The Big Debate: Torture by the state can never be justified
The definition of torture is ‘the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or in order to force them to do or say something’. That being said how can anyone have the right to carry out such an act, on another human, for whatever reason? The scars of torture are left imprinted on the victims not just physically but also mentally as well. Torture was abolished in England in 1772 and the UN’s article 15 states that ‘no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’. These national and international laws and legislations against torture were obviously introduced after lengthy research into the dire effects of it. Hence, it is quite outrageous, after recent events especially regarding the ‘war on terror’ people still deem torture necessary.
Those that defend torture say it is important for extracting information from an individual or a group that may eventually lead to crucial findings related to national security. However, it is necessary to note that one cannot be sure the information extracted through such intense means will be correct or even accurate. This is because it is scientifically proven that a person under intense pain will eventually say, what the pain inflictor would want him to. Hence, one would even admit to something that they have not done. Such was the case of Mohamedou Ould Slahi who was detained in Guantanamo bay for 14 years and then released, as there was no evidence against him. But, he still found himself admitting to things he had no idea about, just to convince the people torturing him to leave him alone. In his memoir Mr. Slahi describes being starved, shackled, stripped naked, tied, sleep deprived, and forced to drink sea water amongst other horrendous forms of cruelty. All this just because his conscience made him come forward with some information about the Al-Qaeda terrorist group in regard to the 9/11 attacks, which he thought might be useful to help capture the perpetrators. This innocent act lead to his horrible misfortune.
We are living in the 21st century and this means there are so many other ways that can be used to track the acts of a potential threats rather than extract information out of people in a way that leaves the victim scarred for life and humiliated, especially if they are innocent. Our technology is so advanced and it is undeniable that officials do use it to track the information about the actions of different people. Hence, why not use this technology to obtain useful information rather than using the animalistic ways of torture?
The most prominent and common argument in support of torture is the ‘ticking bomb metaphor which essentially involves a terrorist in custody, that happens to be withholding information regarding a weapon that could endanger the lives of many. However, one needs to realise that this scenario is rather unrealistic, and in fact, till today has never occurred despite various military officials around the world claiming it to have, but always failing to provide concrete evidence. The ‘ticking bomb’ metaphor was first actually seen in a novel published in 1960 and ever since people have used this false scenario to defend the belief that torture is necessary. I think it is safe to say that that the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario is one that is fictitious and cannot be used to justify the inhumane acts involved in torture.
It is also essential to note that those who carry out the torturous acts are not dehumanising the victim but also themselves; as eventually they end up lacking the emotions to feel sympathy towards their victim, and this can later be generalised to other people around them. This makes one wonder whether the torturer is any better than their victim, if the victim is even at all guilty. As it is quite often said ‘two wrongs do not make a right’ meaning that the one inflicting the pain is in no way better, than the person they believe to be guilty. Anyone before defending the acts of torture should try and put themselves in the shoes of the likes of Mohamedou Ould Slahi and others who have been through the terrors of it.
To defend the acts of torture or to say that is should be used in certain circumstance would be saying that you agree to sentencing someone to a lifetime of punishment, due to the lifelong effects of it. It would mean that you are supporting the pain that comes along with it just based on possibilities. Because to say it would be okay to torture someone would mean that you think that person held captive is responsible, you think that this person does have information that can be essential and most importantly you think that this person guilty. And even if they are guilty and the torture is to get revenge, what gives the right to one human being to inflict such cruel and intense pain on another. Because at the end of the day it begs the question are you any better than the person who is apparently in the wrong or guilt? Are your morals any better than theirs?
There is a thermo-nuclear device somewhere in London. It has the capacity to raze the city its foundations and murder every one of its inhabitants. It is ticking. The person who planted it is in custody, and longs for death. This is the scenario you will be familiar with, as it is often used in the argument for torture. In this hypothetical situation, the imagined agent has no option but to use force to save the lives of millions. Torture is obviously justifiable in this hypothetical situation which is why it is so often used.
Hypothetical cases, however, make bad ethics. Jess Wolfendale, professor of philosophy at West Virginia University, criticises the use of the ‘ticking bomb’ argument, as it creates what she calls the “myth of the noble torturer”. If a scenario such as the ‘ticking bomb’ can be concocted to justify the use of torture, surely it would be just as easy to create a hypothetical scenario in which rape and genocide were equally justifiable as last resorts. Surely there must be room here for a little moral absolutism; namely that torture (the explicit removal of dignity and introduction of suffering) can never be justified, even theoretically. For what dark door do we open when we intentionally leave cracks in our morality?
In 1772, torture was outlawed in this country. It was a very sensible decision, as it brought Britain forward from the dark ages and limited the rampant cruelty imposed by the state on its citizens. However, in 1772 the most destructive thing (and thing most like the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario) that had ever happened was the gunpowder plot. If you had mentioned to people that one day a split atom could leave an entire city in ruins, they would have locked you in an asylum. This is unfortunately a reality today, and we must face the fact that a dirty bomb could be in the possession of a UK-based terror cell as I write this. We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto.
If a murderer can be noble if he is wearing army fatigues on his way to Berlin, can a torturer not be noble also, if their work saves thousands of lives? I do not believe that the British and American security services are full of people who obtain pleasure from causing suffering. This brings us to what type of torture I am defending. There are 6 basic types, according to Shunzo Majima, a researcher at the Universities of Hokkaido and Hiroshima, of torture. They include judicial torture (used to obtain a confession), interrogational torture (used to obtain information), penal torture (used to punish), deterrent torture (used to intimidate), disabling torture (used to cripple and destroy), and recreational torture (used to obtain pleasure for the torturer or for witnesses). All 6 of those types are morally reprehensible. Only 5, however, should be unconditionally banned. Interrogation torture can be used so long as it adheres to a few basic rules.
Firstly, there must be a just cause. In the case of torture, the just cause is always the protection of the innocent. This, by definition, prohibits the torture of innocent civilians, no matter their relationship to the criminal. This cannot be the case because it is morally impossible to protect innocents by harming other innocents: only proved perpetrators and, in very rare cases, likely suspects can ever be subjected to torture. Furthermore, it must be a last resort. All other means, no matter how difficult, must have been tried before torture is used. Thirdly, there must be a proportionality between the ends and the means. Only the most severe harm to innocent people can justify severe torture. If these principles are adhered to, then the argument becomes the same as the argument for just war. War to prevent genocide or intense cruelty can be justified in my opinion, if all possible measures are taken to avoid civilian deaths.
Taking the moral absolutist’s position in this case (as in the case of war), and prohibiting torture in every possible circumstance, is in my opinion dangerous. It limits our ability to defend ourselves against an enemy which has no such limitations. Torture is the worst part of the legacy of humanity, and a black spot on the record of our species. To prohibit it, though, is to tie our hands before heading to battle, and a codified set of principles relating to torture should be adopted to allow the world to protect itself in the most extreme cases.