Commentary: Torture

Commentary: Torture

In discussions about torture, widely available on television, in newspapers and magazines, and online, a lot of issues have been raised. Is waterboarding torture? Does the “ticking time bomb” scenario justify torture? Is torture only acceptable for “enemy combatants” or does an emergency justify torture of anybody, including foreign soldiers and even American citizens?  These are all very interesting and important questions.

  1. Does waterboarding constitute torture? It causes serious physical and mental anguish and creates a fear of death. So yes, it is torture.
  2. If the prisoner has information that would allow you to prevent great loss of life, is it justifiable to torture him to retrieve that information quickly?  How do you know the prisoner has the information you want and that it would result in saving lives if you obtained that information? You can’t know for sure. So is it alright to torture if you THINK the prisoner has the information and you could save lives if you could get him to give it to you? What if you just SUSPECT he knows something you need? What if you have no reliable data about what he does or does not know but he MIGHT know something useful? Where do you draw the line? If torture is justified and useful, then you cannot draw a line. Every person brought in must be tortured until you are sure he has told everything he knows.
  3. If torture is justified in a particular situation, there can be no distinction among enemy combatants, terrorists, foreign soldiers, journalists, medics, American soldiers, or ordinary citizens, including Americans.

The fact is, these arguments are just a way of avoiding the real issue by changing the subject. As long as the discussion focuses on what is or is not torture or when it should be applied and to whom we are dodging the real issue, which suits proponents of torture just fine. Torture of a prisoner is not acceptable under any circumstances. That is all there is to it. It is not acceptable ethically, morally, or legally (despite the current administration’s attempts to change the subject by referring to “enhanced interrogation techniques).

If you still contend that somehow we must commit illegal and morally despicable against a prisoner because of immediate danger, there is the possibility of a compromise. If, because of a dire and imminent danger that only the knowledge held by the prisoner can avert, the interrogator believes that torture is necessary, then do it. If the prisoner possesses the knowledge he is believed to possess, and if he divulges that knowledge after torture, and if that information does in fact avert a disaster and save lives, the interrogator is justified in the use of torture. All of these conditions must be met. If the prisoner does not know what you think he knows, or if he does not tell you despite being tortured, or if he dies as a result of the torture before he tells you, or if what he tells you does not result in preventing a calamity of some sort and saving lives, then you have committed a crime and so have all of your superiors who authorized you to use torture. I can assure you that the legal penalties for torturing a captive human being are severe, so you had better be right. Following orders is not a valid defense for perpetrating acts you know to be illegal.

For the most part, the people who actually torture captives do not do it because they want to save lives or defend their country; they do it because they like doing it. Many of those who support the use of torture have a similar motive. They like the idea of causing other people pain and making them fear for their lives. Torture of captives primarily benefits the desires of the people who hold the captives. Devising new ways to make people scream is something they find entertaining. It is not acceptable behavior in a civilized society to reward the sadistic impulses of some of its members by allowing them to perpetrate outrages upon prisoners.