Saturday, April 29, 2006
Here (in the previously-referenced excellent Books and Culture) is a fine review essay on several recent books concerning torture, including lawprof Sandy Levinson's anthology Torture and St. Thomas theologian (and my seminar co-teacher) Bill Cavanaugh's Torture and Eucharist. Among the interesting questions raised is a challenge to the distinction between "torture" and "coercive interrogation practices," a distinction embraced (though with dramatically different degrees of ethical sensitivity and seriousness) by Christian ethicist Jean Elshtain and by the Bush administration. The reviewer writes:
Is it not possible that the cumulative effect of many acts of torture lite would amount to torture proper? A steady diet of hooding, sleep and food deprivation, nakedness and shame, exposure to severe temperatures, deception, and intimidation can surely have the effect of creating servility, creating a environment of fear, and destroying a subject's world. Here it is telling to note that Elshtain tends to associate torture with singular acts of extreme physical torment; but if Parry and Scarry are correct, the cumulative effect of persistent torture lite—which plays as much on the mind as on the body—can be equally devastating to the person as a whole.
Christian ethicists (including Elshtain herself) hold that the image of God resides in the whole person, who is a complex, integrated whole of body and mind. If this richer understanding of coercion is correct, it might, then, appear better to draw the lines precisely where the Geneva Conventions did, putting torture and torture lite in their respective categories while proscribing both. Even if necessity drives agents beyond the pale, even if our courts allow for such a legal defense, the moral line remains clear in this murky terrain. To my mind, this line of reasoning hardly counts as "moral code fetishism"—least of all, for the Christian ethicist.