Monday, December 17, 2007

To Torture or Not To Torture

I’ve been thinking a lot about torture lately because I haven’t read anything persuasive regarding why torture should or shouldn’t be used as a means of interrogation.

The main argument for using torture as a means of interrogation is because torture can and has been used to gain useful information to save lives and apprehend murderers.

The main arguments against using torture are because the information gained is not trustworthy, the person being tortured may not know the information that is being requested, torturing prisoners makes the torturer just as evil as the enemy, and torturing an enemy’s prisoners will lead to the allies of the torturer being tortured if captured by the enemy.

Some religious writers who believe man is created in the image of God have also added additional arguments against torture because they feel torture has a dehumanizing affect on the torturer and the tortured which is displeasing (sinful) to God.

Taken alone, each of the arguments for and against torture make a lot of sense, but taken alone or even combined, none of the arguments make a compelling case for why torture should or shouldn’t be used because of the counter arguments to each one.

For instance, regarding the argument for torture, how many people need to be tortured for how many times before one life will be saved? Slight torture on one person for one time to save one life doesn’t seem all that bad but severe torture on a hundred people for a hundred times to save one life seems quite excessive.

Regarding the arguments against torture, why does it matter if some of the information is not trustworthy when all of the information extracted can be tested in other ways for accuracy and truthfulness? If the one being tortured is a murderer, how can torturing this person make the torturer just as evil unless the evil of murder is defined down morally? Additionally, if the enemy already has a record of cutting off the heads of live prisoners, how is torturing one of their combatants going to make them any more evil or dangerous to our allies since they are already as dangerous as a group can get?

The more I’ve thought about torture, the more I’ve realized I can’t make any big sweeping declarations regarding the rightness or wrongness of torture. However, I do have a few points to add to the debate which I will get started with in my next piece.



Rick and Gary said...

Another argument against torture is that there is a long-standing American tradition against it (long-standing as in back to George Washington). In business and diplomatic terms, it's part of the American brand. In terms of conservatism, it's a tradition and self-identity that one ought not abandon without anguished debate.

Kevin said...

I, too, have been thinking about torture again recently, after reading a Volokh comment thread that linked to 5 Myths About Torture and Truth.

My thinking breaks down into a few issues:

(1) Define torture. Should the use of techniques be inversely proportional to their severity or is there some well defined boundary line for torture?

(2) Can it be made effective?

(3) Should it be standard policy? I can morally rationalize the use of some "torture" in extreme and specifically constructed cases (e.g. including imminence, guilt, verifiable intel, etc.), but can we ensure its use is restricted to those cases?

If indeed "torture" or coercive interrogation techniques have not been beneficially utilized in the history of US wars, as Rick seems to suggest, I do wonder what has changed that it should now be considered. Of course, I also wouldn't expect there to be much record of it even if such events did occur.


David M. Smith said...

Hi Rick and Kevin,

Thanks for your comments.

I do think torture needs some practical parameters and definitions. Everything that is uncomfortable is not torture.

Rick, I’m not sure about your statement. I find it hard to believe that no American soldier has ever held a gun to the head of an enemy soldier or a knife to the neck of an enemy soldier while requesting information or responded with a kick to the groin when a question was not answered in a believable way.

As a Marine, I was never taught to use pain as a way to extract information, but I was taught to use severe pain to get control of an enemy combatant. Was I using torture to ensure none of my comrades were injured?

Rick and Gary said...

Hi David --

I'm guessing that the use of extreme pain to subdue a combatant is not defined as torture under international agreements, but I don't know.

I was listening to a retired CIA interrogator, on NPR I think, and he said that the "ticking time bomb" "24" scenario, where you have to extract information quickly in order to prevent an attack, simply does not exist in the real world.

Kevin said...

Hi Rick,

I think you are right that, for example, stabbing an enemy on the battlefield is distinct from stabbing an already captured and secured enemy.

I think that the purpose of invoking "24" is not to consider likely scenarios, but rather to suggest that, in some theoretical case, torture can be morally justified.

If that theoretical point can be agreed upon, then the debate shifts from whether torture can be justified to what the specific calculus should be for that moral determination. i.e. what factors justify which techniques?


Buz said...

Hi, David,

I think that there is another dimension here, also ... what am I willing to personally do or not do, vs. what am I willing to let someone do on my behalf.

I am basically a gentle person. I can barely kill a mouse in my house, let alone go out and shoot Bambi. However, I do enjoy a good steak. While I could not personally slaughter a cow, I have no problem with someone else doing it.

Along that same path, I am not a soldier. I don't believe I could shoot a person if we were standing 10 paces apart with drawn pistols, or across a battle field. However, I do not deny the need for good soldiers.

When it comes to torture, or what passes for such today, while I have no desire to take photos of prisoners with dog chains around their necks and underwear over their heads, I don't know if I would prevent someone else from doing such a deed.


David M. Smith said...

Hi Rick,

Don’t you know by now that the truth is the exact opposite of what the CIA claims? ; - )

I don’t watch 24, but you are probably referring to a general concept and not a specific plot in the show anyway. I would respond by saying just because something hasn’t happened in the past is not a reason to ignore the possibility of it ever happening in the future. The events of September 11th, 2001 are a good example.

I have not been arguing for the use of extreme pain as a common interrogation technique. I am arguing for allowing a very experienced and professional interrogator to use the most appropriate method. The only time I could see extreme pain being used in a ticking time bomb scenario is if we knew with a HIGH degree of certainty a bomb has been planted, we know with t HIGH degree of certainty the bomb will explode fairly soon, and we know with a HIGH degree of certainty the person being interrogated knows where the bomb is located. I doubt all three criteria could be met, but if these three criterion could be met, I would be for using extreme pain to extract the information only if it was the only method that could extract the information.

I like what Kevin wrote, if you don’t believe pain can ever be used as a method of extracting information, then creating possible, but unlikely scenarios, doesn’t matter. But if we can agree to allow the use of pain in some scenarios, then we need to define the parameters. Thanks Kevin.

David M. Smith said...

Hi Buz,

We’re all different. As a Marine, I never had to shoot anyone, but I was trained, prepared, and ready to shoot, if the time came when I needed to shoot.

Spanking each of my daughters really was difficult for me, but it was something I had to do.

Each of us always needs to do what is appropriate for a situation; it is good that you know you would not want to be in a situation where you needed to inflict pain on someone else; I wouldn’t either.

Very few people in the world know enough about effective interrogation to pass judgment on those who are professionally trained and experienced in extracting information. If the goal is to cause pain to an enemy combatant, I would always be against torture, but if the goal is to extract information, we should leave it to the professionals to use the most effective methods.