Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Is Torture Always a Bad Thing?

by Joshua Surtees @joshuasurtees

Controversial title? Controversial subject. I’m a bit nervous about attracting the wrong kind of right wing blogging attention but this has to be done. We have to keep pondering or we die. Like sharks and swimming…

This feels schlocky, but anyway…. Imagine your mother has been kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan or the FARC in Colombia. You’ve received notice that she will be killed within 48 hrs unless their demands are met. An MI5 agent calls you personally and says they can extract a tip-off out of a captive member of the kidnapping group using torture methods. This tip-off will save your mother’s life. If you had the final say, would you agree to authorise the torture? Would you ask what kind of torture? Would that matter? Or would you let your mother die?

This may sound unrealistic and sensational. It’s not. These kinds of situations happen everyday. Soldiers and the secret services do many extreme and difficult things in the name of protecting us and saving lives. Should torture be one of those things?

We all have our own opinion on this. It is in fact one of those rare issues (like anti-terrorism or freedom of expression) that unites both sides of the right/left political divide. 99% of people profess to abhor torture. I understand why.

But if you polled a million New Yorkers and asked them: If torture had been a viable option to prevent the 9/11 attacks would you have approved it? I think the overwhelming answer would be in favour of ‘yes’.

Torture was used by the Nazis against their enemies in WWII. It was also used by the Allied forces in defeating the Nazis. Never officially confirmed of course. Would we shed a tear if Hermann Goering had his nuts electrocuted in order to ascertain exactly where a train full of Jews was being deported too and prevent their deaths?

This issue goes right to the very heart of the pacifism question. The title could easily have been ‘Is Pacifism Always a Good Thing?’ The gut response of most liberals is that they believe 100% wholeheartedly in pacifism. I am a liberal. I do not believe in totalising catch-all pacifism. I believe in peace, I think there should be no violence or threat of violence to any person in the world. Sadly, this is not a reality. It is human nature to be violent. Just look at Darwinism or any history or sociology text book to understand that.

Violence is a big part of the reason many professions even exist. Soldiers, police officers, social workers, judges, probation officers, councillors, psychologists, doctors and nurses all deal with the after effects of violence and attest to the innate violent streak within many individuals and amongst groups of humans. The question society faces here is ‘how do we respond to violence?’ If the answer is ‘through peaceful means’ then it requires a massive amount of altruistic, sacrificial restraint to maintain such a stance. Gandhi did it. I’m struggling to think of many more examples whose impact was as great. And what if the perpetrator of violence is a state or institution? At what point, and how, is the decision reached to jettison or persist with pacifism? When Hitler enters Austria? Poland? Czechoslovakia? France? When Hitler has murdered a million Jews and communists? Or do we wait until he’s murdered 6 million?

While military torture strategy is a different thing to straightforward belligerent violence and involves calculated, precisely determined, restrained yet intensely focused violence with deliberately prescribed desired consequences, it still forms an important part of the overall discussion on violence.

The notion that a military figure or CIA operative carries out waterboarding, electric shocking, finger nail pulling or psychological torture out of a sadistic psychotic urge is simplistic. Armies have reasons for doing things. Many of which we will never know. They are secrets. To torture somebody cannot be a pleasant thing. We’ve heard the US soliders breaking down in tears recounting the things they were made to do to Iraqi insurgents by their superiors.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not championing, condoning or supporting the use of military torture. I abhor the countless acts of torture committed over the period of human history, from the Roman crucifixion of Christians to the medieval barbarities of the Spanish Inquisition through to more modern examples such as Stalin’s purges or the disgusting violence directed towards those who spoke out against military dictatorships in countries like Nicaragua, Chile, Guatemala, Brazil, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan, Uganda, Guinea, DR Congo, Thailand, Romania, Fiji and on and on and on…(the question of how many of these atrocities were sponsored by the US is another debate).

These acts of torture had no justification whatsoever, they were attempts to destroy people and movements, to debase, demoralise and dehumanise innocent people, they usually ended in the deaths of the torture victims.

However if the question is one of human rights (which, according to most, should be protected at all costs) then at one point do the human rights of one individual override those of a thousand or a million people? If (and it’s a big ‘if’ I admit) six thousand lives could be saved by extracting information through torture from one individual (an individual who had already committed murders or atrocities). Then could it not be said that the human rights of the six thousand were protected? Would torture then be justified? It could be said that torture has already been used to save all of our lives. I refer of course to WWII again, but who knows what other potential events have been prevented by the SAS, CIA, MI5, KGB et al.

It’s up to you to make you’re minds up. Or, if you’ve already made your minds up, to have another think. It’s an ugly subject. But something we should all think about. What’s your opinion?
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  1. Surgeons are not allowed to operate on their own relatives. Jury men and women are barred from performing their duties in cases where they know either party involved in the case. Soldiers are prevented from serving in the same regiment as close family. It’s not done out of meanness, it’s done to prevent anyone being in the situation where another asks “imagine if it were your mother…”. The laws that govern our behaviour should not be made in a fit of heightened emotion.

    I appreciate that this is an enormously complex issue but allow me to try and make it simple. Yes, torture is always a bad thing. If we take that as our starting point, a starting point from which we will never waver, then I very much doubt that we will ever end up in a situation where the only possible solution to saving the six thousand is to torture the individual.

    Left wing liberals are often characterised as being soft and fluffy. To be blunt it’s a nonsense characterisation. There will always be tough decisions, and the occasional terrible side effect of lobbying for a fair and liberal society. Just look at the issues surrounding freedom of speech. I think we would be hard pressed to find anyone who would not say that one of the tenets of a fair and liberal society would be to protect every individual from abuse or torture.

    There will always be hundreds of solutions to any one problem. Torture should never be among them.

  2. "If you had the final say, would you agree to authorise the torture? Would you ask what kind of torture? Would that matter? Or would you let your mother die?"

    "But if you polled a million New Yorkers and asked them: If torture had been a viable option to prevent the 9/11 attacks would you have approved it? I think the overwhelming answer would be in favour of ‘yes’"

    The answer to both of these questions would probably be that yes, you could allow torture carried out under these circumstances, but your questions was, "is torture a bad thing?", not "would you allow torture to be carried out?", or "should it be used in certain circumstances?" It's both. It's a bad thing, but you'll allow it to be used in these circumstances, because you feel that the altertive, to you at least, would be worse.

    Put it this way, if someone said to you, "I'll give you £10,000, and in exchange, one person in, say, Africa will drop dead. Would you do it? Someone you never knew would die, your life would be the better for it. If they then said, "I'll give you £10,000, and in exchange, one of your relatives will drop dead" would you think differently? Probably. It's simply because people will mainly make decisions based on the consequences to them. There is nothing wrong with that, it's a basic human principle an the reason why humans have survived for so long.

    Therefore, they'll know that torturing someone else is wrong, and hopefully they'll realise that any moral high ground that they held will be firmly thrown out of the window by the act of torture, but they'll violate one of their principles to save one of their family members, or to save more people.

    So in essence, Is it wrong? Yes
    Would you let it happen? Yes
    Why? Because people will always break the rules if they come out the other side better off. You've only got to look at America since sept 2001 to see that.

    A good subject for the Ponderbox


  3. There is no doubt in mind that there is a time and a place for torture in the prevention of potential deaths. And where evidence (independent or judicially verified/substantiated) is beyond all reasonable doubt, against the captive. How can torturing someone (not killing them) to obtain information that could save innocent life be argued against? The answer, in short, in my view is, it cannot be argued against in those situations.

  4. Hmmm.

    Although I am fundamentally not in favour of real-life torture and violence, I do appreciate the arguments put forward for their use in specific circumstances. Mainly because I find some of the logic compelling enough that I must allow for some debate.

    And also because I am aware that there may be times when I could possibly engage in something torturous or violent to save myself or the ones I love.

    However on the anti-torture side of the fence there is one viewpoint that is particularly strong for me: the political economy perspective.

    It is sort of Foucauldian in that it views torture as a tool of state power.

    We ask who is doing what and to benefit whom and which power structures are at play? And for what politico-economic benefit?

    It is the same argument which stands out for me in the argument against capital punishment.

    Josh mentioned the history of US state-sponsored terrorism in many parts of the world in the pursuit of free markets, capitalism and imperialism. We also had McCarthyism and his anti-communist witch hunt. And other stuff.

    And then there are the current issues regarding US/UK presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and the internment of suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

    Since 9/11, violence and torture has been sold to the world as the fight against international terrorism; and therefore against Islam and many oil-rich and nuclear-armed countries.

    So it is important to ask who drew up these cariacatures of the good and the bad guys for this new (power) play? And therefore what ends does this specific spectacle achieve?

    Therefore, I think the problem that I have with torture is that at the international level the arguments 'for' torture do not necessarily fall into the logic of 'in order to save a life', to save multiple lives' or 'to punish an evil dictator'...

    Instead it seems that torture is practised to cream off the economic benefits of the socio-economic and political suppression of politically-weaker people in order to support what is clearly a modern-day superpower imperialism....

  5. All good points. It would also be interesting to hear people's views on the question of whether we would "shed a tear if Hermann Goering had his nuts electrocuted in order to ascertain exactly where a train full of Jews was being deported too and prevent their deaths?"

    Human rights is a fascinating topic. Does everybody deserve to have their human rights protected? EVERBODY? Himmler? Fred West? Pol Pot? Will that not mean then that some people's human rights will be violated in the name of protecting others?

    Clearly the international code of human rights does not extend to sparing the lives of every human being. That is why certain countries have death penalties. However we see it, vengeance and violence are written into the constitutions of many of the world's nations.

    When I watch documentaries on the Nuremberg trials and the story of Adolf Eichmann's capture, trial, conviction and executed death sentence I feel justice has been done. When I contemplate that Josef Mengele and other Nazis and SS men lived out their days in Bolivia and died peaceful natural deaths I don't feel justice has been done. That is why I could never be a fundamental pacifist.

    Yes, Rachel, I too long for the day when peace is the natural state of the world and there are no killings or other barbarities. I don't believe that will be achieved simply through non-violence.

    It is also difficult to ultimately remove emotion from official matters. Take this case from today's news. The DC Sniper to be put to death http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/nov/10/john-allen-muhammad-execution.

    A quote from the daughter of one victim, who with other victims' families plans to attend and watch the execution is: "He basically watched my dad breathe his last breath. Why shouldn't I watch his last breath?"

    Soldiers see their friends and colleagues die everyday. It is difficult to remove emotions such as the ones just quoted from situations like this.

    I must state again, I am anti-torture. However I do not think that one individuals human rights should override that of the many.

  6. My immediate reaction to your article was similar to Rachel's: if you are emotionally involved into the decision, because you're the son or because you're an American the day after 9/11, you should not be given the choice.
    And I also nodded vigorously when I read her saying that torture should never be the solution to a problem. (Also very well put about the idiotic characterisations of liberals as "fluffy", I might quote you on that).

    But then when I actually read again the part of your article that starts talking numbers... are the human rights of one person just as important as those of ten? Of ten thousand? What if you torture someone, but not to death, to save someone's life? Does it make sense to speak of "degrees of damage"? You see? You did get me to try and draw a line, set a limit, allow something.

    Tough choice always, even in pondering.

  7. I must admit that this post has troubled me. I fully understand the arguments you’re making Josh and there’s a small part of me that can even conceive agreeing with you. It’s possibly that Darwinian vestige that you mention in your post. But it is precisely that primeval residue that brings me to my main problem with this issue. I agree with you [and Tennyson] that nature, especially human nature, is red in tooth and claw. Violence, emotion and aggression might very well be part of the blueprint of our species until the day evolution takes us elsewhere. But I don’t think we can appeal to that primeval instinct as a justification or explanation for the use of violence. As soon as we came down of trees and entered into a social contract with each other, we acknowledged the fact that as a species, we were more successful when working as unit. The unit isn’t perfect and there are elements within it that seek to destabilise it or monopolise it but regardless it’s still the best we can do as a species. When we start making this sort of decisions, trying to compare the worthiness of the one against the many, we’re betraying the very same tapestry that binds us together. This is why this issue troubles me. Because, in my opinion, the moment we accept the notion that someone’s pain [and/or death] is worth less than the lives of others, we are placing a price on human suffering that no matter how good and honest the intentions may be, cheapens the worth of our unit. This is why, in a philosophical level, I’m 100% against torture and consider it always a bad thing.

    Of course I can understand and find examples where I could conceive the use of torture necessary or maybe even push myself to the point where I’d be willing to even be the torturer myself but I don’t believe that as a human society [the unit I keep banging on about] we should accept it. As I write this, and thanks to another’s commenter’s reference to Foucault, I can’t stop remembering the details of Damiens The Regicide’s death [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert-Fran%C3%A7ois_Damiens]. I’m happy that we’ve moved on from the days when this kind of torture found a justification in an ‘enlightened’ society and I’d be hard pressed to agree with any kind of torture now, no matter how well-intentioned or necessary it may be.

    By the way, excellent post Josh! It’s kept me digging deep for a couple of days now...

  8. Yes Joshua I am a pacifist but I don't remember mentioning that in my comment and I don't see the relevance of it in this context. And, no, I can't imagine many people having much sympathy for Hermann Goering BUT that doesn't mean that it's ok.

    Imprisonment, solitary confinement, "hard labour", death penalty. They're all legal options open to us depending on where you are in the world. Personally I'd perfer that a few were struck off the list, but, they're not equivalent to torture.

    I think we may have lost the thread of this debate and conflated some of the issues. Violence does not equal torture. Occasionally the line between when violence becomes torture is blurry, but that's normally because we've crossed the line and can't see beyond our own guilt.

    Has anyone else seen Midnight Express? I saw it as a child and it's haunted me ever since. What happened in that film was torture.

    This is torture: http://anonymousradioshow.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/us-marines-torturing.jpg

    This is torture: http://www.khanfactor.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/h-torture.jpg

    This is torture: http://openlettersmonthly.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/abughraib.jpg

    These are not extreme forms of torture because by very definition there is no extreme. Torture is extreme. It's just what it is in it's true and ugly reality. If we say no, there is never a time when it is justifiable then we WILL find another solution.

  9. Candice Carboo-Ofulue11 November 2009 at 13:29

    Hmmm...I must say that I agree very much with Euclides. We have to separate our emotional/animalistic selves from our social selves, and treat the concept of torture philosophically as well as contextually.

    Freedom and democracy may come at a cost, but that cost should not be torture. Surely they come with a responsibility to human rights without discrimination. In particular, freedom from pain.

    What troubles me is the way we think about torture. I've heard so many arguments from both sides of the spectrum, from armies to human rights activists, trapped within the same emotive thinking. Could this be the problem?

    We need to think about it rationally. I'd like to propose an alternative question: "Does torture work?"

    In this respect, I have to agree with Anoushka. It seems that torture has been far more effective in suppressing civilians, silencing dissidents and maintaining corrupt and authorative regimes - rather than preventing disastrous events such as 9/11, or the bombing of the London Underground.

    I'm sure that most people would accept torture of another person they didn't know to save their mother, especially if that person is responsible for previous deaths. This is our natural, humanistic, emotional response. We are individuals with individualistic interests.

    And this is exactly what governments are not. Governments are institutions, armies are institutions. Their role should not be to mimic or exploit individualistic (or emotive) interests or desires. It is to uphold and realise our collective values and morals.

  10. Torture of another person is wrong. The action in itself is wrong. It can never be right, regardless of consequences.
    If we allow ourselves to carry out actions that are wrong for the greater good we leave our society open to the many people who will misuse torture for what they deem to be the greater good - so I guess this leads us to whether or not we trust ourselves to allow these actions to take place in extraordinary circumstances when it is absolutely necessary (to save a greater amount of lives for example)- but in all honesty - echoing josh's feelings about the nature of violence and its embodiment within ourselves - I think its best we rule it out all together - because I do not trust us yet to make the right decisions at the right times - unfortunately human consciousness hasn't come far enough yet to take on such responsibility.

  11. It seems, from reading everyone's comments, that you are all approaching this subject from a very wooley liberal point of view. You can't measure goodness or badness categorically so the point isn't whether torture is good or bad, but whether it will happen or won't.

    Truth is that the more people cease their use of torture, the bigger the competitive advantage is for those who don't.

    Which is a shame :)

  12. This question - and especially the scenario of the mother and the MI5 call - is, I think, simply a way of manufacturing a debate about the supposed rights and wrongs of torture.

    Torture is wrong. End of story. It’s morally abhorrent, appalling in its physical and psychological consequences (even for the torturers in some instances) and of negligible (ie usually zero) “intelligence” value (basically people lie when they’re in extreme pain).

    This has been acknowledged internationally, not least in things like the UN’s Convention Against Torture. To my knowledge, no country in the world allows torture within the law.

    Fine. Yet, check out any Amnesty report and you’ll see that there have been reports of torture in scores of countries even during the last year. Not one of these hundreds - probably thousands - of cases has involved a scenario even close to your kidnapped mother one. Why you say these situations happen every day I simply don’t know. They don’t. Instead, what you’ve got is the disgusting abuse: beatings, threats of rape, humiliation (think Abu Ghraib), death threats, being electrocuted (special prods are sometimes used), cigarette burns, being chained and hung up until ... you die. Murat Kurnaz, a German man held in Afghanistan (and later Guantanamo) has written about how he was hand-cuffed and hung from the ceiling by a chain for “about five days” when he was held at Kandahar. A doctor would periodically check he wasn’t dead (see pp73-76 of his excellent book: Five Years Of My Life: an innocent man in Guantanamo). If you haven’t seen it, also take look at this powerful reconstruction of what “waterboarding” torture is really like: http://www.protectthehuman.com/videos/waterboarding-ad-the-stuff-of-life

    Let’s not forget that this stuff is very real - unlike the imaginary kidnapped mother scenario. Torturers probably quite like it when we debate the supposedly important question of whether torture is ever justified. It might make them feel a little better (unlike their victims).

    I’ve blogged for Amnesty about torture before - please check out these posts if you’re interested:

    http://blogs.amnesty.org.uk/blogs_entry.asp?eid=2678 http://blogs.amnesty.org.uk/blogs_entry.asp?eid=2176

    And, for those really interested (!), come to this Amnesty event in London on Thur 26 November. Doubtful? Well, there’ll be free wine! Cheers, Niluccio.

  13. Oh, THIS 26 Nov Amnesty event: http://www.amnesty.org.uk/events_details.asp?ID=1335

  14. A final note from me. The differentiation of torturing and torturing to death needs to be firmly embedded into this debate. As in my view it changes the whole debate. Most people could recover from being tortured, no one recovers from being tortured to death. That and whether human life can (or could realistically) be saved from the tortured being tortured. In such cases emotion, morals, principals and even debate should be redunadant. Logic, commonsense and the desire to protect human life should in those cases be the only considerations.

    (Again my arguement assumes the person/people to be tortured are deemed guilty beyond all reasonable doubt)

  15. Of course the kidnapped mother scenario was designed to encourage a debate. That was the whole point of this piece. However, to dismiss the emotions that such a scenario would engender is a little naive. It is quite clear that many soldiers or policeman have taken up arms/badges as a result of personal bereavements. Particularly in guerilla or militia conflicts and civil wars such as in the former Yugoslavia, Sudan or Somalia. It doesn't then take a great leap of imagination to suppose that some of these emotionally-charged, angry young men who have taken up arms would extend themselves to committing torture on the enemy. While torture is perhaps a more sadistic form of violence than shooting somebody in the head, I think we are all still able to imagine ourselves in the mindset whereby you would want to physically hurt the perceived perpetrators who had killed your mother, or indeed your whole family.

    That is one example of the reasons for torture, the emotional case. Another might be more in line with my other point, protecting the masses. If in a conflict in say Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Chechnya, Liberia or wherever, a fighter who is captured who turns out to be the right hand man of a general who is responsible for the ongoing ordering of indiscriminate public bombings, rapings, amputations or genocidal raids on villages. How would you deal with this right hand man? A man who has the key to finding the general. Imprisoning the man will not stop the bombings or rapings or militia men chopping off children's hands and feet. We could ask him as to the whereabouts of his boss. He's not going to tell us.

    Yes people lie under torture. They also tell the truth.

    I completely accept that the majority of the cases of torture that continue to be perpetrated around the world, including those by US forces in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, or by secret police in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, have no justifiable context whatsoever and are abhorrent and should be exposed by organisations like Amnesty International and prevented at all costs.

    The point of the article did not refer to such cases. It aimed to raise a point as to whether torture is ever justifiable, by using the examples of personal emotion or the lives of the many. These are legitmate questions to raise as cases exist which involve elements of each. I was raising the issue of where our morals lie in such situations. Clearly, everybody has their own opinions, their own personal politics to uphold and their own moral code. I thank you all for raising your points.

  16. "Yes people lie under torture. They also tell the truth."

    If that's the case, how are you going to tell the difference? The information extracted is only going to be useful if you can be sure it is accurate - which you have just admitted you can't.

    Apart from the moral argument against torture, then we must address the practical argument. Torture doesn't work: it doesn't produce reliably accurate information. Consequently it is unjustifiable.

  17. How can anybody be sure anything anyone says is true without verification, whether tortured or not? I don't see how this argument works with regard to torture.

    Have you ever tortured anybody? How do you know whether it works or not? I would imagine in many cases the CIA extract accurate information otherwise they wouldn't use it. Unless you think they are purely sadistic...

    I think exploring the moral argument is more fruitful than the 'practical'.

  18. Well, then, please feel free to present your evidence that torture "works", rather than relying on your imaginings.

    Most professional interrogators reject the reliability of information obtained in this way, and evidence obtained by torture is not admissible in court anyway.

  19. I have no evidence as to whether torture "works" or not. Nor would I want to present such evidence as I have clearly stated I am against the use of torture. The point of this piece is whether or not there are ever occasions where torture becomes morally acceptable.

    I was not referring to torture to extract evidence that may be used as evidence in court. I don't think that is the point of torture in any of it's forms. And as you said, such extractions are inadmissable in court. I have mentioned in previous comments some of the different motivations that might incite people to carry out torture, rightly or wrongly. In the last instanceI was referring more to the instances where torture is used 'strategically' for 'security' issues as you brought up the point about extracting information. The point of extracting information through torture, I would have thought, is not to use in court but to use the information to prevent other people being killed?

  20. The point is that if torture doesn't work i.e. doesn't produce reliable information, then the moral argument becomes irrelevant. Why bother to agonise over whether something completely pointless is right or wrong?

  21. Your statement does not stand up Matthew

    Torture can produce reliable information - and unreliable information as well

    Just as questioning can produce good and bad info

    Rgeardless of how you get the intel it must be verified

  22. If torture is no better than questioning at producing reliable information (and it isn't) then there is no reason to do (and plenty of reasons not to).