Esteemed reader Baron Korf asks (in relation to this post),
I had very similar thoughts on torture in the beginning, Baron Korf. Still do, to some extent. My concern was for the soldiers (or cops, or other peace keepers) in the field who, in a spontaneous fit of frustration (or fear, panic, anger) may rough up a prisoner or twist an arm in an attempt to elicit some information. I would be loathe to see such situations characterized as War Crimes, and so I think a clear definition of torture is important for that reason (among others).
This was debated for a very long time over hundreds of posts at Jimmy Akin's blog and at Mark Shea's, and I eventually arrived at/formulated a definition of torture that - to me - gets to the nut of the matter;
The breaking of the will is the key. Humane discipline techniques (like those we use on our children) are not designed to break the will, but to shape it or instruct it. God created each person with free will, and being the gift of God that most defines us as moral beings (rather than mere animals), it is not to be taken away by another. We may certainly restrict a person's movements or their ability to cause mischief, but we have no right to remove from them their fundamental status as free moral agents before God.
When a person is tortured, the idea is not to persuade or to discipline or educate (these all respect the fundamental free will), but to introduce such levels of pain or mental suffering that the ability to make moral choices is destroyed or removed. The intention is not to move the will, but to obliterate it. This is evil.
This may occur not only in relation to securing some fungible commodity (information, say), but applies also to the sadistic types who simply enjoy witnessing the horror of a will being obliterated.
When we torture, we separate people from their humanity, and that is not to be done, no matter how many lives are at stake in the ticking time bomb scenario. Will that sometimes put us on the short end of the stick, in a practical, strategic sense? Very possibly (those intelligence professionals I have heard, though - all two of them - maintain that torture is a losing proposition, and that good intelligence is much better gained by other means).
But in the end, the practical considerations don't matter - can't matter - to the moral question, because that is consequentialism... the end justifying the means. We can't allow ourselves to get distracted from the basic moral choice by some perceived awful, unimaginable horror that might occur on account of our obedience to the moral law.
If that is the way we make decisions, then things like abortion and euthanasia become more difficult to argue against. I mean, the poor pregnant girl has a great career ahead of her as a gymnast... without an abortion, she will lose all that, will miss probably her only shot at the Olympics, after all her years of hard work.
The old man can hardly communicate. He can't walk, is practically blind and needs constant care, which is expensive and burdensome. He requires a feeding tube, is often agitated, is in constant discomfort, and his suffering is very hard on his family. How could you put him and his family through all this by denying them recourse to assisted suicide (or at least euthanasia through the withholding of nutrition)?
There are moral absolutes at he heart of these wrenching scenarios;
You Will Not Take Innocent Life. Stop.
You Will Not Cause Harm To One In Your Care. Stop.
The situations that surround these decisions will be more or less grave and awful to contemplate, which is why, without moral absolutes, there can be no morality at all but what we are in the mood to tolerate. When a difficult situation arises, we will move the goalpost to fit in our comfort zone. Get the girl an abortion. Kill Grandpa. Hang the prisoner by his wrists in a freezing cell, or turn the fire hose on him.
Prisoners are to be treated humanely. That is all. That is the moral responsibility we assume when we take prisoners.
When I was a boy, I remember well being taught, by various means, that one of the most important reasons we HAD to fight the Nazis and the Russians and Viet Cong was because they lived by and were working to expand an ugly, alien and inhuman ideology, and that this was evidenced most strkingly by the way they treated their POWs... Nazis tortured. The VC and the Red Chinese tortured. The Russians tortured. We did not torture.
That may have been somewhat naive (torture has always gone on in the battlefield), but it was at least an understanding of our goals, of what made us different from our enemies, and why victory was important. If torture occurred on our watch (we believed), it was carried out by rogue operators, whereas for our enemies, torture was a matter of official policy and strategy. We were not like that. We were Americans, dammit, not savages or atheists.
In other words, I was taught that our battles were not fought mainly over territory or resources, but in defense of our principles, the moral and spiritual foundations that made us a great nation. If we compromise those principles in the defense of our country, we will find in the end that - even if we are victorious - we will not be the country we were. The country we went to war to defend will no longer exist, but will be more and more a reflection of those ugly ideologies we set out to defeat.
Will living by these principles be easy? No. Will it assure our victory?... on the earthly battlefield, no, it won't. In the eyes of heaven, though, the real battle lines will always be in the human heart. Victory there makes the results of any earthly battle irrelevant.
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death." - Revelation 2:11