Home Up McCain Amendment SSND Statement Catholics Approve? A Victim Speaks

"Seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect."

A former intelligence official with direct knowledge of the torture of al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah, illustrating how torture traumatizes

 both victim and perpetrator. Abu Zubaydah had provided much valuable information under less severe treatment, and the harsher handling

produced no breakthroughs. Instead, watching his torment caused great distress to his captors. "He pleaded for his life," the official said.

 "But he gave up no new information. He had no more information to give."


The New York Times







“May we do evil to achieve good ?”

Richard A. McCormick, S.J.

Moral Theologian


≠ ≠ ≠ ≠ ≠ ≠ ≠



"If you ever work with the Americans, remember this. They have two human rights policies. One they apply inside the United States.

The other they apply everywhere else in the world."


President Corizon Aquino,



America The National Catholic Weekly

July 19, 2004
Vol. 192 No. 3


Editorial: Never Again

For years the hypothetical case of the “ticking time-bomb” has served as a test for moralists probing the limits of absolute prohibitions: Are authorities permitted, by way of exception, to torture a captive who probably has information about a hidden time-bomb that could kill large numbers of people? As the late moral theologian Richard A. McCormick, S.J., asked, “May we do evil to achieve good?” The horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, disposed many in the United States to answer yes. The experience of mass terror within our borders turned an academic exercise into a real-life problem. The answer seemed obvious.

From ignoring the legal rights of detainees to the strategy of preventive war, people in and out of government were willing, in the interest of national security, to make exceptions to long-held prohibitions, to exempt the United States from international conventions and to exploit legal loopholes as they searched for information about potential terrorist attacks. In the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the appalling results of this moral exceptionalism have become plain for all to see.

Abu Ghraib, however, is only the visible edge of a Boschian landscape of violation of the rights of innocents, prisoners of war and so-called enemy combatants. Since the scandal broke, military and press reports have identified numerous clusters of offenses from Afghanistan to Guantánamo, including other sites in Iraq and a gulag of secret C.I.A. prisons around the world. The torture, abuse and death under interrogation—39 cases of possible homicide are currently under investigation—are too widespread and systematic to be explained as the deeds of a few misguided enlistees and noncommissioned officers. They were part of a strategy of counterterrorism aimed at an elusive enemy in an allegedly new type of conflict.

The notion that the war against terror is radically different from any previous conflict was an ideological precondition to torture and abuse. The belief that new methods were needed to wage this new war and that customary limits on government and military operations might be lifted opened the way to moral confusion and ultimately, as Abu Ghraib has revealed, to depravity. Social psychologists who study wartime atrocities term such ideas “sanctions for evil.” The military personnel alleged to have engaged in torture, sadistic abuse and even homicide did not act in a vacuum, but in a climate that condoned harsh treatment of prisoners and suspects as legitimate behavior. However lax their training or their superiors’ enforcement of rules of conduct, the offenders shared a frame of mind with the makers of policy in Washington.

The administration generated a mind-set that traditional limits could be ignored to gather “intelligence” about terrorism and guerrilla operations. White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez defended the inherent right of the president, as a wartime commander-in-chief, to define enemy combatants and the condition of their detention. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel weighed the possibilities for interrogation methods that inflict near-lethal pain. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld issued a variety of judgments about the inapplicability or limited relevance of the Geneva Conventions. The C.I.A. established secret prisons and “renditions” (transfer of prisoners) to still less scrupulous foreign interrogators. As one decorated former military intelligence officer commented, attitudes toward treatment of the enemy “flow like a river—from top to bottom.”

Abu Ghraib demonstrates how mistaken it is to presume to make an exception out of fear of “a ticking time-bomb.” There is never just one exception. There is a slew of them, and under the pressures of war they cascade through the military, police and intelligence agencies, overwhelming any vestige of restraint. If respect for human dignity were not itself sufficient reason for resisting the temptation to torture and degrade possible enemies, then concern about the moral collapse brought about by exceptionalism provides a powerful reason for honoring standards of human rights protection. Making exceptions profanes the respect for the person on which American liberty rests, and it vitiates the moral integrity of those who serve our nation.

Torture and degrading treatment not only are wrong; they also don’t work. Veteran U.S. and Israeli intelligence agents have testified to the poor quality of intelligence extracted under torture. In a war on terror, moreover, the mistreatment of innocents and insurgent sympathizers swept up in mass arrests is very likely in the long run to lead to further resistance and increased terrorism.

Let us repent our sins and learn from them. Argentinians, after the “Dirty War” of the 1970’s, entitled the report of their truth and reconciliation commission Nunca Mas, “Never Again.” After Abu Ghraib, the United States, its government and military, indeed our whole people, must say “never again” to torture, degrading treatment, indefinite detention and the other excesses rationalized by the war on terror.



America The National Catholic Weekly
January 31, 2005
Vol. 192 No. 3



Editorial: From Terror to Torture

The scandal of torture and abuse symbolized by Abu Ghraib took a turn for the better at the end of last year with news of a Justice Department draft memorandum reaffirming the responsibilities of the United States under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. After a succession of revelations of further atrocities, particularly in Guantánamo, and of court rulings critical of the lack of legal protections afforded terrorist suspects, some in the Bush administration have seen the wisdom of acknowledging its legal obligations toward detainees in the war on terror and toward prisoners of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. military has long recognized that if we throw out the Geneva Conventions, it will be difficult to criticize our enemies when they ignore these conventions in dealing with our own soldiers.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin ought to be commended for leading the United States back to the moral high ground abandoned by Mr. Bush’s former attorney general, John Ashcroft, and the White House legal counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, when they ruled that in the war on terror the United States is not bound by the Geneva Conventions. The administration needs to be watched closely to see whether Mr. Levin’s memorandum becomes lasting government policy. Many analysts believe that the Levin memo, released just before Mr. Gonzales’ confirmation hearing, was a ploy to clear the way for the Senate to approve his appointment as the nation’s next attorney general.

This memo should not be allowed to paper over an unprecedented national disgrace. From holding detainees incommunicado to torturing them for the purpose of gaining intelligence, the administration has taken a series of initiatives that violate fundamental freedoms, basic rights and essential human decencies. As the Abu Ghraib scandal demonstrated, it is a short step from “loosening up” detainees for interrogation to depraved treatment by poorly supervised troops. The core scandal, however, continues to be the authorization of such methods by high-level administration officials, chief among them Mr. Gonzales.

After a number of flawed investigations, new abuses and authorizations for them continue to be disclosed. The C.I.A. still refuses to make any disclosures about treatment of its captives and its chain of secret prisons outside the United States. F.B.I. interrogators have complained to their superiors about illicit measures employed by the military on detainees in Guantánamo; and there is only the vaguest public knowledge of “renditions” of captives to other countries, where they are expected to be interrogated more vigorously than even the administration’s permissive standards would have allowed.

The most obvious way to insure that the illegal and immoral practices perpetrated in the name of U.S. security are ended would have been for the Senate to hold extensive hearings on the topic prior to any vote on Mr. Gonzalez’ confirmation as attorney general. He was a principal architect of the policies that attempted, in the name of freedom from terror, to exempt U.S. military and security personnel from responsibility to uphold fundamental human rights of both Americans and people of other nationalities. Mr. Gonzales also attributed to the president war-time powers so sweeping they are reminiscent of the way the Roman Republic made consuls into dictators in time of national emergency.

The war on terror has opened a wide breach in the ramparts of immunities that protect people from the strong arm of the state. The shock of Sept. 11 was so great that the country turned a blind eye as thousands of immigrants and Arab- and Muslim-Americans were swept up in mass arrests, Afghan fighters were declared detainees without the protections of the Geneva Conventions, and uncounted Iraqis were roused from their sleep to be imprisoned in hellholes like Abu Ghraib. Experts argued that the excessive measures approved by the government would not result in improved intelligence, but the administration plunged ahead. Still, the political elites, including the opposition Democrats, refuse to hold the president’s men accountable. It is left to the courts and nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch to be defenders of human dignity.

It is ironic that as the administration works to extend democracy to the Middle East, it has swept aside the very protections against government abuse of power that are most essential to our system of democratic government. If we do not hold the president’s appointees accountable, how will we preserve our freedoms for future generations? How will we restore our national honor before the world?