Month of Blood: The Ethics Of… Torture

Welcome to week 2 of the Month of Blood – four weeks investigating the lurking beast within us all. Last week we kicked off with The Ethics of Violence; this week, we’re bumping it up a notch and heading down into the deepest, darkest depths of violence: torture.

As an ethicist, I love torture. There is nothing quite like it for a morally-grey topic which forces us to question our values and the way we see the world; a topic that smashes into our comfy ideas of right and wrong, good and evil, and forces you to choose between options that are all ugly. It’s a topic that makes you ask questions and entertain ideas that that some would argue it is wrong even to think about, and that will make you feel soiled no matter what you do. And it is in shit like this that ethics THRIVES.

There aren’t many among us who wouldn’t recoil in horrified revulsion at the idea of deliberately trying to hurt another person as much as possible (especially since so many of us think of violence as an unethical or evil thing in-and-of itself). But ever since September 11 shattered the sense of security western nations had enjoyed since the end of the Cold War, we have had no choice to acknowledge that torture is not just a thing of barbaric tyrants and serial killers. As the War on Terror discovered that terrorism wasn’t something you could shoot with a tank, darker methods were turned to in an attempt to track down, isolate, demoralise and destroy our enemies.

When these practices came to light, many were horrified. But many were not. Some were actually enthusiastic. But for most the idea of using extreme suffering and pain to fight our enemies raised the dark spectre of doubt; what if torturing a terrorist gains information that might save hundreds or even thousands of lives? What if hurting this one, terrible human being leads to safety for millions of innocent? What if… perhaps… it just might be justified on this occasion?

Well? Is it?

Ask yourself this question: Can you imagined a situation where torture could be justified by the benefits it delivers? Is there any situation you can think of where causing someone suffering delivers a benefit big enough to justify it?

Of course you can. Numerous highly popular TV shows and movies have been based on that simple idea. The recently rebooted TV series ‘24’ revolved nearly exclusively around Jack Bouer making the tough (but regrettable) decision to torture some scumbag in order to stop a giant bomb going off in time, the President being assassinated, and on one occasion, a nuke from taking out a capital city. I think there was the threat of a world war at some point as well… All great examples of the cost of torture being justified by massive looming threat, slowly ticking down to our doom.

More recently we’ve seen the film ‘Zero Dark 30’ offer us a semi-real world justification for the ‘detainee program’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the torture of a detainee directly leading to the eventual elimination of Osama Bin Laden.

For those of you that read The Ethics of Ethics, this will be ringing a bell because it’s a clear cut example of Utilitarianism in action: ‘The means are justified by the ends’. Hell, that phrase was basically coined as a way of justifying brutal things like torture. Why did you lock that man in a cell for the rest of his life? Because he is too dangerous to be allowed in society. Why did you execute the prisoners? Because supervising them would have delayed us and given our enemy an advantage. Why did you slaughter that ethnic minority? Because they were leeches on the State holding the rest of us back. No matter which way you slice it, Utilitarianism is at the root of some terrible, terrible things.

However those of you who paid attention to The Ethics of Ethics will remember that the description of Utilitarianism I’ve given above is broken; the means are only justified by the ends provided that it is fully informed and no superior alternative exists. Sure, locking up a dangerous criminal may be justified by the safety it creates, but only if there is no other option on the table. What about rehabilitation? Is rehabilitation possible for this criminal? Why/why not? These are the questions we have to ask for Utilitarianism to be in any way justified.

So, what do we need to ask about torture to decide whether it can be justified? Three questions come to mind.

Does torture work?

The main justification for torture is that it produces results – if torturing a guy nets us information that prevents a terrorist attack then how can we argue it wasn’t worth it? But does torture indeed work?

We don’t friggin know.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but if someone turned on the pain high enough and long enough it wouldn’t be long until I told them anything they want to know. But ironically, therein lays the problem – turn up the pain high enough and people will tell you anything to make it stop. Despite what Zero Dark 30 may lead us to believe, a recent US Senate report suggests that, not only was the torture used by the Detainee program worse than were previously lead to believe, but that it produced not one piece of useful evidence towards finding and killing Osama Bin Laden. And given one particular detainee was waterboarded over 180 times, I’d say the result is pretty damn conclusive.

But hey, that just one example and it’s not like we have access to all the data from ever interrogation they conducted. But even if we say it’s possible that torture could work, providing reliable information much faster in desperate situations, such a claim is impossible to test. I mean it’s not like you can check the objective effectiveness of torture in controlled laboratory conditions is it? The threat of endless agony kinda loses its weight when you know the experiment is bound by strict measurement parameters, and that you’re going to pick up your cheque for participating when it’s done.

Remember when a variety of right-wing commentators and politicians responded to the Abu Grave abuses by volunteering to be waterboarded, so they could prove that it wasn’t actually torture but just a ‘really effective interrogation technique’? Even if these idiots had actually gone through with it (which not a single one of them actually did, strangely enough) it wouldn’t have proven a thing.

Why? Because they would have known that, if it turned out being waterboarded was torture, they’d be able to stop it almost instantly since they weren’t actual detainees. And even if they had endured it, they would have done so secure in the knowledge that they were going home that night to a warm bed, a good meal and freedom – as opposed to detainees, who got to look forward to sleep deprivation, survival rations and more waterboarding.

After all, the only difference between an adventurous hike in the wilderness and a death march is whether you choose to participate, whether you are prepared for it, and most importantly, whether you get to choose when to stop.

So without any possibility of scientific evidence, who are we forced to rely on to decide if torture works or not? Torturers. Awesome.

Is it faster?

But hey, that might throw some serious doubt on the effectiveness of torture in getting information, but “we don’t know” hardly counts as a ‘No’, does it? And if it really is that ineffective then we do have to ask why it seems so very popular amongst the intelligence community. Torturers might not be the most unbiased of commentators, but they do know more about it than the rest of us.

So what about the second big justification for torture – it’s fast. When the clock is counting down to an attack, a bombing or a high-level meeting of the enemy’s leaders, there is no time for slow, methodical, gentle methods. No, it’s time to shoot a guy in the foot and threaten to shoot him in the other one unless he spills the beans NOW.

This is the idea of torture most of us carry around thanks to the movies and TV; “When a nuclear weapon threatens the lives of a million Americans, one man will do what he has to do to save them (cue gunshot to the kneecap and a quick confession). But is this really a reflection of reality?

Let’s be generous and say, in the absence of evidence, that torture does get results faster than any other, less brutal technique. But how often is there a ticking time bomb, that we know about, and as it happens we also happen to have hold of a guy that knows something definitive about stopping it? Not very often would be my bet.

Naturally, I don’t have access to a database of ‘How long we knew about terrorist attacks before they happened’, but consider the situation – the whole point of terrorism is that you strike your enemy before they know you’re there. Supervillains aside, nobody plants a bomb and then runs around announcing the fact. In many cases, they don’t even leave any time between planting and detonating the bomb – the sheer effectiveness of suicide bombings is that seeing them coming means right next to the guy with the bomb.

And just to throw a spanner in the works from the other direction, sometimes we do know about impending threats and don’t do anything about them. It has been stated many times that the US Government received warning something was brewing prior to September 11, but did nothing. Probably because they didn’t happen to have hold of someone who just happened to be a major planner of the attack. And even if they had, what are you going to ask him? Tell us about the unspecified threat to American interests you are planning! Sure thing guys, it’s aimed at Chicago.

So what’s the alternative smart-arse?

It’s all well and good to criticise torture as an interrogation technique, but that doesn’t mean much unless we have a solid alternative to propose. Happily though, we do.

Did you know that conventional interrogation techniques, such as the Reid technique employed by most modern police forces, is so ridiculously effective that is has resulted in people admitting to crimes they did not commit? And guess what – it’s totally violence free. It turns out that, by creating a safe environment for criminals and offering them a chance to spill their guts, a staggering 76% of accused criminals will do so, a terrifying 14% of which, are actually innocent.

But the bastards deserve it!

And now we’re getting right down to the dirty roots of it. Let’s be totally honest with ourselves; if torture is questionably effective at best, time is rarely a factor, and highly effective non-violent options are available, then why do we torture?

You know why. For the same reason we dream horrible fantasies against those who wrong us. For the same reason we entertain fantasies of violence and madness. For the same reason terrorist attack us in the first place.

To send a message. To reap revenge. To make us suffer so that we can feel better about what was done (or what we think was done) to us. You shoot one of our citizens? We will hunt you down. You bomb and embassy, we will fund and arm your enemies until you are destroyed. Dare something like September 11? We will annihilate you.

It’s a thoroughly natural reaction to the situation that suffers from one glaring fault: it only makes the situation worse. The USA’s response to September 11 has been nothing less than a catastrophe for its citizens (and quite a few other countries’ citizens for that matter). Immediately after the attack the USA had the entire world behind them. The world’s policeman, the winner of the cold war and promoter of wealth and freedom across the globe had been attacked and we would stand by them no matter what. I truly believe that the US could have dropped a nuclear weapon at that time and the world would have accepted it.

8 years later and the lack weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the torture of detainees, the trampling of international law, outrageous domestic abuse of civil rights, and the diversion of billions of dollars badly needed following the GFC, the USA was the pariah of the international community, almost to the point of parody. And it worst of all, all these sacrifices achieved sweet fuck all for the betterment of the nation. Sure Osama Bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda a ghost of its former self, but those power vacuums were quickly filled by the thousand others we pissed off in the process. The nation may now be safe from terrorists, but since the average USA citizen is significantly more likely to be shot by a cop than involved in a terrorist attack, and is absolutely guaranteed to be manhandled by TSA Agents and pre-emptively spied on by their own government, you have to wonder whether it was worth it.

But we got our revenge! Those bastards had to pay! And even taking the USA’s role in creating these terrorist groups (not to mention generating support for them, al la the British Army being the single greatest recruiter the IRA could ever ask for), there’s no denying that the people responsible for the September 11 attacks, and everything subsequent, are terrible, terrible people. Are they terrible enough that they deserve to be tortured? Yeah, probably. But since all doing so would achieve is making us terrible people as well, what is the point?

At the end of the day, a lot of this analysis is speculative. I have no idea if torture is actually effective or not, only that it’s improbably. But when the costs are certain and staggeringly high, doubt alone should be enough for us to take a step back and a serious look at ourselves.

10 thoughts on “Month of Blood: The Ethics Of… Torture

  1. There is an interesting case from Germany a couple of years back: A child had been abducted by a gang, and its life was threatened unless ransom was paid. The money was paid, but no information about the whereabouts of the child were given. One of the perpetrators was caught, and police were – potentially – in a race against time. The inspector in charge, after failing to elicit any information from the abductor, threatened him with the prospect of torture – which is illegal in Germany – and made a note of this in the file notes. He got the information necessary to find the child, but too late: the boy had already expired. In the wake of the case he was charged for his conduct on his own account, presumably also to prevent this from impacting the sentencing of the perpetrator. He was given a work suspension and fine, the least severe punishment possible.
    I find the case illustrates a situation where torture, or the prospect thereof is acceptable to a society: if there is a demonstrable potential benefit that can not be actualised otherwise (to the best knowledge of those involved) and is conducted in the clear understanding that it is wrong and will be reviewed transparently afterwards.

    • Thanks for the comment KingKoala. Yes that’s an excellent practical example of where torture is almost definitely justified, or at least the threat thereof.

      Interestingly this is also a good example of managing the practical issues of torture – the inspector chose to use the threat but was completely transparent in his actions, and took the relevant punishment willingly. Contrast that against Guantanamo Bay.

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