Is torture ever acceptable?

The word torture has had its meaning somewhat stretched over the years; “You’re torturing my ear drums / that song / that word” and so on. Hearing it used in that context usually allows us – subconsciously – to perhaps minimise the seriousness of the true meaning of the word; torture in order to get information. Is that kind of torture every morally reasonable? Can it ever be permitted? Communist China, North Korea, and President Trump have something in common on that front; they believe that it can.

The problem even the most virtuous people face when thinking about torture is whether there’s ever a case when a good result produced by torture justifies the evil act of torturing someone.

It’s often illustrated by a version of the ‘ticking bomb problem’, which asks us to put ourselves in the position of a senior law officer facing a situation like this:

  • A terrorist group states that it has concealed a nuclear bomb in London.
  • The authorities have captured the leader of the group.
  • He says that he knows where the bomb is.
  • He refuses to reveal the location.
  • Torture is guaranteed to produce the information needed to ensure the authorities find the bomb and then make it safe. (In fact, torture isn’t guaranteed to produce accurate information, but just accept this premise in order to focus on the points of principle).

Is it ethically acceptable for you to have him (or his family) tortured to find out where the bomb is and thus save thousands of lives. Or is it this a moral absolute and therefore unethical to torture him, no matter how many die as a result? Do moral absolutes even exist?

An answer which focuses on the reality of the ethical situation might say that:

  • It’s unethical to torture the terrorist.
  • It’s also unethical to let your moral principles condemn thousands of others to an avoidable death.
  • So in this case there is no ethically acceptable course of action – whatever you do is morally wrong.
  • It’s understandable (but still wrong) for the interrogators to torture the terrorist to save lives.
  • An ethically wrong act can be sometimes forgiven; in this case because it is a complex human choice to make.

My argument would be that we would have to torture the terrorist if there was no other way, and there was a chance that this could save thousands of lives. My heavy decision would be based on;

  • Torturing the terrorist is unethical and can’t be justified, but it can be understood, and it can be forgiven.
  • In those circumstances it’s the ‘right thing to do’.

It’s incredibly unsatisfactory – I accept that – but I’d be willing to make that hard decision due to the number of lives involved. I couldn’t live with myself if they all died and I hadn’t done something to try and stop it, even if it was this unsavoury. How could I look anyone in the eye ever again if I hadn’t tried?

In 2006, the BBC conducted a worldwide poll to see if people thought the above ‘ticking bomb’ defence could ever be a justification for mistreating suspects. It showed that 59% of the world’s citizens say ‘no’: they were entirely unwilling to compromise on the protection of human rights.

Opposition to torture was highest in Italy, where 81% of those questioned thought torture is never justified. Australia, France, Canada, the UK (72%), and Germany also registered high levels of opposition to any use of torture.

As laid down in treaties such as the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention Against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the ban on torture or any cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment is absolute – even in times of war. Along with genocide, torture is the only crime that every state must punish, no matter who commits it or where. Defenders of this blanket prohibition offer arguments that range from the moral (torture degrades and corrupts the society that allows it) to the practical (people will say anything under torture, so the information they provide is unreliable anyway).

The increase in terrorism over the past 40 years hasn’t driven any rich democracy to reverse its laws and make torture legal. But they have encouraged the bending of definitions and the turning of blind eyes. There is a greater readiness among governments that would never practise torture themselves to use information which less squeamish states have obtained through torture.

Most civilised people squirm at the thought of putting suspected terrorists on the rack or pulling off toenails. But to find the ticking bomb, wouldn’t a little sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, or even water-dunking be justified to save hundreds and perhaps thousands of lives? Whatever the law says, a lot of people seem to think so.

Asked recently about the CIA‘s use of enhanced interrogation in secret prisons, George Tenet, the CIA‘s director until 2004, replied that the agency’s widely condemned rendition programme had saved lives, disrupted plots, and provided “invaluable” information in the war against terrorism. Indeed, while denying the use of full-blown torture, he said that the programme on its own was “worth more than the FBI, the CIA, and the National Security Agency put together have been able to tell us.”

Powerful words indeed, but it still remains a moral absolute for many. Many critics of torture claim that it is ineffective as well as repugnant. Since people will say anything just to stop the pain, the information gleaned may not be reliable. On the other hand, if people do say anything under torture, you might expect some of what they say to be true and therefore – if those being tortured really are terrorists – useful to the authorities. Torture certainly helped induce Guy Fawkes to betray his co-conspirators after they had tried to blow up King James I and Parliament on November 5th 1605. Morality, however, is an ever-shifting view of the world, and a lot can – and has – changed in the past 400 years.

Utilitarians (such as Jeremy Bentham) propose that nothing, in theory, is ever intrinsically wrong. Their argument is that each case is different, and merits individual inspection to observe whether it is morally acceptable or not. They strive for, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, so, if the torture of one person could save 100 lives, then they would have no objections.

The writer Alasdair Palmer has an intriguing view on the matter; “While all torture is certainly horrible, not all of it has to be ordered by thugs or inflicted by sadists. One of the most effective techniques of interrogation is said to rely on sleep deprivation. This is classified as a form of torture, which it is, and is prohibited under European law. It seems extraordinary that we are willing to shoot terrorist suspects in order to save lives, but not to deprive them of sleep.”

He cites several examples of where torture has foiled terrorist plots, including an al-Qa’eda plan in 1995 to crash 11 aeroplanes carrying 4,000 people into the Pacific. One US interrogator, Chris Mackey (a pseudonym), wrote a book arguing that effective interrogation had become impossible as a result of the outright ban on torture under international law: “American soldiers managed to obtain an al-Qa’eda manual on interrogation. That manual stated that ‘the Americans will not harm you physically’ because ‘they are not warriors’. The manual added that anyone captured by the Americans ‘must tempt them into striking you. And if they do strike you, you should complain to the authorities immediately. You could end an interrogator’s career, and prompt a Red Cross investigation, if you could show a bruise or a scar.’ The most depressing thing for the US interrogators in Afghanistan at the time (2002) was the manual’s accuracy. It was correct in its account of how al-Qa’eda members would be treated by the Americans. “The truth was, you could lie to us, refuse to talk, switch your story from one session to the next, and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it. There is no doubt that non-lethal torture techniques such as sleep deprivation, stress positions, and hooding produce reliable information much more quickly and effectively than just asking politely.”

When it comes to torture, it’s too easy to separate people into goodies and baddies – organisations like Amnesty International tend to dismiss as unrealistic any scenario where torture is the way to save hundreds of lives, but that is not responsible. The moral questions those scenarios illustrate need to be discussed. It’s no good to lump everyone in with the people responsible for the torture at Abu Ghraib. Public wrath can easily extinguish all debate about torture while black sites, renditions, and other crimes go on under the radar.

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