Tuesday, 31 January 2017

** FATHER FRANK’S RANTS Rant Number 792 30 January 2017 ON TORTURE


‘War for its own sake would be stupid’ taught St Thomas Aquinas. So would be torture, if done for its own sake. Because torture, like war, is a teleological practice. It must have a goal, an end. Not just any end, of course. The Marquis de Sade got pleasure out of torturing females but that imports no lawful end, only pathology, a perversion called sadism. The legitimate end of torture, if there is one, must be justice. Could it then ever be just to punish a man by torturing him?

Main theories of punishment divide into retribution, deterrence and reform. The latter can be ruled out – hard to see how you could morally ‘reform’ a person by torturing him. Does torture deter? Those opposed a priori argue that even painful penalties like flogging for fornicators and wine-drinkers in Saudi Arabia do not deter because such crimes occur nonetheless. But that won’t do. Few maintain that fear of corporal punishment totally deter. It is reasonable however that it deters some offenders, especially lightweight ones. On the other hand, when offences are not serious, unless mandated by a divine code, why fall back on something as extreme as torture? Aren’t there better ways?

Retribution. The ‘it serves him right’ maxim brings that out. You have done something socially and morally bad and wrong – so you deserve just, retributive and condign punishment. But to be fair the chastisement must fit the crime. It must be proportionate. Condemning a youth to death for jaywalking or scrimping apples would be disproportionate to the offence. Critics demand: ‘What’s the fitting penalty for arson? Or for rape? Burning the incendiary alive? Raping the rapist?’ Questioned aimed at disarming the advocates of retribution by pointing out absurdities involved.

Hhhmmm…not so obvious. Consider the revolting men who throw acid into the face of a former lover, disfiguring and blinding the poor woman – a horror far too frequent. The sharia judge of a certain Islamic nation years back ruled the criminal in retribution should have had acid poured onto his face. Uproar from usual Western quarters and NGOs followed, so the punishment was commuted. But would the penalty if enforced really have offended most people’s instincts and sense of justice in this atrocious case? Not revenge, I stress, but justice – just deserts?

The torture business is topical because President Trump – a real life Voldemort, the universal bogey everyone seems to hate - has come out in favour of it. However, the torture he spoke about was in the context of terrorism. Nothing to do with the three theories of punishment. Trump wasn’t aiming at terrorising or punishing terrorists but at extracting vital information from them. That implies both utilitarian and deontological or normative issues. Moral absolutists contend that torture is always impermissible, whatever the consequences. Non-absolutists might agree prima facie, unless proved otherwise, but still buy the torture option in extreme scenarios – e.g. terrorists about to unleash bacteriological mayhem on the population and only way to discover the bomb’s whereabouts is to torture a captive terrorist: what do you do? Discuss.

Suggestion that torture may at all be envisaged by a statesman has aroused storms of protests. Trump believes that torture ‘works’. That would not pacify moral absolutists but then nothing would, I guess. (Moreover, what counts as torture?) Anyway, even the President’s defence advisers don’t agree that torture is effective so…most likely a non-issue. And there would be big lawsuits and challenges. The Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits the federal government from imposing ‘cruel and unusual punishments’. Torture looks a bit like that, eh? And Trump has just sworn to respect and defend the Constitution!

Objecting to certain punishments, like torture, comes out chiefly of Enlightenment ideology. Same ideology that engendered the American Revolution. That would have surprised most previous cultures and civilisations. (Note though that the ancient Greeks disliked bodily mutilations as Oriental, ‘un-Greek’.) The Romans scourged and crucified, although only slaves could be tortured, never citizens. The Chinese practiced a variety of exquisite torments, like death by a thousand cuts. The Aztecs had human sacrifice. Turks would flay people alive. Moghuls had culprits crashed by elephants. Elizabethan Englishmen would thumbscrew and wrack victims, then hang, draw and quarter them. Robert Louis Amiens, the man who tried to kill King Louis XV, before being gorily executed was tormented with red-hot pincers, plus… details are not for the squeamish. Spaniards…ever heard of the Inquisition? ISIS: stoning, burning alive, beheading… Sorry if this gives you the creeps.

Thank God civilised nations are free from such nightmares. Interesting though how public repudiation of torture and so on has historically emerged out of the modern Western cultural paradigm. How many civilisations have forsaken torture off their own bat, without being so persuaded from the old, bad West? If you know examples to that effect, please pass them on.

Lastly: ‘Crucifixion – the most dreadful of penalties’, wrote philosopher Cicero. Indeed, for the Romans no torment, no torture equalled that excruciating kind of death. Yet, Christians believe that painful Cross, with all its shame and degradation, was also Christ’s supreme triumph and exaltation. Thus, they bow to that symbol of torture, kiss it and venerate it.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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