This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  May 5, 2006

Does tenderness lead to torture?

Two Catholic authors make us ponder whether the result of compassion is terror


In the past few years, we have all read horrifying reports of prisoner abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison. More recently we have learned of a string of secret prisons run by Americans. In some ways, the silence surrounding what is going on in these prisons is as frightening as the images out of Abu Ghraib.

Americans’ responses to these revelations have been puzzling. Certainly we initially heard voices raised in protest of the abuses, but the Bush administration seems to have successfully shifted our attention away from the abuses with the assurance that wrongs were committed by merely “a few bad apples.” And the response to the secret prison revelation seems to have centered as much on finding the leaker of information as on determining what has been happening in these prisons. So I remain puzzled: Where is the outrage? Where are the patriotic Americans demanding, along with Sen. John McCain, an end to any torture by any Americans anywhere since such activities go against American values?

Because my primary field of study is contemporary Catholic literature, my mind has turned in response to these current events to an enigmatic statement used by both Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, both prominent Catholic authors of the 20th century. Almost against her will, O’Connor was drawn into working with Dominican sisters as they wrote about an amazing cancer-stricken girl for whom they had cared. In her introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann, O’Connor writes of the loss of faith in the populace: “In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

In Walker Percy’s final novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, the crazy yet truth-saying priest preaches a sermon, proclaiming in part: “Beware, tender hearts! Don’t you know where tenderness leads? To the gas chambers. Never in the history of the world have there been so many civilized tenderhearted souls as have lived in this century. Never in the history of the world have so many people been killed. More people have been killed in this century by tenderhearted souls than by cruel barbarians in all other centuries put together. My brothers, let me tell you where tenderness leads. To the gas chambers! On with the jets!”

Percy’s contention that he did not realize O’Connor was the source for his addled priest’s oration may strain our credulity. Nevertheless, that these two major 20th-century Catholic writers each make this connection between tenderness and the gas chambers seems to insist that we ponder seriously this claim. Given the contexts of these statements, O’Connor and Percy seem at least in part to be attacking a culture in which individuals or governments can determine whether an unwanted or diseased life is worthwhile, whether a fetus should be aborted, whether an ill person should go on living.

Yet by drawing a linkage to the past century’s most commonly known atrocity, the Holocaust, O’Connor and Percy seem also to broaden their critique of tenderness. In particular, O’Connor’s comment provides clarity when she enunciates the core of our ills as deriving from tenderness detached from its source -- Christ. When tenderness or care or compassion becomes separated from the love of Christ, it is in danger of becoming narrow, sectarian, inward-focused.

For without Christ’s command constantly in our ears to love our enemies, to recognize the dignity and worth of all people, our tenderness can too quickly become focused only on ourselves and our families. O’Connor and Percy suggest that even a good such as tenderness can be perverted when it is removed from its basis in God’s love for all. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that the Bush administration’s reluctance to accept an outright ban on torture is really an instance of misplaced tenderness? Might it be that we Americans have lost our way amid our concern and fear for the safety of our loved ones and have thus forgotten that the prisoner on whom we might justify torture is also another human being? Has our tenderness for those close to us caused us to lose sight of the common humanity of one far away?

And, to push these questions further still, might the motivation of kidnappers in Iraq, kidnappers who held Christian Peacemaker Team members for nearly four months, be also a warped sense of tenderness? Might not their own concern for the safety and well-being of their families have led them to decide that they should devalue the humanity of another by kidnapping these peace activists? Might they have decided to murder Tom Fox from a skewed sense of tenderness for their own loved ones?

In contrast to this limited view of tenderness, Pope John XXIII writes in Pacem in Terris, “The person who errs is always and above all a human being, and he retains in every case his dignity as a human being; and he must be always regarded and treated in accordance with that lofty dignity.” Such an assertion grows from a tenderness, a compassion that remains attached to its source in Christ, a source who teaches the humanity of all. When we ground our tenderness, our concern for our family and friends, in the rich and expansive love of Christ, O’Connor and Percy tell us that we will steer away from the gas -- and the torture -- chambers.

L. Lamar Nisly is an associate professor of English at Bluffton University, Bluffton, Ohio.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: