addressed and tried to legitimize the practice of waterboarding. I've quite fortunately never heard anyone take that stance (thank God), but I do believe that there are people out there who have and that makes me want to take to praying all hours of the day. (Which, hey, *would* be good, but who's got the time?) I think you've done a good job addressing the issue. However, I would wager that most people who are okay with waterboarding and who even encourage it probably won't be swayed by a moral argument. And yet, the very fact that they would find it acceptable to perform on an individual (whom they've deemed worthy of such a thing, either due to their actions or perceived involvement with others') indicates that their choice is clearly a "moral" one to the extent that such things touch them.

Belfry Bat said...

I'm sure there were lots like him; "shell shock" or "trench fever," or PTSD they call it these days... every family has their story. And the front lines were so long! I suppose I'm glad for the sake of such folk that they've moved to cameras and drones...

Yes, the need for such an argument is pretty sad; and yes, I agree that there's not much hope the second half would help, on its own. That's why I include the history: any question about "permissible evils" can't remain fixed as one of "what is OK for us to do to them"; it will spill-over into one of "what will we permit them doing to us?" and "what can we do amongst ourselves?"

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