Torture Works Sometimes, But It's Always Wrong

We know and have
known for years that since 9/11 we have been a nation of torturers. We
have also known, in large part, what those tortures consisted of --
waterboarding, slapping, sleep deprivation, the withholding of pain
medication. With the Obama administration's release of the four
"torture memos," we have learned about other disgusting practices, such
as slamming prisoners into walls and locking them in boxes with
insects, and gained further insight into the nauseating legal arguments
used by Bush administration lawyers to justify the unjustifiable.

Torture is wrong. It is condemned by every civilized
nation and by international law. There is, however, one situation in
which torture might theoretically be morally justified. This is the
so-called "ticking bomb" scenario, which in one form or another has
been debated by philosophers and ethicists for hundreds of years.
Suppose we know that a captive has planted a bomb in a school, which is
due to explode in a few hours. The captive refuses to say in what
school he planted the bomb. Are we justified in torturing one depraved
individual to save the lives of hundreds of innocent children?

In their response, philosophers divide into two camps. The
Kantians, those who believe that human beings have a categorical
imperative to treat other humans as ends, not as means, say we are
never justified in torturing, no matter how legitimate the goal. The
Benthamites or utilitarians say that we are justified, because in this
case torture is the lesser of two evils.

Defenders of the Bush administration's use of torture,
most notably former Vice President Dick Cheney, would like to pose as
high-minded Benthamites. Calling for the release of additional
classified memos, Cheney said, "There are reports that show
specifically what we gained as a result of this activity." Obama's
intelligence director, Dennis Blair, echoed this argument in a memo,
writing, "High-value information came from interrogations in which
those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the Al
Qaeda organization that was attacking this country." Former Bush
intelligence chief Michael Hayden said, "The use of these techniques against these terrorists really did make us safer, it really did work."

The argument that torture works cannot simply be
dismissed. During World War II, for example, the Gestapo used torture
with considerable effectiveness on captured agents working for
Britain's Special Operations Executive, the top-secret organization
dedicated to sabotage and subversion behind Axis lines. A number of
agents, unable to withstand the pain or, in some cases, even the
prospect of pain, told their captors everything they knew, including
the identity of other agents, the arrival time of flights, and the
location of safe houses. During France's brutal war in Algeria, the
colonial power used torture effectively. As historian Alistair Horne,
the author of the classic analysis of the French-Algerian war, "A
Savage War of Peace," told me in a 2007 interview,
"In Algeria, the French used torture -- as opposed to abuse -- very
effectively as an instrument of war. They had some success with it;
they did undoubtedly get some intelligence from the use of torture."
That intelligence included information about future terrorist strikes
and the infrastructure of terror networks in Algiers.

So the easy argument against torture, that it is
ineffective, is wrong. Torture can work. Nor can one simply dismiss the
philosophical "ticking bomb" debate. Even ethicists bitterly opposed to
torture acknowledge that if that hypothetical situation -- endlessly
depicted in Fox's TV show "24" -- actually existed, there would be a
compelling moral and philosophical argument for torture in that

But in the real world, the "ticking bomb" situation never
arises. It is never the case that we know we can automatically avert
mass slaughter by torturing someone. Reality is not that neat. Guilt
and knowledge are not established in advance. Those whom we torture may
or may not be planning nefarious deeds. As the British political
scientist Henry Shue pointed out in his classic 1978 essay "Torture,"
"Notice how unlike the circumstances of an actual choice about torture
the philosopher's example is. The proposed victim of our torture is not
someone we suspect of planting the device: he is the perpetrator. He is not some pitiful psychotic making one last play for attention: He did plant the device. The wiring is not backwards, the mechanism is not jammed: the device will destroy
the city if not deactivated." Shue concludes that "The distance between
the situations which must be concocted in order to have a plausible
case of morally permissible torture and the situations which actually
occur is, if anything, further reason why the existing prohibitions
against torture should remain and should be strengthened by making
torture an international crime."

As Shue suggests, the "ticking bomb" situation should be
left in the classroom, for ethicists and philosophers to ponder. It has
nothing to do with the real world. And those who invoke it are leading
society down a fatal slippery slope, which ends with the wholesale
justification of torture. Their arguments, which appeal to and are
based in fear and anger, not considered analysis, would return us to
the Middle Ages.

In a recent Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, Hayden and
former Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey asserted that Abu Zubaydah
was "coerced into disclosing information that led to the capture of
Ramzi bin al Shibh, another of the planners of Sept. 11, who in turn
disclosed information which -- when combined with what was learned from
Abu Zubaydah -- helped lead to the capture of KSM [9/11 mastermind
Khalid Sheikh Mohammad] and other senior terrorists, and the disruption
of follow-up plots aimed at both Europe and the U.S." According to the Washington Post,
Hayden and Mukasey's account is false: Zubaydah gave most of his useful
information before being waterboarded, and the CIA was unable to
provide any examples of specific leads acquired by the use of torture.

But let us, for the sake of argument, assume that Hayden
and Mukasey are correct, and that torturing Zubaydah led him to give
information that resulted in the arrest of KSM and other terrorists.
That still would not constitute a "ticking bomb" situation. No one can
say whether those captured would have carried out other terrorist
attacks. There are too many unknown factors. Dick Cheney recently
argued that classified documents will show that the use of torture
stopped "a great many" terrorist attacks. But unless those documents
reveal a "24"-like situation in which the use of torture somehow
actually stops an imminent attack from taking place, a situation that
has never come up in the real world, his statement is false. Breaking
up terror networks is not the same thing as "stopping" terrorist

Torture is not morally justifiable. In addition, it has
severe negative consequences. Once a nation embraces torture, it
forfeits any claim to a moral high ground. It becomes no better than
those it is fighting. It may win a battle, but it will lose the war. As
America struggles to win hearts and minds in the Arab/Muslim world, the
use of torture is more harmful in the long run than any "high-value"
intelligence gained by its use. And U.S. torture not only builds hatred
in the Muslim world, it turns our allies against us -- and erodes us
from within. As historian Horne pointed out, "When the news came out in
France of what the army was doing, it caused such a revulsion that it
led directly to the French capitulation. And not only revulsion in
France, but revulsion here. JFK, as a senator, took up the Algerian
cause quite strongly partly because of the human rights issue." Horne's
conclusion: "I feel myself absolutely clear in my own mind that you do
not, whatever the excuse, use torture, let alone abuse."

The Chilean writer and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman
wrote, "Torture is, of course, a crime committed against a body. It is
also a crime committed against the imagination. Or rather, it
presupposes, it requires, it craves the abrogation of our capacity to
imagine others' suffering, dehumanizing them so much that their pain is
not our pain." Torture shatters the lives of those subjected to it,
Dorfman writes. It corrupts not only the torturer, but all of society.
"Torture obliges us to be deaf and blind and mute."

Led astray by leaders who played on their fear and anger,
Americans have been deaf and blind and mute for too long. It is past
time for our country to say an absolute no. No torture today, no
torture tomorrow, no torture ever.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 Salon