National and international law prohibits torture. These laws are based on a consensus that torture is immoral. However, as Amnesty International reports, at least 81 world governments currently practice torture. US president-elect Donald Trump has publicly favoured waterboarding.
Why do governments engage in torture, and why do their supporters accept this?
Two books in particular have developed comprehensive analysis of the emergence of torture, and seek to answer this question: they are William T Cavanaugh Torture and Eucharist (1998), and Paul W Kahn Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, & Sovereignty (2008/11). The first deals with torture in Chile under the Pinochet regime; the second addresses the adoption of torture by the United States in the effort to respond to terrorism after 9/11.
Debates about torture which are limited to ethics become bogged down in conflicts between protagonists of different theories. We need to set the ethical issues in a wider context. These authors offer such a context. In what follows, while I draw on these authors, the argument is my own responsibility.
Conditions for the rise of torture
What are the social, political, and religious conditions for torture? The first condition is the existence of a political community, or an equivalent which seeks to become a political community. This community will have a more or less developed system of laws aimed, among other things, at controlling or channelling violence. We can recall Max Weber’s statement that the state is the “only human community which lays claim to the monopoly on the legitimated use of physical force”. The state has or develops an ideological system which legitimates the state and its laws.
In the case of Chile, this was a conception of the state as defender of the fatherland and of Christianity; for the Unites States, the equivalent was the ‘civil religion’. In secularised Australia, governments have deliberately fostered a substitute religion in the form of the Anzac myth.
The crucial historical factor is the emergence of a powerful threat to the very existence of the community and the state. For Chile, this was the threat of Marxism perceived as seeking to destroy the fatherland and the true religion. For the USA it was terrorism, claiming to be an expression of the rival religion of Islam.
The effects of intense fear
The state may have laws excluding extreme forms of violence, including torture. But when the community, or those who claim to speak for the community, experience the intense fear engendered by a threat to the existence of the community, change begins. The members of the community and some spokespersons begin to allow a ‘space’ beyond previous ethical limits and beyond established law.
Into this space flow the passions which can drive claims for the use of extreme measures against those who are perceived to be the agents or supporters of the threat. The measures called for can include torture and murder. ‘Religious’ ideology is now invoked to support this move beyond ‘normal’ ethics and beyond previous limits of law.
Cavanaugh, in particular, found that what was driving the policy of torture and murder was not, in fact, the desire to obtain information; often, torturers had the information they needed before they began their ‘work’. The really effective drive is the determination to force ‘deviants’ to submit to the power claimed by the state and its agents.
This is what impels the practitioners of torture to degrade the humanity of their victims, rendering them non-persons. The degradation on the person must, in the twisted logic of the torturer, include the degradation of the body.
The practice of torture by the US military in Iraq and elsewhere illustrates this. The deliberate degrading of the victims clearly went beyond what may have been ‘needed’ to obtain information. To remove the existential threat posed by ‘others’, it is seen to be necessary to render them non-persons, and to demonstrate visibly this by degrading their bodies.
The Catholic Church & torture
The history of the Catholic Church is poor in respect to torture. However, an interpretation of this history may help us to understand how the Church had things so wrong.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges: ‘In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals on the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture’ (No 2298).
The catechism includes a compelling critique of the practice: ‘In recent times, it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading’.
However, the question we are left with is, how is it conceivable that members of the Catholic Church, including popes, bishops, clergy, members of religious orders, and laity, abandoned the earlier prohibition, and positively commended torture?
The heretic as virus: a threat to the polity
When the Church became organically connected to the state, the conditions described earlier can arise. The heretic presents an existential threat to the community, constituted by overlapping religious and ‘secular’ systems. The heretic is perceived as a ‘virus’ threatening the collective ‘body’.
The moral panic induced by this threat creates a ‘space’, a tear in the moral fabric in which earlier prohibitions were embedded. The ethical and legal prohibitions of torture which had previously held are now swept aside. In this space, arguments in favour of repression start to flourish.
The mechanisms of repression must change not only the false thinking of the heretic, but also his or her will. Since practitioners believe in the close relationship between mind and body, the instruments of change must inflict pain on the body and degrade the body.
‘Religious’ efforts to exclude the destructive virus from the collective body take up the physical means made available by the secular body to which it is joined. These means include torture.
The religion which engages in torture becomes distorted in the process. But the new false religion serves well to legitimate torture. Torture is endowed with a new ‘sacred’ status; practitioners and supporters of torture use such a rationale to justify their behaviour.