Sunday, April 26, 2009

Abusus non tollit usus -- the abuse does not abolish the use

Time to repost this from November, 2005.
Arguments about torture are not going away.
It is a sad commentary that so many otherwise decent people cannot say without reservation that torture is wrong and we don't do it. Period. What's not to understand?

Once the boundaries of civil conduct have been crossed and made acceptable, we are on a true slippery slope to moral depravity. I find it curious that so many people eaten up with righteous indignation about other principles (waging war, capital punishment, abortion) seem not to be struggling with this one.
As a conscientious objector I had to decide at some point that there were principles for which I might die, but killing for a principle and dying for a principle are two very different matters. The torture discussion is but one step removed, but it is no less a matter of principle.
Whenever it comes up the first argument I hear is the ticking-bomb scenario (or some variant or "abusus").
When and if a grave moment arrives that the individual doing the torture is not willing to face the consequences of breaking laws against torture as a matter of civil disobedience, then there is your answer.


Fr. John Neuhaus on torture...

Krauthammer is writing against Senator John McCain’s proposal for banning all forms of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of prisoners, a proposal which has overwhelming support in Congress but is opposed by the Bush administration. McCain has said that in extreme circumstances — such as the familiar “ticking time bomb” scenario — authorities will do what they have to do to extract information. Krauthammer says that means McCain’s proposed rule is “merely for show,” and comes close to saying that its supporters are guilty of hypocrisy.

I am not at all sure. Establishing a principle is not “merely for show.” Recognizing, clearly but sotto voce, that there will sometimes be exceptions to the principle is not hypocrisy. Those who, under the most extreme circumstances, violate the rule must be held strictly accountable to higher authority. Here the venerable maxim applies, abusus non tollit usus–the abuse does not abolish the use.

We are not talking here about the reckless indulgence of cruelty and sadism exhibited in, for instance, the much-publicized Abu Ghraib scandal. We are speaking, rather, of extraordinary circumstances in which senior officials, acting under perceived necessity, decide there is no moral alternative to making an exception to the rules, and accept responsibility for their decision. Please note that, in saying this, one does not condone the decision. It is simply a recognition that in the real world such decisions will be made.

Whether, in fact, the circumstances justified the action must be subject to the rigid scrutiny of higher authority. There will likely be cover-ups, rationalizations, and other forms of duplicity. Where possible, they must be exposed, in the full awareness that in this connection, as in all connections, we are dealing with fallen humanity. As with all rules, the aim is to make sure that the exception to the rule does not become the rule.

McCain is right: The United States should be on record as banning “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of prisoners. The meaning of each of those terms will inevitably be disputed, as will the case-by-case application of the principle. But again, abusus non tollit usus.

In order for the exception NOT to become the rule, first there must BE the rule. That is what McCain's proposal is about. Anyone trying to frame the exception instead of the rule is making a case for obscenity, whether or not that is the aim.

Best quotable line from today's reading is from hilzoy...
If I were Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, the idea that there might be a just God would make my bones freeze with terror.

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