The Case Against Torture

On Friday I argued that given a set of circumstances, there is no guarantee that torture will elicit the response desired. I also argued that far too many people may be tortured without determining whether they have any actionable intelligence. There are many other arguments against torture, some of which I discuss today.

It is unfortunate that, given the well-known depredations of the Second World War, especially those of the Nazis, the United States still chooses torture as a first line of intelligence. The population in the united States appears to be under the illusion that if we redefine torture, or give it names that hide its sinister underpinnings, it is no longer torture.

This is a common thread in American life, where an administration contorts the definition of a word or phrase, or uses an alternative that sounds more reasonable or civilised. The Bush administration distorted the term torture by referring to enhanced interrogation techniques.

We need to refer to torture by its name, and not put a pretty face on it. Sleep deprivation, hooding, the use of death threats, sexual humiliation, barking dogs, loud music or noises, extreme heat and cold, waterboarding, are all torture, not enhanced interrogation techniques.

Waterboarding, in which a hood is placed over a victims head, the victim’s head is lower than his body, and water is poured over the hood, simulates drowning. For most people, the fear of drowning induces panic, and gasping for air, and is quite terrifying. This technique was used extensively on suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. forces.

Some in the government have advocated torture warrants, in which the court system is used to get permission ostensibly from the state to perform such acts as inserting needles under the fingernails.

Some have argued that given stakes high enough, torture should be legal. The question is, once we begin such a regime, how do we ensure that it will not be abused? Can we then use it in any battlefield situation in which a prisoner may have useful information?

Do we say that if any lives are in danger, we can torture, or should we put a number on it? Once torture is allowed by law, there is no saying that it will not be abused and overused in any situation.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US appears to have tortured for any reason at all, merely to elicit information of any sort, and that clearly is not a moral inclination. There are no limits on the situation in which someone might be tortured, thus the technique is used universally.

I would define torture as any act that subjects an individual, or groups of people to unbearable pain, whether physical, or psychological, or both.

We cannot know whether the information we receive under torture is valid, or just an attempt by the victim to make the punishment stop. If we know enough to know that the suspect does have information, surely we should also know a fair amount about that information, thus raising questions about the use of torture.

Even if the torture does illicit information that we know is of value, does that act make the use of torture moral? We have to consider what torture does to the victim, what impact it may have on his life in the future. Is it moral to destroy a person’s body to make a small tactical gain?

If we know that an attack is imminent on a platoon of soldiers, should we torture an enemy soldier to determine what time it will occur? A single soldier is part of a group led by an officer who may or may not know the details of an attack, the weapons to be used, the time and place. Plans can change in the heat of battle, making the information we may get of little value.

Consider the position of the torture victim, who suffers the degradation, humiliation, the anticipation of pain that may be withheld and imposed at any time. There is no respite, no stopping for dinner or bathroom breaks.

Torture may happen at any time, when the victim has managed to sleep, at which time he is dragged from his bed and subjected to untold misery. Even the act of admitting all he knows may not be enough to stop the pain, which can continue for days, weeks, or even years. It is not a movie in which the end comes after a few hours, no pity, no mercy.

Imagine being held in one position for hours on end, or stripped of clothing and forced to endure being sprayed down with freezing or scalding water, of being set upon by fierce dogs, of being told that you are to be executed in the morning, or dragged from bed to be told the same thing, or that a loved one is being beaten, or has died.

There is no escape from the torturer. The victim may be held incarcerated, away from family or friends for months, or years, without knowing when the pain will end, when he can continue with his life.

Imagine wanting to die, just to make the unbearable life stop, and not being able to do even that, to take ones own life. Even that is controlled by the torturer, whether you eat or drink, or use a toilet, take a shower, have a day without being too cold, or subject to suffocating heat or whether you die.

If we believe, as we so often do, that we are the good guys, the guys with white hats, the world’s moral arbiter, should we not set the standard by which all peoples should live? If we want them to emulate us, should we not act in a righteous manner, befitting the noble philosopher, instead of the brutish thug, the bully?

If we torture the peoples of other lands, is there any reason that they should not do they same to our soldiers if they have the chance, or do we not care? Are we so inured to the suffering of others that we will allow our own men and women to endure the same fate that we mete out on others?

There are other arguments against the use of torture, mostly in defense of the victim of torture. What of the torturer? What does the act of torture do to him? In Nazi Germany in the concentration camps, torture, beatings and killings were carried out with regularity, but despite the brutality of those camps, there were those that just could not do it, that asked to be removed despite the threat to their own lives if they disobeyed.

Do we need people walking our streets that have spent weeks, months, or years watching the pain of others, pain that they caused? It must have some lasting effect on them, that they imposed pain on defenseless people. Like those that carry out death sentences, many last only a few short years, if that, and must retire because of what they have become.

Justifying the use of torture in any circumstance is in itself an act of immorality. There is no circumstance in which torture is morally or ethically justifiable.

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