On the Question of Torture

A few weeks ago I started hearing about a new proposal making its way through congress. It seems that information somehow got out regarding the existence of secret CIA facilities outside the U.S which employ the use of government sanctioned torture techniques to gather intelligence from suspected enemies of the state. The proposal, sponsored by Senator John McCain (R, Arizona), would make it illegal for the United States to use torture as a method of extracting information.

(It should be noted that John McCain is a heavily decorated war veteran who was a POW during the Vietnam conflict. During that time, he was subjected to torture and knows first hand its effects on the torturer, the tortured, and — most importantly to this debate — its effectiveness when it comes to information gathering.)

The bill has been strongly opposed by some on “The Hill” (Washington D.C.), including President Bush and Vice President Cheney, their reason being that our intelligence officers need to be able to use “all available techniques” and weapons in their arsenal in order to keep our country safe from terrorists and enemy nations.

Here then do we meet our moral quandary: do we, as a nation, condone the use of torture as a method of extracting information from detainees, or do we shun the practice for the sake of taking the moral high-ground. If torture is effective, then why worry about morality? After all, isn’t it more moral to do torture those who may be hiding information from us for the sake of the safety and security of the rest of us?


Throughout this piece, I will hold the following assumptions. Whether or not these are valid is an argument for another time. However, historical observation (and that which has been observed throughout my conversation with other people) has led me to the following basic assumptions:

  1. As humans, we all exhibit some form of morality. That is to say, we are not amoral beings, and that these morals, whether for good or ill, have led us to where we are today.
  2. All humans have the primordial rights of life, liberty of thought, and the pursuit of personal happiness.
  3. When I speak of torture, I speak of the state-sanctioned use of torture as a means towards an end. I do not speak of exceptions, such as how two combating fighters may act in the heat of battle, but rather the institutionalized and planned use of torture both as a method of extracting information, and as a tool for inspiring terror within a group of people.

Historical Background

Over the years, the United States has been the world’s “city on a hill,” a land whose soul and actions were guided not only by that which was useful, but also by that which was right and good. (Without getting into too many details, we’ve made our mistakes, but we have a way of rectifying wrongs, sooner or later.) In our short history, we have inspired the growth of democracies all over the world, helped countries in need fend off oppressing nations, and fought hard, sometimes with ourselves, over the question and for the protection of basic human rights, among these being the primordial, or God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

As such, we have helped write and signed treaty after treaty affirming our commitment to the dignified treatment of the individual. Two of these affirmations came via the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva Conventions, both of which outlined the way civilized countries should treat peoples both in times of peace and times of war.

Let’s start with the Geneva Conventions. This set of rules was set forth to help define what shall and shall not be acceptable treatment of those persons deemed “enemies” during a time of conflict. Although “the Fourth Geneva Convention, which covers ‘the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War’ from the occupying power, has less precise rules on interrogation [that when dealing with a prisoner of war from on opposing nation’s army]…Article 31 still bans all ‘physical or moral coercion’ to obtain information.’ This is in line with Article 5 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” However, unlike the Conventions, this declaration leaves no question as to how persons, enemy combatants or otherwise, should be treated as a rule.

So then if these two documents — for which we have worked so hard to forge and uphold — agree, then why would there even be a controversy regarding the issue of torture? The unfortunate answer is that when these ideals were created, we were in a time of relative peace, a time when speaking of high-minded ideals and morals was an easy thing to do, and a world led by these ideals easy to envision. But then 9/11 happened, and everything changed. Suddenly, enemies of the state began to pop up everywhere, it seems, and soon after 9/11, there began to be some confusion as to who was a prisoner of war and/or protected by the Geneva Conventions.

Still, we would take the high ground, or so we thought. A memorandum in February 7, 2002 by President Bush read:

Our values as a nation, values that we share with many nations in the world, call for us to treat detainees humanely, including those who are not legally entitled to such treatment. As a matter of policy, the U.S. armed forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely, and to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva. (Source: U.S. Cavalry, uscav.com)

While the Conventions and this memorandum are obviously applicable to POWs, they are not so obviously applicable “terrorist combatants”, a designation which the Bush administration has been much loser with since the days post 9/11/2001.

The Current Situation

Senator McCain in his bill claims that useful as the ends may be, they do not justify the means. (That and “hey, let’s go ahead and follow the rules set forth by a treaty we signed regarding human rights.”) Although the question can be treated as a purely moral question, it can also be treated as a utilitarian question.

The moral quandary: is the use of torture, in and of itself, morally wrong? That depends. If it is being done without any greater purpose other than to cause pain, then the answer’s obvious. But we’re talking about torture for a reason, as a method of extracting information from a person who doesn’t want to give information up.

That’s when the complexity of the question becomes evident, when the utilitarian argument of torture — its methodological effectiveness — comes into play: does something immoral, something we wouldn’t normally accept, become morally acceptable when it leads to a morally defensible result? What about when it only offers only the possibility of a morally defensible result? Is there a sliding scale, or rather are there “shades of gray”?

The presumption of course is that by torturing people — or at least credibly threatening them with torture — information could be extracted which would otherwise not be accessible. This also presumes that information gathered through the use of torture is indeed credible, that after enough torture no one would dare cover anything up, or say an untruth. But is this a fallacious argument?

According to most military leaders the answer seems to be that yes. “It has always been recognized,” said Napoleon Bonaparte, “that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to know.”

Even those not involved in military service, but still involved in security seem to agree. “Have any of these guys ever tried to talk to someone who’s been deprived of his clothes?” asked former FBI agent Dan Coleman. “He’s going to be ashamed, and humiliated, and cold. He’ll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back. There’s no value in it.” He goes on to say that “due process [has] made detainees more compliant, not less…Brutalization doesn’t work. We know that.” (TheSharpener.net, Why don’t we use torture?)

To find a concrete example of these statements, we can look at our “War on Terror”, the quagmire in Iraq, and the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. Under torture, al-Libi claimed that Al Qaeda had significant links to Iraq. However, as he himself later admitted, there were no such links. He said what he said, to end the suffering. He said what the torturers wanted to hear, not what was truthful or accurate. Most people will say almost anything to end terrible suffering. “For example, a former prisoner from Abu Ghraib told the New York Times that, after being tortured, he confessed to being Osama Bin Laden to put and end to his mistreatment.” (Michael LaBossiere, Terror and Torture)

What about when torture works? What about that 10% of the time when torture yields factual, useful information? (Actually, the number has been quoted as being closer to 15, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt, for the sake of argument.) Is the torturing (and possibly killing) of nine innocent people worth that one from which information was accurately gathered?

As a utilitarian, my answer would be that yes, it is. So what if we unjustly violate the supposed “human rights” of nine innocents? If the price of security is the life of nine innocents, then so it is. Isn’t it moral to sacrifice nine lives so that thousands, potentially millions may live?

This is the cry that I’ve been hearing from far too many people as of late. Suddenly, those who billed themselves as great moralists have become great utilitarians. But the question of torture is not solely about utilitarianism. In fact, our country’s forefathers had themselves faced this question, from the side of the tortured. To them, it was not just a matter of utilitarianism. It was a matter of moral guidance.

“It is better [one hundred] guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer.” — Benjamin Franklin

“[A person ought not] to be condemned on suspicion; for it was preferable that the crime of a guilty man should go unpunished than an innocent man be condemned.” — Roman emperor Trajan

For our forefathers, moral guidance was a necessity in the construction of and maintenance of a country. And it is here that we find the utilitarian argument for the use of torture pitted against the moralistic argument that the life of the innocent should be spared. Can torture against an innocent man ever be morally used?

Given the prevailing political atmosphere these days, I find it only fitting to see if the scriptures themselves. Looking at Genesis 18:23-32, we read:

(23) Abraham approached him and said, “Will you destroy both innocent and guilty alike? (24) Suppose you find fifty innocent people there within the city – will you still destroy it, and not spare it for their sakes? (25) Surely you wouldn’t do such a thing, destroying the innocent with the guilty. Why, you would be treating the innocent and the guilty exactly the same! Surely you wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?”

(26) And the LORD replied, “If I find fifty innocent people in Sodom, I will spare the entire city for their sake.”

(27)Then Abraham spoke again. “Since I have begun, let me go on and speak further to my Lord, even though I am but dust and ashes. (28) Suppose there are only forty-five? Will you destroy the city for lack of five?” And the LORD said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five.”

(29) Then Abraham pressed his request further. “Suppose there are only forty?” And the LORD replied, “I will not destroy it if there are forty.”

(30) “Please don’t be angry, my Lord,” Abraham pleaded. “Let me speak – suppose only thirty are found?” And the LORD replied, “I will not destroy it if there are thirty.”

(31) Then Abraham said, “Since I have dared to speak to the Lord, let me continue – suppose there are only twenty?” And the LORD said, “Then I will not destroy it for the sake of the twenty.”

(32) Finally, Abraham said, “Lord, please do not get angry; I will speak but once more! Suppose only ten are found there?” And the LORD said, “Then, for the sake of the ten, I will not destroy it.”

Clearly, the Creator of the Universe does not see it fit to sacrifice the innocent for the sake of punishing the guilty. Yet we, in our hubris, do?

This then brings up the question of a Universal Maxim. To paraphrase Saint Augustine of Hippo, doing something evil for the sake of a greater good is still evil; it is still wrong. (This is implied in Augustine’s City of God.) So is torture always an evil act, even when greater good is sure to come out of it? According to Saint Augustine, the answer is a very clear yes.

[Correction: (1) The paraphrasing of “doing something evil for the sake of a greater good is still evil” was attributed to Saint Augustine, but I cannot verify it; I am recalling this from memory. Perhaps someone can clarify this for me? (2) According to Saint Augustine (as shown to me by commenter James of England) the torture of an innocent, even if it leads to his death, is acceptable, even though it is a reprihensible act, for the sake of finding truth. I argue (see the comments section for this) that Augustine was refering to the tools available to him at the time. We have, in the 1,600 years hence, found that the case for torture is thinner now that we can, with the aid of technology, overcome many of the barriers previously put up by a person’s reluctance to answer. With torture not being the only or best way to gather information, its usefulness is limited, and as such can now be considered even more immoral than it was then. I cover this in detail within the comments section.]

But suppose another circumstance in which the same base question applies, that of doing something evil in order to attain a greater good. Is Saint Augustine’s argument always applicable to all situations?

At one point during the hijackings of 9/11, military planes were sent out with orders to bring one of the rogue airplanes down (Flight 93). By this time, the first of the Twin Towers had come down, and the Pentagon had already been attacked, so to bring this last plane down would have almost certainly required force.

Knowing full well what had already occurred, if the military pilots shot down an airplane full of civilians, would they have been committing an evil act? According to our previous arguments, and according to Saint Augustine, the answer would almost certainly be yes, since innocent civilians would be sacrificed for the sake of what could be considered a greater good. However, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who could argue that this was not a necessary act.

Is this then a double standard? Is an evil act for the purpose of a greater good always an evil act? Obviously, as we can see here, the answer is no: sometimes an evil act is necessary in order to attain a greater good. The ends do justify the means if, and only if there is no other way of attaining the greater good. In the case of the planes and hijackers, there is no real alternative to taking down the planes except by force. It is the same principal as the killing of a soldier by another soldier during a war. In the case of torture however, there are more effective methods. This automatically nullifies any need for its use on utilitarian grounds, leaving only the moral question to be asked.

So then what can we use instead of torture? According to Army Col. Jack Jacobs, “Down in Guantanamo Bay, there are instances in which lots of al-Qaeda people will tell you anything that you want to know and tell them as much truth as you want them to tell you if you give them the candy bar that they want or the magazine that they require…When I was in Vietnam, we were given the most intelligence, the best intelligence and had the most success with captors if we gave them cigarettes, medical care, food (and) water. Almost always, you get the best success from treating people properly.”

Does that mean we need to be nice to all those being questioned? Absolutely not. It does mean that there are much more effective methods of intelligence gathering than torture. More flies are caught with honey than a ruler.

According to this, then the answer to the question “do the ends justify the means” is a precariously subjective one. In order for the ends to justify the means, then the end must be a just and morally good end, and the means cannot be themselves more immoral than absolutely necessary. In the case of torture, this means that torture is not a morally (or practically) acceptable means when then ends are the extraction of information.

What about when torture is used not for the purpose of extracting information from the tortured, but in order to inspire fear among a populous and extract information from those who fear to be tortured? It is here that the utilitarian argument once again picks up steam, since this does seem to work as a tactic. But the utilitarian argument is in direct opposition to the moralistic argument, since the ends — the extraction of information from the general population — do not justify the means — the torture of likely innocents in order to coerce others into talking. Furthermore, historically only the vilest and most decadent regimes ever used this tactic and all of them in their declining years, just before those who were tortured arose against the oppressors. The United States cannot be allowed to fall into that category.

What about the argument that all other countries use these methods? This is usually a last resort argument spouted by someone who admits that torture is not too effective and admits that it is morally wrong. I’ll keep this one simple: If something is wrong, it’s wrong, no matter how many people are doing it; it is your moral duty to do what is right, and not to excuse doing wrong by saying “well, everyone else is doing it.”

In Closing
The United States has long been the world’s bastion of freedom, equality, and human rights. Its ideals and actions have changed the course of history for centuries, if not millennia to come. Should we give in to using the tactics of a decadent regime, then we have forfeited our place as the world’s beacon of light, and deserve no better than the despots whom we have help in oust. We cannot allow the use of state sanctioned torture for the purpose of ensuring our own freedom. It is immoral, generally futile, and a leap down the road of our moral decadence.

4 thoughts on “On the Question of Torture

  1. From REP. MURTHA: “I like guys who’ve never been there to criticize us who’ve been there. I like that. I like guys who got five deferments and never been there, and send people to war, and then don’t like to hear suggestions about what need(s) to be done. I resent the fact on Veterans Day he criticized Democrats for criticizing them.”

  2. Found this while searching for this quote:

    As you’ll see in chapter 6, Augustine most certainly does not believe that there are no circumstances in which Christians should torture. He does think that it is a terrible shame that sometimes the right thing to do is to torture an innocent man to death, though.

  3. Very good point, James. Thank you for the correction (I’ll update the article to reflect your statement). Still, after reading that passage, the feeling I get is that Augustine’s use of torture was only limited to situations in which that recourse must be taken in order to acquire the truth. He describes it as being a necessary evil, one for which the judge must ask forgiveness from every time he needs to use the method. It is not something that should be done flippantly, but only upon heavy consideration, once there is no other recourse from which to gather a confession.

    Still, we must look at the time period in which this was being written. There were no such things as lie detectors or “truth serums” (that would inhibit the ability to lie or keep from incriminating yourself, banned from use due to the 5th ammendment and the Miranda rights). There were no other methods of technology- or medically-aided interrogation, leaving them with few options when they wanted to dig deeper. Even with these conditions, however, Augustine says the following:

    Surely it were proof of more profound considerateness and finer feeling were he to recognize the misery of these necessities, and shrink from his own implication in that misery; and had he any piety about him, he would cry to God “From my necessities deliver Thou me.

    Again, torture, while not prohibited by Augustine’s standards, is by no means encouraged, but only tolerated, at best.

    Of course, we must also remember that this was before times like the Inquisition, when conversions under torture were still considered “valid”, and before we realized that the testimone gathered under torture was almost always unreliable.

    Nevertheless, I will concede that there are two scenarios which I can think of in which torture could be effective and warranted

    The first: Let’s suppose we caught someone, a known terrorist. This guy knows about some plans for an attack in three days. We know that he knows about something that’s supposed to happen soon. He knows that we know about something. At that point, if torture was the only way to extract the information, with no other technology or medicine available, then torture at that point would become a viable, and likely effective tool. Note that this evidence is not being used to incriminate the man (which, I will admit, is at odds with Augustine), but rather to extract information we’re sure he knows about.

    The second: Suppose a terrorist were tried and found guilty after a fair trial (including Habeas Corpus and respecting the right of the accused to see the evidence against him in the precense of competent counsel). At that point, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he may have information. This man, who has already been found guilty, can be pressed for information.

    Note that netiher of these scenarios take into consideration what happens to the person performing the torture. It is them who most often ultimately suffer, as they are slowly twisted from moral beings to amoral ones.

    In addition to this, however, it should be noted that never once through Augustine’s argument was there even a hint that torturing an innocent for the purpose of creating fear or extracting information from another (say, torturing a son to extract information from the father) is in any way acceptable, yet this, with our current legislation, is allowed as a method of torture.

    Overall, the use of torture should be prohibited for the reasons mentioned in the article, and while there are exceptions to the rules, we should remember that these are exceptions: we should not make these the rules.

    By the way, I may have misquoted Augustine on this one. The quote may actually have come from either Thomas Aquinas or Pope John Paul II. I’ll verifty, although I’m almost certain it was Augustine.

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