|Godard's Le Petit Soldat (1963)|
I knew that Joan of Arc’s prosecutors had shown her the "instruments of torture," hoping to terrorize her into confessing and recanting her heresy, but I had never seen them myself. The brochure shows them all: rack, chair of nails, leg press, pincers, iron cage, wheel, spiked helmet. All were weapons in the Crusade to stamp out the Cathars in southern France.
We Catholics inherit a tarnished moral track record. Over the centuries our Church has justified slavery, locked Jews in ghettos, promised crusaders a heavenly prize for fighting infidels, denied non-Catholics freedom of religion, forced Baptisms, and even condemned saints to be burnt at the stake.
But one saving grace of Catholicism is its ability to learn from the errors of its ways. Over time the Church finally condemned slavery, repented its anti-Semitism, embraced religious liberty for all, and rejected holy wars. Along the way, Catholicism also renounced all torture as an offense against the dignity of human life.
For me, this history imposes a special moral obligation. The world manifests many evils to oppose, but Catholics bear a special responsibility for evils that our own Church once promoted. Part of our penance for evils we have renounced, it seems to me, is the obligation to champion their elimination.
It turns out this applies especially to waterboarding.
As a movie-nut and child of the 1960s, I am especially sensitive to torture, since few evils have been more powerfully portrayed on screen. First I saw the "Chinese brainwashing" scenes in the Manchurian Candidate, then the Russian roulette in Deer Hunter, the electrocutions in Day of the Jackal and State of Siege. And despite my dislike for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, I admit it bore powerful witness to this fact: the founder of our faith was himself a victim of "legal torture "!
But the images most imbedded in my brain come from Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965) and Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1963). Both treat the Algerian war, and both have terrifying scenes of waterboarding. And while most movies portray torture as a villain’s tool, Godard showed that even "good guys" do evil when they torture:
I thought the honest thing was to show friends, people for whom I would go and fight if necessary -- the Algerians I mean -- to show them torturing. I thought that torture could be more persuasively condemned if one saw one's own friends practicing it.
At the time I may have known that the Vatican had specifically denounced torture in all forms, but I had no idea about waterboarding's history.
I did not know Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) had waterboarded its victims. I did not know a US soldier had been court martialed for waterboarding a captured North Vietnamese soldier in 1968. I did not know the US prosecuted Japanese waterboarders after World War II. I did not know American soldiers had waterboarded Filipinos in the Philippine-American war (1899-1902). Above all, I did not know waterboarding’s Catholic roots in the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1574) and the Flemish Inquisition (1556-1559).
Professor William Schweiker of the University of Chicago argues that waterboarding began, not merely as an effective torture technique, but as a religious symbol:
Water as a form of torture is an inversion of the waters of baptism under the (grotesque) belief that it can deliver the heretic from his or her sins...Because of the broad symbolic meaning of 'water' in the Christian and Jewish traditions (e.g., creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus and drowning of the Egyptians (!), and baptism as a symbolic death that gives life) the practice takes on profound religious meanings. Torture has many forms and meanings, of course, but torture by water as it arose in the Roman Catholic and Protestant Reformations drew some of its power and inspiration from theological convictions about repentance and salvation. It was, we must surely say, a horrific inversion of the best spirit of Christian faith and symbolism.( http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/121394529/HTMLSTART )
In other words, not only does waterboarding have Catholic roots—it began as an attempt to “weaponize" Baptism itself! Thank God Catholicism eventually came to its senses.
I can understand the temptation to torture, since this particular evil is often wrapped in the camouflage of good content.
After all, torture’s victims are nearly always "the enemy," and may themselves be perpetrators of evil deeds. Generally, they are tortured on the belief they possess knowledge we need lest our enemies do us further harm. It may seem that only torture will gain us that knowledge, that only torture can avoid that harm.
Moreover, many people believe that "anything goes" in war. They are convinced that, once war breaks out, it is futile and dangerous to quibble over techniques used to defeat the enemy.
This "anything goes" ethic is not unknown in Catholic history -- it is precisely what made crusades distinct. Crusades were not "just wars" according to Catholic teaching, for just wars have strict rules of conduct. Crusades were “Holy Wars," where one fought not merely for a good cause, but to enact God's will.
The ruins of Bézier, not far from Carcassonne, remind us that when “anything goes,” mass atrocity is not far behind torture.
Crusaders besieged this small town in July 1209. When the Catholics refused to surrender their heretical Cathar neighbors for inquisition and torture, the crusaders began a mass slaughter of 10,000 to 20,000, Catholics and Cathars alike. It is said the religious commander of the crusade, Arnaud-Amaury, declared "Kill them all! God will recognize His own!" The massacre frightened many other towns to surrender without resistance.
We have long since renounced such “anything goes” warfare. There are Catholic pacifists, and Catholics who embrace the "just war" tradition -- but the "anything goes" of Holy War is no longer a moral option for Catholics. Catholic moral teaching has firmly established this main ethics principle: the end never justifies immoral means.
For us, then, it does not matter if defeating the enemy is our noble intention. It does not matter if we seek information that will save lives. It does not even matter if torture is proven effective at acquiring such information. If torture is a crime under US law and international treaties, then good intentions or widespread political support do not make it less criminal. If torture is rationalized because "we are at war," that does not make it less crime—that makes it a war crime.
The clinching case for war crimes was, of course, the Nuremberg trials that convicted many who were "just following orders" in committing atrocities in World War II. From now on, both the international community and the Church agree, "anything goes" no longer goes. A crime is a crime is a crime. In time of war, a crime simply becomes a war crime. And even if we think our cause is God's will, the crime simply becomes a holy war crime.
The idea of US war crimes rooted in Catholicism’s own perversion of the sacrament of Baptism appalls me. As Prof. Schweiker writes:
Baptism is the sacrament and practice of new life. In this practice the dignity of human beings as active agents of love in the world is both announced and enacted. The act of waterboarding, conversely, is a practice of death-dealing where the victim is violently deprived of his or her power to be an active force, a responsible agent, in the world. This practice is meant to induce fear and dread to the point that the victim is rendered passive, subservient, to the torturer's power…In this respect, the practice of waterboarding, despite it roots in Christian history, is, in fact, an affront to the very nature of Christian faith.
We Catholics have disavowed the very torture that some public figures now defend. It should shame Catholics that we gave waterboarding to the world, and that shame should fuel our resolve to end the shame of American torture forever.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2009