The Torture of Suspected Terrorists

When approaching the extremely controversial debate over whether suspected terrorists should be tortured in prison, one should ask whether torture is effective at obtaining information that could save lives, and whether it is morally permissible according to Catholic teaching. For the purposes of this article, the definition of torture will include “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, psychological stress placed on prisoners, and related tactics.

The most compelling question surrounding the use of torture is whether or not it is moral according to Catholic teaching. Is torture compatible with the respect for the dignity of human life that Catholics believe is fundamental to all other rights? All arguments regarding treatment of prisoners stem from this most basic and vital question.

jail-cells-429638_640The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that “Since something of the glory of God shines on the face of every person, the dignity of every person before God is the basis of the dignity of man before other men.” Each human person demands to be treated with justice and dignity because they are a reflection of God, in who they are, although this is not always reflected in their actions. The Compendium continues by saying that “this is the ultimate foundation of the radical equality and brotherhood among all people, regardless of their race, nation, sex, origin, culture, or class.” Radical equality does not permit America to mistreat prisoners, as was done at Abu Ghraib prison, and it does not allow brutality when treating with prisoners, even if they are suspected terrorists. This is based on their dignity as human beings that God created, and is an extension of the pro-life culture that Catholics are meant to spread throughout society.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his address to the 12th World Congress on the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care, stated that “the prohibition against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstances.’” Circumstances involving suspected terrorists and killers of the innocent, therefore, are not enough to permit torture.

“Rome Reports” TV News Agency quotes Pope Francis: “Torturing people is a mortal sin. It’s a very serious sin.” It is so serious because it offends the dignity of a human being, because Christ told us to love our enemies. He told us to do good to those who hate you. That is a very compelling statement. Who is capable of more hatred than someone who kills innocent, non-combatants, including women and children? Christ told us to love them, and torture is not compatible with love.

It is certain beyond doubt that the Catholic Church teaching is that torture is seriously wrong. However, many still believe that it is necessary to gain intelligence that can be used to save lives. If torture is effective, it does not make it moral, as the end never justifies the means. However, its effectiveness, or lack thereof, is noted as an additional argument against its use, but this argument must be subject always to the morality of its use.

Is using torture, water-boarding, or other non-lethal “enhanced interrogation techniques” effective at eliciting information from prisoners, potentially saving lives and preventing further acts of terrorism?

If terrorists are motivated by hatred of Americans, then being tortured in an American detention facility will support and entrench their idea of America. It will show them that their beliefs about America that we would hope are false are indeed true.

Also, not every person who commits acts of terrorism or supports terrorist efforts is actually a hardened believer in their false ideology. Some are lured into supporting groups like ISIS because of promises of a stable and thriving land after many years of war and destruction. Some may join for the sake of their families, for food, clothing, and medical care. These people, if tortured in American captivity, may be converted entirely to terrorism and become more of a threat to America. Once captured is not always captured, as the example of Osama bin Laden shows. A moderate person can be turned into an extremist if shown brutal treatment by their enemy. However, contact with American soldiers who show mercy to their prisoners instead of torture can turn their idea of Americans on its head, and is a great opportunity for dialogue and conversion. If America follows its Christian roots and foundation, treating prisoners with due justice and respect for their humanity, transformation can take place in a prisoner’s heart.   God can work through the guards who follow His laws to change hearts. If Americans show that they are trying to obey and give glory to God, suspected terrorist prisoners will be given the opportunity to contrast this merciful behavior with the brutality and satanic disrespect for human dignity of terrorist groups.

Using interrogation techniques that disrespect the dignity of the human person may influence terrorist groups to treat captured soldiers and civilians even more brutally. While brutality is a hallmark of their operations, America’s responding with brutality shows the world that America is not behaving honorably, and can only escalate the violence. There are billions of witnesses to the actions of combatants, and America needs to set the world a Christian example. There is also a danger of temptation to use torture as a means of revenge.

Human Rights First is an advocacy group that is opposed to the use of torture to obtain information from suspected terrorists. According to their website, they work with a “coalition of retired military leaders and a group of professional interrogators,” and were very influential in encouraging the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to release their report on the CIA and the enhanced interrogation methods that it used. This report was declassified in December, 2014, and it was found by the committee that torture was not effective at gaining information, and that the types of “enhanced interrogation” used were more dehumanizing than was known to average Americans.

In January, 2017, a group of 176 retired military leaders, including General Keith B. Alexander, the former Director of the National Security Agency, sent a letter to then President-elect Trump. The letter sought to explain why they believe that torture does not work, and that they “believe strongly in the values and ideals that our country holds dear, “and know from their cumulative 6,000 years of “experience that U.S. national security policies are most effective when they uphold those ideals.” The letter is very readable and concise, and can be viewed at

Again, from their experience, these retired leaders, and true American heroes, “know that lawful, rapport-based interrogation techniques are the most effective way to elicit actionable intelligence.´ They go on to say that torture is used as propaganda for recruitment of terrorists by groups such as ISIS, and that it destroys trust between America and her allies, as well as by peoples living in areas at war, who are needed to help defeat ISIS and other terrorist organizations.

Torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” are against God’s law. In addition, they are unnecessary, ineffective, and harmful to America both morally and practically.

Cassandra Hackstock has a Bachelors degree in biology and has spent 11 years as an Environmentalist for Wayne County, Michigan and Program Instructor for Michigan State University Extension. She is currently a freelance writer while living with and recovering from disability.
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