I’d put this post on the shelf but the recent re-emergence of the topic has caused me to re-visit it. Dan Darling of Winds of Change has posted his thoughts on the subject of torture here.
I suppose this story has brought the subject up again:
WASHINGTON — Most Americans and a majority of people in Britain, France and South Korea said that torturing terrorism suspects is justified at least in rare instances, according to an AP-Ipsos poll.
The survey, taken in the United States and eight closely allied nations, found that Canadians, Mexicans and Germans were divided on whether torture is ever justified.
Most people in Spain and Italy opposed torture under any circumstances.
In the United States, 61% of those surveyed agreed that torture is justified at least on rare occasions. Almost nine in 10 in South Korea and slightly more than half in France and Britain shared that view.
I find the discussion of torture extremely distasteful. But there were enough amplifications I wanted to make to my earlier post, Loving the torturer, in the light of the ensuing comments that I felt I had to re-visit the subject once more, hopefully for the last time. Supporters of torture in the ticking clock scenario brought up points which I wanted to address at post length.
I am not a consequentialist; I believe there are acts which are evil; I believe that it is never allowable to use an evil means even to achieve a good objective. Demonize me; appeal to sympathy for the innocent victims; read my mind. I won’t change my mind: it’s still wrong. Here I am and here I’ll stay.
But I think that even on consequentialist grounds there are reasons to oppose the use of torture including under the ticking bomb scenario and that was the key point of my prior post which was entirely ignored. Let me spell it out a little more clearly. Use of torture to extract information under state control requires trained, practiced torturers and institutions for controlling them. The process of creating such torturers and putting into place the necessary institutions for determining whether torture is allowable or not will cause irreparable psychic and moral harm to the individuals being placed in that position and to our institutions.
Let’s examine the ticking bomb scenario a little more closely. The typical form of the scenario is this. A bomb has been planted in a sports stadium full of people and the authorities have apprehended a terrorist who has knowledge that will enable the authorities to prevent injury to innocents. May the authorities torture the terrorist to obtain the information?
Highly theoretical. Very tidy. The scenario has the following components:
- Knowledge of prospective danger to innocents.
- Knowledge of the guilt of the prisoner.
- Knowledge that information possessed by the prisoner will prevent injury to innocents.
- The ability to extract actionable information from the prisoner using torture.
- Short time frame
It seems quite unlikely to me that in the real world you’ll really know that a bomb has actually been planted, whether the prisoner is actually a terrorist or has the information you desire, whether you’ll be able to extract the information in the time required, and whether you’ll be able to act on the information in the time required. How will you obtain the necessary permissions in the required timeframe? Will you act without permission or oversight? How can you avoid torturing people who don’t have the knowledge you seek?
If you do really believe that there is no means so heinous that it should be proscribed if the end is sufficiently good, isn’t universal peace, prosperity, and brotherhood a sufficiently good goal to justify any means? And isn’t that the position of violent radical Islamists?
That we’re discussing the justifiability of torture supports my opinion from four years ago: we needed to act sharply, harshly, and quickly. A prolonged campaign will harden us to measures that violate our own most deeply-held values. Today we may justify torture in rare circumstances; tomorrow it may well be commonplace—a regular precautionary measure.
For a somewhat technical discussion of the moral and ethical issues in torture see this article, Prohibiting Torture Interrogation of Terrorists: A Theory of Exceptions by Major William D. Casebeer, PhD. In addition to being an excellent article its bibliography is a great resource for researching the issue more seriously.