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Why torture is wrong

Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay have put torture under the spotlight. Bob Brecher argues that it's never justified.

Even people who think torture is sometimes justified regard it as undesirable, however 'necessary'. So let's look at the extreme case: the so-called ticking bomb scenario. The argument is consequentialist: right and wrong is a matter entirely of the consequences (often put in terms of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or the sum of preferences prioritised by everyone affected).  I shall take the argument on its own terms, if only because a non-consequentialist objection to torture (it's wrong, morality isn't a matter of the consequences) is likely to invite the response that torture in the 'ticking bomb' case actually shows that morality is — must be — a matter of the consequences. 

What is torture? 

It's an action whereby severe physical or mental pain, or both, are deliberately inflicted on someone in order to get them, or someone else, to give information; to punish them; or to intimidate or dehumanise them. So, suppose there's good reason to think someone's planted a bomb somewhere that's about to go off, maiming and killing hundreds, even thousands, of people. No one knows where: except one person, who is already in custody but of course won't tell. Perhaps they have planted it themselves; maybe not. Either way, they remain silent. Should they be tortured to force them to reveal where the bomb is? No. The scenario I have sketched is misleadingly simplistic. And even if it weren't, the consequences of torturing the suspect would be even worse than the carnage the bomb would cause.

The 'ticking bomb' scenario assumes that interrogators know that their captive has the necessary information. So how likely is it that the authorities have 'the right person'? Even the most  enthusiastic proponent of interrogational torture, Alan Dershowitz, offers only the unreferenced anecdotal claim that 'There is little doubt that some acts of terrorism – which could have killed many civilians – were prevented' in Israel . Others do no better. 

Why assume authorities would have the near-omniscience here that they clearly lack elsewhere, especially as determined terrorists are likely to be careful planners? Secondly, the same uncertainty surrounds the putative knowledge that time is running out. Unless we know (from the suspect?) that the bomb is about to go off, we cannot know what we need to know to justify torture. The shorter the time in question, the less time the suspect needs to hold out and the more effective their obvious recourse to lying — especially as they know the torture will stop when they give the 'information' required (otherwise we're being asked to agree to torturing suspects as punishment, not for information). So the sense of necessity the scenario is intended to engender is spurious. We cannot know that torture is necessary, but only that it may be necessary — in which case it also may not be. It is only after the event – in this case after the bomb has gone off — that anything can be known to have been necessary. 

Proponents of the 'ticking bomb' justification of torture can in fact be talking about cases where this person might know about a bomb and/or that it might be too late for subtler interrogation. Finally, the argument relies on the assumption that torture would work in such cases. As before, the evidence offered is inevitably anecdotal: since empirical research is unavailable, two points need making. First, torture is very rarely used to elicit information compared to its standard use: to terrorise, to punish and so on. Second, military manuals worldwide, including the US Field Manual, prohibit torture on grounds of its ineffectiveness in eliciting information. 

The consequences of torture

No wonder Dershowitz cites a case from 1995 in which Philippine authorities tortured a terrorist into disclosing information that may have foiled plots to assassinate the pope and to crash eleven commercial airliners carrying approximately four thousand passengers into the Pacific ocean …For sixty-seven days, intelligence agents beat the suspect … .' 

Sixty-seven days? So what on earth has this to do with any imminent catastrophe?

One more point: the 'ticking bomb' scenario asks the reader, 'What would you do if?' That's deeply irresponsible. Why? 'You' wouldn't have the slightest idea what to do, especially given that the more urgent the case, the greater the level of expertise and precision needed. The torture that its defenders argue is 'necessary' is something that requires professionals, not amateurs. To sum up: the 'ticking bomb' scenario remains radically under determined.

Even if the 'ticking bomb' scenario was realistic, the consequences of permitting interrogational torture would outweigh any immediate benefit. 

First, since interrogational torture requires expertise, it requires professional torturers. The profession of torturer, like other professions, tends to spread. The inculcation of obedience to authority, the creation of 'enemies', the need to achieve 'results' to justify resources, leading to finding ever more such 'enemies' and the expansion of what counts as information would all lead to more torture. Once normalised, once made morally thinkable, torture would spread. Look at Israel . Interrogational torture was quasi-legal there from 1987-1999: a retrospective defence of 'necessity' was available for torturers who were held to have acted justifiably. All the evidence suggests that in those twelve years torture increased considerably (which is why the legal situation was changed in 1999). 

Martyrdom to torture

Why would the consequences of permitting interrogational torture be different anywhere else? Second, how would potential 'terrorists' react to interrogational torture. Would there be more or fewer 'ticking bombs'? It seems at least as plausible to suppose that 'martyrdom to torture' would lead to more, not fewer, volunteers. What is known of volunteers for so-called suicide bombing certainly suggests that many feel themselves compelled to volunteer on account of what they perceive (rightly or wrongly) as the enormity of what the target regime has done. Those responsible for the London bombings of July 2005, for instance, cited the UK government's role in the bombing and occupation of Iraq as their motivation. For the same reason, sympathy for all sorts of terrorist causes would be likely to increase: no country that tortures can lay claim to the moral high ground. 

Nor is that all. Torturers require training. On whom should they practise? On what grounds can 'we' ask that they 'get their hands dirty' in a way 'we' would not, that they attend classes on torture and even live demonstrations? To recognise the profession of torturer would require that we recognise torture training in the same way that we recognise, for example: legal, medical and teacher education and training, what about the doctors, psychologists and lawyers who'd be needed? If interrogational torture is necessary in a particular case, and thus justified, on what grounds could these professionals decline to use their expertise? After all, given consequentialism, they would be morally wrong to refuse to act for the sake of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Imagine being treated by a medical professional who only yesterday was 'assisting' in torture. Nor is this at all exaggerated, as the recent row in the American Psychological Association shows.

Notice also that if it proved anything, the argument would prove too much. Since only consequences count, such participation would not be just permissible: it would be required. Isn't it hypocritical –- or worse -– to expect public officials to torture people if 'you' aren't prepared to do it yourself? Of course, we all expect others to do things we ourselves would shy away from: doctors, nurses, dentists, mortuary attendants and a host of others. But it's one thing to shy away from doing what you expect other people to do for you, or on your behalf, and quite another not to be prepared in principle to undergo the requisite training for what you think is a morally required job. If you think assisted suicide is morally right, then, provided you are able, you have to be willing to assist. Furthermore, if only consequences count, then why not torture other people beside suspects? The suspect's mother, perhaps, or their son. And if some actions – like these – are morally wrong despite their 'beneficial' consequences, then the entire terms of the pro-torture argument collapse. 

A real example

In Germany, in 2002, the police — having collected conclusive evidence from his flat and watched him collect the ransom — knew that it was Magnus Gäfgen who had kidnapped Jakob von Metzler, the 11-year old son of a banker. He refused to say where the boy was. Knowing that he might be slowly dying, the police chief ordered that Gäfgen be threatened with violence. That was enough to elicit what he knew. Unhappily, however, the boy was already dead. The case provoked an impassioned debate about torture in Germany . There was no consensus. 

So: assuming a professional torturer could be found, should Gäfgen have been tortured to force him to reveal the boy's whereabouts? No, because the consequences of doing so would be even worse than the boy's dying. Why? First, because of the consequences of permitting torture that I've outlined. But also because torture is the breaking of a human being. The tortured person's capacity to act is broken. And since it is our capacity to act which makes us persons, rather than just instances of a particular biological species the tortured 'subject' is no longer a person. So I'll finish with Jean Améry, speaking as a person who temporarily survived torture but who eventually committed suicide:

'Only in torture does the transformation of the person into flesh become complete. Frail in the face of violence, yelling out in pain, awaiting no help, capable of no resistance, the tortured person is only a body, and nothing else besides that.' (S.Rosenfeld. 1980)