In his NCR blog post, John Allen has an essay that asks a theoretical question:

Would you justify torture if it would save the Pope? 

It isn’t a theoretical question, because back in the 1990’s, an apartment fire and some smart firemen who noticed something wrong led police to a terrorist cell that planned to kill the pope.

It was part of Operation Bojinka…a complicated conspiracy that included terrorists who had already bombed Philippine buildings, a Philippine airline, and were planning to kill the pope and then  to simultaneously bomb other airplanes all at once. Alternative plans included flying airplanes into buildings.

As Allen relates:

This was five days before John Paul II was due to arrive in the Philippines for World Youth Day, so the police suspected a plot against the pope. Murad refused to cooperate, and, according to news reports, was subjected to various forms of torture: most of his ribs were broken, cigarettes were extinguished on his genitals, he was forced to sit naked on ice cubes, and water was forced down his throat to simulate drowning.

Eventually, Murad revealed details of plans to kill John Paul drawn up by Ramzi Yousef, a Kuwaiti terrorist linked to Al-Qaeda who was among the architects of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Murad also provided information about a scheme to blow up 11 commercial airliners, and to fly another plane into the headquarters of the CIA.

Allen then goes on to question: Would the pope approve of torture if he was aware of a similar situation?

The answer is: Of course not…

But Allen has the courage to point out another point: The bomb planned to kill the Pope would have killed scores, if not hundreds, of visitors and Filipinos…

Would a pope feel obliged to try to persuade the police not to use torture, given Catholic teaching on the subject? Would the pope even have the right to express such a position – especially if, as in the Murad case, he was not the only intended victim?

The Filipino police had the responsibility to protect their fellow citizens, and were less sophisticated in theology. They are pragmatic, and were aware of other bombings, and knew the Pope was due in five days. So they applied torture, but the final straw was actually not the torture but a threat: that they were going to take him to Israel for interrogation.

As a result of the information, the Pope’s motorcade was changed and it was arranged to have him travel via helicopter to the platform to say Mass…the cover story being that the roads had too many people to make a motorcade safe (A million people attended the mass).

So in this case, was torture justified?

Allen carefully notes that many experts think that the suspect would have broken under routine interrogation without physical pain being applied. And perhaps they are right.

But there are just too many nice people living in nice houses in affluent neighborhoods or countries that look down on those primitive enough to think that a restrained force is needed to keep evil in place. They think placing a sign saying: No Guns, or “this is a nuclear free zone” or “rule of law” will keep them safe. Nope, we don’t need cops and soldiers and other heroes…we’ll just talk like reasonable people and settle things that way.

Oh, I used to agree…until a bunch of World Council of Churches supported freedom fighters walk into my friends’ hospital and robbed her and shot her and all the patients who didn’t run fast enough.

If I am the one who is to die, then no torture, no guns. But if torture would allow the police to save the lives of the innocent, then I am on the side of the interrogaters, although I am very worried about the “slippery slope” implications of this.

But what would the Pope say? Priests, like doctors, are not naive. They are aware of the terrible evils that men are capable of doing. But I’m sure the Pope would say No.

He would say: No, torture is wrong, even if it saved my life. And even if other will die because we will not do this evil deed, then this is in God’s hands.

There is a subtle difference in his logic.

The naive say: no torture, because we can get confessions without it. Alas, often this is not so.

The pragmatic will say: No, we need to save innocent lives. Alas, often the innocent are tortured, and the police end up corrupted.

But the Christian says: we are only responsible for our own deeds, not the deeds of others. We may not do a bad deed even if we are fairly sure that good will come of it. So we cannot abort a child whose mother is in distress, nor can we steal because we are hungry, nor can we harm a prisoners who is helpless.

We will act ethically, knowing that even if short term harm comes from someone else’s deeds, because the first rule is to obey God. God is the one in charge, not us.

So if the Filipino police had acted as better Christians, and not used torture, perhaps the suspect would have confessed.

But what if he hadn’t, and the Pope was wounded and killed, along with dozens of pilgrims?
Yet even here, a Christian would trust that God would make good come out of this evil in the long run.
Perhaps the world would have destroyed a budding Al qaeda years before the larger number deaths of September 11, and all the terror attacks in London, Madrid, Mumbai would not have occured.

But there is another problem with using torture: people lie. They will confess to anything, and victims are known to make up wild stories to stop the pain. The US security system, knowing the Filipino police used torture, did not take the evidence seriously. The plot  uncovered was so grandiose that the US security establishment assumed that the suspect had made it up under torture…

So although the information which was shared with the American government, it was ignored…until the second plane hit the World Trade Towers…

The ultimate irony…

Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her webpage is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket, and she writes essays on religious/ethical matters at Boinkie’s blog
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