On Government-Sponsored Torture (from the collected works)

In this essay, I will address the moral issues that pertain to the justification for government-sponsored torture as a means of extracting information, in this case the government being the United States. I will demonstrate that while torture might be an effective method for gaining such information, it is by no means a fool-proof method, and the infrastructure required to maintain an efficient torture program would inevitably be subject to corruption and would become detrimental to both the individuals involved and, in the long term, to the United States itself.

When torture is discussed in America, there only seems to be one setting in which most people believe that the practice would be justified, and that, of course, is the “ticking time-bomb” scenario. In this scenario, a terrorist has planted a time-bomb in a public place, and only torture can make him reveal the information necessary to stop the bomb. The choice presented is very narrow: the rights of one terrorist versus the rights of perhaps thousands of innocents. In this scenario, a majority of Americans agree that torture is, in fact, justified.

The reason most people accept torture at this point is that most people are utilitarian in thinking; that is, they seek the option that “maximizes total aggregate happiness.” (Allhoff, 245) This school of thought weights the offended right of one against the offended rights of many and favors the many. The opposite school of moral thought is that of deontology, which teaches that people should never be treated as merely as means to an end, and that regardless of the circumstance, a person’s rights must never be violated. (Allhoff, 246) This protection of individual rights would not be abrogated by that person’s participation in criminal or violent activity, no matter how heinous that activity may appear. (Allhoff, 248) In fact, it would be argued that it is exactly those people who we find most offensive that are in the most need of our protection, because public sentiment so willingly denies them sympathy.

Most Americans tend to reject the absolutist nature of deontology, and are more comfortable in the more practical elements of utilitarianism. Alhoff argues that torture is permissible under the following conditions: “…the use of torture aims at the acquisition of information; the captive is reasonably thought to have the relevant information; the information corresponds to a relevant and significant threat; and the information could likely lead to the prevention of that threat.” (Allhoff, 255) No doubt, most Americans would tend to agree with this rubric.

Once the legality of torture is established, the discussion of which tortures are themselves permissible ensues. For example, how much pain is too much pain? Allhoff sets the bar at “the minimum trauma necessary to obtain the desired compliance.” (Allhoff, 256) What is, after all, a minimum amount of pain? Since pain thresholds vary from person to person, setting an objective standard is impossible, so this would be left to the interpretation of the torturer, who is necessarily in a conflicted position from which to judge what pain has exceeded the “minimum”; in these situations, restraint is rare, while “escalation is the rule.” (Luban, 1447) Even if one could imagine a scenario whereby this threshold would be observed, myriad other problems present themselves, one of which Allhoff himself recognizes, the problem of misinformation. (Allhoff, 258)

Since most interrogations are largely “fishing” expeditions, it would be a comparatively easy thing for a detained individual to reveal “misinformation”, or inaccuracies designed to mislead the interrogators. Soldiers and other combatants are routinely trained to do just this by their governments, and it may not be known for months or years exactly what information was true and what was not. Under torture, prisoners would be far more likely to tell the interrogators what they think they want to hear, whether it is true or not, complicating the information gathering process.

Another complication is that genuine information that has been obtained through conventional investigatory methods can almost never reveal exactly what any one prisoner may be withholding, or even a group of prisoners. Therefore, since the interrogators do not know what it is exactly that they are looking for, it would become necessary to torture nearly everyone to be sure that all pertinent has been obtained, and then to cross-check that new information against the torture-acquired information just obtained from other prisoners. If there were any conflicts between accounts of tortured prisoners, more torturing must occur, so that confirming information can be extracted, which must then be cross-checked again, ad infinatum. Eventually, those prisoners that have survived would be saying almost anything to avoid increasing pain. Deciphering the truth from the lies would be nearly impossible. It seems that torture is a poor interrogation method at best.

From my perspective, however, the real problem with legalized torture is the creation of a permanent state-sanctioned torture infrastructure. This new government bureaucracy would by necessity be populated with individuals who would be trained to inflict pain on their fellow humans while feeling nothing themselves. Because of the chain of command, they would be automatons executing decision made from above by people who have no direct contact or responsibility for the individuals being tortured. (Luban, 1447) The current poster child of this “torture culture” is Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where ordinary American soldiers committed terrible crimes against prisoners. This outcome is not remarkable once torture is institutionalized, and would be replicated on a far greater scale if torture in general becomes an acceptable interrogation tool. (Luban, 1452)

The persons who would be part of this culture of torture would themselves likely become psychological casualties, as …”virtuous people are probably not involved in the intentional and coerced causation of pain and suffering in other human beings…” and could be considered”…damaged goods.” (Casebeer, 268) The difficulty of soldiers returning from combat assimilating into normal society has already been well documented. One can only imagine the difficulty to be encountered when one’s occupation is to torture and maim professionally.

This culture of torture clashes not just with American values, but also more directly with American identity. Since the founding of this nation, Americans have always considered themselves a “city on a hill”, a shining example of the greatest aspirations of humanity and even perhaps morally superior to the “old world”. In past wars, Americans have prided themselves on not retaliating against an enemy they considered ruthless and barbaric. When the enemy committed crimes against soldiers and civilians, retaliation was still frowned upon. (May, 317) The enemy was not treated as they deserved to be treated, but as human and vulnerable. (May, 318) When those wars were over, veterans were welcomed home having not just vanquished an enemy, but also having reinforced American values and identity. If the United States were to establish the legitimacy of institutionalized torture, that identity would be rapidly eroded.

In my view, torture must be prohibited at all times not just because it is ineffective as an interrogation tool and it complicates other more conventional interrogation practices. In a free society, a society where people grow up secure in the belief that they have value as individuals, a society that believes it has values to offer the world, torture is a lethal threat. American identity depends upon the belief that we are morally better than nations that routinely torture, and we must recognize that government-sponsored torture does great damage to the individuals who direct and inflict it. Torture may damage the bodies of terrorists; it would certainly destroy the soul of America.


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