More on torture

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:

  1. Knowledge of prospective danger to innocents.
  2. Knowledge of the guilt of the prisoner.
  3. Knowledge that information possessed by the prisoner will prevent injury to innocents.
  4. The ability to extract actionable information from the prisoner using torture.
  5. 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.

7 comments… add one
  • Dave,

    While I’m sympathetic to your point of view as it pertains to the “ticking time bomb” scenario, I’d like to propose a different (and I think more realistic) situation and elicit your response.

    Suppose we’ve captured a terrorist — for instance, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — who’s a high-ranking member of a terrorist organization — for instance, Al Qaeda — that is our sworn enemy and is on record as seeking our destruction.

    Given the position of such an individual in a terrorist hierarchy, it would be a virtual certainty that he knows about future planned attacks and who is involved in them.

    Suppose, further, that interrogations not involving torture (however you wish to define it) have failed to elicit information from him that, if it were known, would greatly enhance our ability to prevent future attacks.

    Keeping in mind that the first responsibility of any government is to provide physical security, would you, under these circumstances, approve of the use of torture?

    In responding, assume that torture, if employed, would be effective. I realize that this is a questionable assumption, but it’s your point of view that I’m after, and arguing that torture doesn’t work would sidestep the issue.

    Thanks, and I look forward to your response.

  • Thanks, Marc. First, I should point out that when I say torture, I mean torture. I mean physical pain, bamboo slivers under the fingernails, electrodes affixed to the testicles torture. I don’t mean embarassment, wrapping the subject in the Israeli flag, or, as Saddam would have it, lack of a change of underwear. And I don’t mean interrogation under drugs which I believe is acceptable under some circumstances.

    I’m against physical torture. Period. It is worse than a crime (which it is); it is a mistake. It’s not an effective way to obtain actionable intelligence. You don’t have to take my word for it. Check Chief Wiggles or Froggy. They’re both military interrogators. And neither seem to believe that physical torture is required for interrogation under any circumstances (at least that’s how I read them).

    But my main objection to torture is moral.

  • Bleustein Link

    Your stated concept of torture is quite primitive. This causes me to ponder whether most people view torture in the same terms as you have stated.
    Some commenters consider sleep deprivation and disagreeable music to be torture. Some have said that for an infidel to accidentally touch a Koran is torture. It appears that there is a failure to communicate due to a lack of common vocabulary.

  • Bleustein, for the purposes of this post (and the preceding post on the same subject, cited above), I don’t want to get sidetracked into a discussion of what is or is not torture. Clearly, some forms of coercive interrogation are torture. But, I think equally clearly, some aren’t.

    At his trial Saddam recently characterized appearing in the same clothes three days in a row as torture. I’m not making that up—look it up. That’s obviously claptrap and posturing.

    These two posts are addressed to those (and, based on the poll cited above, there are a lot of them) who take a rather strictly consequentialist view of torture and the essence of my posts is:

    1) I don’t take a consequentialist view of torture.
    2) The consequentialist view needs to be expanded to consider the actual consequences.
    3) The actual consequences of torture are sufficiently grave that torture is to be considered wrong even by consequentialists.

    Clearly, there’s a slippery slope issue in coercive interrogation but that’s a discussion for another time.

  • I’d like to chime in with a plea for a good definition of torture. The difficulty of drawing the line between coercive interrogation and torture is exactly the battlefield of lawfare, the use of the law to conduct warfare against those who believe in the rule of law.

    There is an important principle at stake in the treatment of warriors who adopt a pre-westphalian ethos such as Al Queda. They are retrograde and evil in attempting to bring back a form of warfare that has long been abandoned as too indiscriminate and cruel. They do not respect the notion of civilians and the immunities that civilians have from combat. Read about atrocities carried out prior to the adoption of westphalian limits and you will see the horror that we can descend to. Without those limits we *will* descend to that form of warfare again.

    We are charged, both as a civilized nation and under treaty obligations to enforce the Geneva conventions and the customary laws of war. One of those obligations is to punish any side that habitually violates the conventions and the customary laws of war. We are morally charged with treating them in a manner that will induce their compatriots and superiors to change their policy and to adopt the customary laws of war in order to restore the immunities from combat that civilians traditionally have.

    I would suggest that some of the things that anti-torture activists want to ban (prisoner sleep deprivation, loud music, water boarding) fall into the realm of legitimate penalties for abandoning the laws of war and endangering civilians to the level that Al Queda and, frankly the entire so-called Iraqi resistance has descended to. The Chechen rebels are in the same boat as far as I am concerned.

    If you take away legitimate punishments for these crimes without even trying to offer up better solutions for the problem, you’re essentially discarding the customary laws of war of the past several centuries including the Geneva Conventions.

    The truth is whatever we’ve done in order to induce compliance with the laws of war, it hasn’t been harsh enough. The war crimes continue on a daily basis and endanger civilians all over the world. The other side is not deterred.

    I don’t think that filleting KSM and feeding him his own body parts fried in pork fat is the answer. There is a line past which we should not cross. But the argument about where to draw the line on interrogation has to deal with the wider question of the thousands who have died because one side habitually violates the laws of war and the other side is not harsh enough in punishing them for it.

  • missy Link

    by the way, the interview with lisa ramaci is back up on fayrouz’s blog.

  • Jim Wahler Link

    Well said TM Lutas.

    1. The rules of the Geneva conference are NOT applicable when dealing with terrorists who ignore EVERY rule of civilization.

    2. All of the previously mentioned ‘acceptable’ methods of ‘torture’, EG, Sleep Deprivation, Food Deprivation or only giving food known to be unacceptable to the prisoner, etc should not even be considered torture when applied to known members of any terrorist organization, including females.

    3. These so called ‘humans’ are not really human by any
    ‘normal’ definition of the term and therefore should not be given any of the normal protections allowed to humans.

    4. The ‘Supreme Consequences’ should be apparent to all.

    Having lived in Saudi Arabia for 15 years and studied various translations of the Koran, none of which are considered acceptable to Muslims, I have reached the conclusion that the only hope for the world is to institute another ‘Great Crusade’ to eliminate Islam. As a religion of hatred, rewards for killing any non-believer, and other warped ideas that will never allow ‘Civilization’ to exist side by side with it, I can think of no other solution to the terrorist threat since Islam has always, and will always spawn new terrorists as a natural Tennant.

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