In Leviticus, God gives Israel a number of blessings and curses that describe the benefits and consequences of keeping (or failing to keep) the Sinai covenant. One of the “covenant curses” is curiously descriptive of the jittery culture of fear in which we now live:
But if [they] will not hearken unto me, and will not do all these commandments . . . I will send a faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies; and the sound of a shaken leaf shall chase them; and they shall flee, as fleeing from a sword; and they shall fall when none pursueth [26:14;36].
A culture of death is a culture of fear, because a culture that loses the holy and freedom-giving fear of God inevitably becomes a culture dominated by the servile fear of man. It becomes afraid of its own shadow—and with good reason, for the shadow of fallen man is very dark indeed at times. Precisely because it is dominated by fear, it is not ruled by truth, or light, or even sanity. In an effort to convince itself that it is not afraid, it turns to bread and circuses to keep up its spirits (Britney Spears Watch!). And as it grows in fear (because bread and circuses do not satisfy the soul), it begins to exaggerate its fear fantasies into “realism,” to conflate violence with justice, and strength with cruelty and cunning. And so it behaves much as Saint Paul describes, “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Ephesians 4:14).
Fear is the source of all the “What if?” games being played by allegedly serious politicians, pundits, and media types who imagine the main question of the day is “In which remote hypothetical situation would it be OK to torture somebody?”
That is not “moral reasoning,” but fishing for excuses, like the guy with the hot secretary and the rocky marriage who is constantly asking “hypothetical” questions about “How far is too far?” and “What is a valid marriage anyway?” and “What if a nuclear holocaust left me permanently separated from my wife? Wouldn’t I be bound to repopulate the earth with my secretary?”
This analogy is not, of course, to suggest that our present national choice to succumb to the temptation to torture is the same sort of temptation as the temptation to sleep with the hot secretary. Rather, it is to say that temptation is temptation. When you are tempted sexually, you tend to base your thinking on your desires, and when you are afraid, you tend to base your thinking on your fears. That is what concupiscence means. It is the darkened intellect, disordered appetites, and weakened will that result from the Fall. As a result, we often do not think clearly, act sensibly, or do the hard thing God demands. And that is why Revelation and grace are necessary.
Paul commands us, as members of Christ, “be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). If we are to do that today, we need to start the conversation on how to treat prisoners based not on our worst fears, but on the Just War tradition that has formed Christian thinking for over a millennium. That teaching says both that we have the right to defend ourselves and that prisoners must be treat humanely. To begin our deliberation on our approach to interrogation apart from the fundamental facts of the Christian tradition concerning the dignity of the human person, the purpose (and limits) of government, and the relationship between the two is to ignore Revelation and allow fear to dictate our thinking. Allowing those fears to tell us we are being “realistic” as we fantasize about ticking time bombs but unrealistic as we contemplate the Tradition is “feeding the flesh,” to use Pauline language. After all, “the flesh” includes not simply sexual lusts, but servile fear as well.
That is why the entire “torture debate” has produced such evil fruit: It is asking the moral-nonsense question “How close can you get to committing a grave and intrinsically immoral act without crossing the line?” (“How far can I go with the hot secretary before it’s adultery?”) The question itself is evidence of a gravely corrupted mind and a sure bet that the results of such moral calculus will be rubbish. The real—and almost always unasked—question is “How do we treat prisoners humanely as the Church commands and still get the intelligence we need?” How do we make sure to obey this very clear teaching of the Christian tradition that asserts the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict and reminds us that the mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that anything and everything has become licit between the warring parties?
If we aim to treat prisoners humanely, we will never accidentally torture them. It is only when we aim to torture them while trying to pretend that we are not that we have to involve ourselves in all the endless tergiversation and bafflegab that has characterized the supposedly “realistic” chatter of the Rubber Hose Right for the past six years. And most interesting of all, if we aim to treat prisoners humanely, it turns out we are being not Pollyannaish, but entirely practical about intelligence, according to Army Capt. Kyle Teamey, a current military intelligence officer.
When I was in the officer’s basic course, one of the instructors, only half-jokingly, proclaimed, “Beatings and drugs are for fun, not for information.” His point was you can get anyone to say anything you want through torture. Good information came from psychology, interpersonal skills, and long hours with your prisoner. The best interrogators I’ve worked with tended to be very good at reading people and very good at using their understanding of the person and their culture to get them to talk—no waterboarding required . . .
We should be developing an ideological alternative (or alternatives) to jihad and are instead alienating our allies, enraging the populations from which the terrorists arise, and most importantly, alienating our COG [center of gravity] in the form of the U.S. electorate. A liberal democracy, such as the US, operating in an environment with pervasive media cannot afford to dally in tactics that may provide some short term gains at the expense of long term success.
It is not just the US that has made this error in judgment. The Brits and French did the same in their COIN [counterinsurgency] campaigns in [the] 20th century and suffered for it. We should learn from their mistakes—and ours.
This gets us to the heart of the conflict between Christian Revelation in this matter and the lies (and therefore delusions) of Realpolitik.
For what is at the core of all “realistic” consequentialist appeals to do grave evil for the greater good is, ultimately, a refusal to trust that God knows what He is talking about. It is the conviction that the Christian Revelation is not an insight into the very nature of reality but an idealistic daydream that hard thinkers and tough-minded men must sweep away in favor of “practical” solutions. In this analysis, the functional belief of the Machiavellian is “You shall embrace evil, and evil shall make you safe.”
The response of Christian Revelation is that this is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie from the pit of Hell, as well as a snare and delusion. Christian Revelation claims that Christ intends our happiness and knows better than we do what is actually the best way to realize it. This involves a conception of Christ’s commands as something other than impossible ideals or as cruel, irrational restrictions we have to obey for no reason other than fear. In short, it involves the idea that the One Who created us did so because He wills our happiness, and that obedience to Him is actually ordered toward life and freedom, not toward our destruction.
Christianity teaches us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Part of this counsel is indeed to trust God and keep your powder dry. But another, and much despised, part involves the seemingly Pollyannaish command of our Lord: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself.” That is not because Jesus is a cockeyed optimist and a fool but because He knows that cultivation of fear is not the same thing as prudence.
Prudence is the clear-eyed ability to see what is so. The cultivation of fear, in contrast, places us not in the “real world” but in a fantasy world of Bruce Willis movies and endless 24 scenarios. In the real world is God and our duty to our family, community, and work. This is not speculation on my part; this is the teaching of the Gospel. For the world, readiness comes from being afraid, tense, jumping at the rustle of leaves, worried about what horrible thing might happen and laboring to fantasize about what crimes you might commit to stop it. For Saint Paul, readiness comes from peace. That is why he tells the Ephesians to let their feet be shod with “the preparation of the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15). Saint Paul does not command us to rehearse the horrible ways in which we and those we love might suffer (and this was a man who experienced more actual suffering than we ever will). Instead—from jail—he wrote,
Be [anxious] for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you [Philippians 4:6-9].
That—despite the lie that “9/11 Changed Everything!”—has not changed.
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