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On Torture

18 March 2005
(Footnote added, 29 November 2005)

Western societies have over the past few centuries moved to a point where torture has effectively been banned. As recent times have illustrated, on those occasions when torture has been thought to have taken place, great scandal has resulted, with virtually all with access to any form of public soapbox declaring unanimously their opposition to it.

Often those who largely support the present actions of coalition forces in the War on Terror define certain interrogation techniques as not being torture so that they, too, can join the chorus of opposition.

This is unfortunate because, as it happens, nearly everyone would support torture in certain circumstances, were they prepared to think things through. Thinking things through clearly is important, because failing to embrace the possibility that torture could occasionally be necessary could result in great evil.

What is Torture?

As the example of those supporting stern interrogation techniques while claiming to oppose torture illustrates, it is far from clear precisely what actions constitute torture. That is a not a matter that is important for the subject of this essay, because my argument is that in some circumstances the most vile torture of which one can conceive is justifiable.

It suffices to say here that torture is a continuum and whether something constitutes torture is largely in the eye of the subject of the torture (not the torturer).* That, after all, is the basis of torture technique: to find some action which breaks down the subject's resistance. That may be anything from a stern expression of disapproval, through to the grossest imaginable physical abuse. What can rarely know what resides -- if anything at all -- in each individual's Room 101.

End points

Those of a mathematical bent often find it useful to look at the end points (more correctly, the X-intercepts) of a graph or function before considering in depth what's happening in the middle. Most of life is lived in the middle. We live in moderate comfort in reasonable safety under tolerably just government. Most of us do not have a mathematical bent, so we base our judgements on the middle, and where necessary work outwards towards the extremes, but only on occasion, only when forced to.

Let us pretend to be mathematicians for a moment, and look at an end point, at something outside our zone of comfort.

Fiction serves a purpose in society and in human development. It is part of the exercise of the imagination that distinguishes our species from other animals. We can think through a sequence of actions, mentally rehearsing them, before actually doing them. We can imagine situations that have never actually occurred, and make contingency plans. A suburban soap opera is twenty minutes, five times a week, of scenario-setting in which the viewer can ask of herself: would I reject my friend if she kissed my boyfriend? He can ask of himself: would I confront my friend about his excessive drinking? TV entertainment may mostly be dross, but it attracts millions because it appeals to a part of our psyche which appears to be have been strongly selected for by the forces of nature.

So we ought to draw on the scenarios that have been made available to us by our modern culture. In Season 2 of the drama 24, Agent Jack Bauer has taken custody of an Islamic terrorist who knows the location of an armed nuclear weapon. Bauer knows that the bomb will detonate within hours, that it is located somewhere in Los Angeles, and that if it does go off, it will kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people.

The terrorist is not cooperative. Bauer beats him. Extensively.

What would you do in Bauer's place? How would you weigh the calculus of your undoubted abhorrence of torture, and the lives of a hundred thousand. There is no wiggle room here. You either say that the torture is justified in order to save the many, or it is so evil that a hundred thousand ought to die rather that permit one to be beaten.

What if it's not one nuke in one city, but a virus that would wipe out all of humanity? Or Dr Strangelove's doomsday machine that will destroy the whole planet?

If, at this point, under any of those circumstances, at that end point, you would still insist that there is no place for torture, is it because of that moral calculus? Or are you still trying to wiggle out of engaging that question?

Does Torture Work?

One of the most common wiggle spaces on this subject is that claim that torture doesn't work, that it is unreliable. If you follow any discussion thread on the subject of torture, you will find a significant number of contributors saying nothing other than 'it doesn't work', and apparently feeling that this closes the subject.

It does no such thing. Because all disclaimers to the contrary, of course torture works. Sometimes. In some circumstances. That is its bloody attraction. That is why it persists despite our claims to be civilised.

Equally, of course torture is unreliable. Everything is unreliable. Does that mean we should do nothing? While Jack Bauer was beating his terrorist, he had other lines of investigation underway. They, also, were unreliable.

Investigation processes work by gathering information, much of it of unknown reliability, and testing it. So it is with witnesses. So it is with torture. Interrogators tend not to be complete fools. They are trained to test the reliability of information with the subject. They approach the matter from different angles, and look for inconsistencies. They weigh what they are being told by the subject against all their other sources of information.

So engaging in torture in order to save the hundred thousand, all of humanity, or the entire world, may turn out in some case to be futile, a wasted effort, a hurt inflicted upon a person for no useful result, a net negative. But that futility cannot be known until the effort is taken.

If the chances of torture getting the information needed to save the world were one hundred percent, would that justify it? I think that the great majority prepared to face the question square on would say, reluctantly, 'yes'. But how about eighty per cent? Sixty per cent? Five per cent?


In 24, despite the beating, the terrorist would not talk. Bauer arranged with the government of the terrorist's home country to arrest the terrorist's family. They set up a video link and Bauer orders, one by one, before the terrorist's eyes, the shooting of the family members.

Now the discussion has moved onto a different plane upon an axis which I have not discussed at all: the culpability of the person being tortured. It is tempting to say that the torture of the terrorist is justified because he is a bad person. I have considerable visceral attachment to such a view. But it is entirely wrong.

We have formal mechanisms for identifying the guilty and punishing them. We may disagree about whether our courts are sufficiently reliable, suitably stern, but they are the system we use.

In 'Dirty Harry', another piece of entertainment which helps us consider these issues, a bad guy kidnaps a young girl and buries her alive with a limited air supply. Clint Eastwood tracks down the bad guy and shoots him in the knees to make him disclose her location. The bad guy does. It's too late for the girl, unfortunately, and under the US tainted-evidence legal doctrine, the bad guy gets off. That he disclosed the girl's location showed quite conclusively that he was the culprit, but the evidence was inadmissible, being illegally obtained.

Clint Eastwood's Harry Callahan is appalled by this turn of events, but he shouldn't be. The distinction is clear. It may be justifiable to torture the bad guy in order to save the girl's life, but never justifiable to torture him in order to secure a conviction.

So, back to the killing of innocent hostages, the calculus is pretty much the same, even though doing so is even more sickening than torturing the person we believe to be guilty.

Where to from here?

My purpose here has been to demonstrate that there are circumstances in which, on either moral or utilitarian grounds, torture may be justified. And that there would be broad agreement amongst those prepared to face the fact that those circumstances could arise. That those circumstances are rare is something to be thankful for, but doesn't eliminate the need to consider what to do.

Presently discussion on the appropriate levels of torture, the conditions in which it may be considered, and similar questions is pretty well not undertaken for fear of being labelled a moral cripple for not having ruled it out entirely, under all circumstances. That will be of little comfort if the day comes when a decision must be made between torture and mass destruction.

© 2005 - Stephen Dawson

Footnote: I sought the comments of Alec Rawls at the Error Theory blog on this essay and, I'm pleased to say, he was generally supportive. He did, however, remark 'I don't think the measure of torture is subjective in the experience of the torturee, or you could get into problematic issues like unintentional torture'. So I thought I should clarify. Here I am talking entirely about the practicality of torture in a particular instance, applied to a particular person. A professional boxer, for example, may well be able to laugh off being slapped around the face by his interrogators, whereas a meek and sheltered individual may find the same treatment shattering. In the latter case, the torture may need extend only that far in order to obtain information, but in the former, the boxer himself may not consider the treatment to truly be torture at all.

But I take Alec's point. From a policy and rule-making perspective, torture must be objectively defined, unfair though that may be to the individuals subjected to it (as all blanket rules are). Any policy based on the subjective view of the person against whom some treatment is administered is open to tremendous abuse.