- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006

In 1943, in the Gestapo headquarters in Paris, “Frenchmen were screaming in agony and pain: all France could hear them. … Only one thing seemed impossible in any circumstances: that one day men should be made to scream by those acting in our name.” So wrote French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in an essay attached to the English translation of Henri Alleg’s book, “The Question.” Satre’s words echo throughout America today.

In 1963, France was fighting a terrorist movement in its Algerian colony. French military commanders ordered to destroy the terrorists decided they had to employ torture to do so. Sound familiar? Mr. Alleg, a French journalist in Algiers was arrested and tortured. Between his torture sessions, in tiny handwritten notes smuggled out of his prison, he so vividly described his torture that the New York Times recommended the book be read but only by people “with strong stomachs.”

Torture and terrorism share a common parent — noble cause corruption, doing evil for a worthy, noble reason. The terrorist kills for good — the oppressed Arab masses, to free the Palestinians, to drive the infidel from sacred land, to stop abortion. We torture for good, in self-defense against vicious coldblooded people who will kill us in a moment. The mindset is the same. Christianity and all the world’s major religions tell us that to do evil to create good is wrong.

Sartre, the Existentialist, atheist philosopher and author, continued: “If nothing can protect a nation against itself, neither its traditions nor its loyalties nor its laws, and if 15 years are enough to transform victims into executioners, then its behavior is no more than a matter of opportunity and occasion. Anybody at anytime, may equally find himself a victim or executioner.”

Little has been said about the effect of torture on the torturers. First, exactly what is torture? It is the intentional, systematic use of cruelty, hatred and barbarity on another human being. According to Sartre, the purpose of torture is “not only to make a person talk but to make him betray others. The victim must turn himself by his screams and by his submission into a lower animal, in the eyes of all and in his own eyes. His betrayal must destroy him and take away his human dignity.”

Most of us find it difficult to watch another human being suffer. We run from the graphic display of suffering and pain. Some, such as emergency response personnel, learn to overcome this initial reaction and can take the next step, the natural impulse to do something to alleviate the pain and suffering we see.

There are a few who delight in seeing another human suffer. We call them sadists. Mental health professionals consider sadism a perversion. The torturers are sadists of a moment. They too overcome the human repulsion to pain and suffering. The urge to alleviate misery is suppressed. The human being before them is stripped of his or her humanity. The victim is a thing to be played with. This “thing” has no spiritual essence, no Christian soul. The torturer does not alleviate, but instead applies more pain and suffering, cruelty and hatred. More flesh is torn, electric torches light up the victim, more fingernails are ripped out.

Or, maybe, if the victim is lucky, only “harsh interrogation” will be used. The quintessential euphemism and oxymoron, “humane torture” is now in vogue. Euphemistic language is the modern way to mask, sugar-coat, morally reprehensible behavior. We do not kill people anymore. We “waste” them or deal with them with “extreme prejudice.” Terrorists are “freedom fighters,” bombing attacks are “surgical strikes.” Innocent victims are simply “collateral damage.” Euphemistic language allows us to morally disengage from our conduct.

Christians should be particularly sensitive to torture. Christ was tortured, beaten, brutalized, spit upon, mocked, scourged and humiliated by the soldiers of the Roman Empire. His suffering under torture today is the lodestar of the unconditional love of all even our enemies that He preached.

Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World teaches that “violations of the integrity of the person such as tortures inflicted on the body or mind” are wrong and absolutely prohibited. Pope John Paul II in his “Veritatis Splendor” was clear that the teaching of Vatican II on torture has no exceptions. According to the teaching of all the major religions, including Christianity, all who participate in evil are responsible. Certainly, anyone who orders someone to torture is culpable as is the official who has a prisoner sent to a nation where torture is likely.

But, some of you say, the terrorist is an animal. He mercilessly kills us and, today, even himself, without remorse. Treat him like an animal, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This, of course, is against Christian teaching and the beliefs of all the world’s major religions.

Lastly, torture does not work. The Algerians were told to hold out for 24 hours and then tell everything. By then, the terrorists had eliminated any value of the information. If an individual is brutalized enough, he or she will talk. He will simply tell his tormentors what they want to hear. Most intelligence experts know and accept this. This is one reason why information obtained from torture is considered untrustworthy.

The strongest utilitarian argument against torture can be encapsulated in the axiom “as you torture so will you be tortured.” The terrorist enemy already filled with blood-lust that knows no bounds will have additional justification to treat Americans — civilian and military — with brutality.


Instructor, course on terrorism, Loyola College. He can be reached at JDijoseph@aol.com.

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