Center for Civil and Human Rights sponsors discussion on moral and political implications of torture


To what extent is torture considered to be justifiable, or is it never justifiable?  Such was the topic of debate and discussion at the panel “Tortured Nation: Morality, Security, and Torture,” presented by the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies on January 27.

The panel featured Paolo Carozza, Director of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies; Michael Desch, Chair of the Department of Political Science and Co-Director of Notre Dame International Security Program; Thomas Durkin of the Chicago law firm Durkin & Roberts; Kelly Jordan, US Army, Ret. and Former Commander of Notre Dame ROTC; and Jean Porter, the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theological Ethics.

Daniel Philpott, Director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, began the discussion by summarizing the report that the Senate Intelligence Committee released last year on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) secret interrogations of terrorism suspects in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The report concluded that CIA interrogation methods were cruel (for example: waterboarding, slamming prisoners against walls, solitary confinement for long periods of time) and that these methods were unnecessary because they did not yield any crucial information on terrorist plots.

Philpott then asked the panelists to discuss the subject of torture: While taking into account Catholic Social Teaching, are harsh interrogation techniques, such as the ones listed in the senate report, justifiable if they help promote national security?

Durkin began by emphasizing that every American ought to read the Senate report.  As a lawyer, what most concerned him about torture is the challenge of making a policy regarding its use or finding legal justifications for its utilization.

Carozza emphasized the importance of knowing what we are talking about when we discuss torture and why it is prohibited.  He extended the traditional definition of torture by explaining that the moral consequences of torture go far beyond the question of pain.

“Torture is about destroying the human person,” he said.  “It is a direct, intentional attack on the human elements of the human personality, human identity, on the human capacity of truth, the human capacity of free will, on the human capacity for relations with others, human capacity for affectivity to form bonds with other people, and to be a member of society.”

Porter argued that the Justice Department ought to prosecute those involved in designing and performing torture techniques, victims should be transferred to open courts and tried or released, and torture victims should be paid reparations.  According to Porter, it is an obligation of justice to the victim of torture to follow these three guidelines due to the frequently irreversible physical and mental effects experienced by victims of torture.

Desch, however, took a different approach to answering the question: “Would we never use enhanced interrogation on somebody that we suspected had knowledge of a ticking time bomb?  I’m not sure in all honesty—I would rarely do it—if we were honest to ourselves … someone very close to us, whose life was at stake, we may have a hard time never having an exception.”

He argued that there might be exceptions that would make the use of torture justifiable.

Jordan approached the question from the perspective of soldiers who take orders and have to support policies like torture.

“Requiring someone to conduct or support morally questionable acts destroys the very capacity of social trust within the individual,” Jordan said.  “If it violates this trust at such a level, I believe that perhaps there is no more grievous injury to the soul of the nation …”

As the discussion progressed, each panelist had a different perspective or insight to share. Porter stated that torture is not only a legal issue but also a moral one.  She commented that torture is never morally justifiable regardless of the consequences; under pressure we may fail to live up to a moral standard, but this does not make torture moral.

The panelists remained divided on whether killing and torturing a human are both intrinsic evils.  Carozza and Porter argued that torture is an intrinsically evil act, while killing is not.  Desch disagreed, stating that death is the ultimate indignity one can inflict on another person, and that it is inconsistent to claim torture is intrinsically evil while killing is not.

Desch boldly stated, “If you give me a choice, ‘I’m going to kill you or I’m going to torture you,’ I’m going to take the torture 365 days a year.”

Closing the discussion by returning to the perspective of a soldier taking orders, Jordan said, “I taught every officer that you do not have to obey all orders.  Only obey orders that are legal, moral, and ethical.  You have to give orders just the same.”


Crystal Avila is a sophomore studying communications and film.  She is currently trying to master the mandolin.  If you have any tips, contact her at