Imagine you are the head of a government and you have just captured a wanted terrorist. You know from extensive intelligence research that his organization is planning on committing another heinous attack—soon. New evidence shows that criminals such as this one will almost certainly speak (truthfully) if food is withheld for a short time—say thirty-six hours. Having the information he gives will enable you to stop the attack and save thousands of lives that, as the head of the government, you are responsible for protecting.
And so you have two options: you could let the criminal miss a few meals and save lives, or you could explain to your people why you allowed their friends and family to die to preserve the rights of some criminal.
Of course, moral choices in the real world are never quite so stark. However, looking at a case as extreme as this one helps clear what seem to be muddied waters. If “starving” the criminal is not OK in this constructed situation, then surely it is impossible to defend any other form of torture. And although the decision on whether or not to torture may be made by politicians responsible for the protection of their country’s citizens, this is a human question that we all must ask ourselves. We cannot put off a decision: torture is more prevalent than ever and shows no signs of going away on its own.
The UN defines torture as the intentional infliction of physical or mental harm for the purpose of intimidation or any discriminatory reason, carried out by, or at the request of, an individual in an official capacity. Torture is defined in these general terms to recognize the vast range of events that can (and should) be classified as torture. A few missed meals may not seem like much, but if the victim does not believe their next meal is coming, one cannot deny the mental harm it may cause. And this act, carried out intentionally and in an official capacity, would certainly fit the criteria for torture.
Often, when we think of torture, we imagine a dark cell with a prisoner chained up—starving, beaten, and afraid. Though missing a few meals may not seem like enough “severe pain” to fit this image, torture is not limited to physical experience. Consider the last time you’ve been held in suspense and thought to yourself how torturous it seemed. Now imagine wondering whether you’ve eaten your last meal. The act of withholding meals—even just a few—for the purpose of creating this excruciating emotion must be classified as torture.
In addition to being morally irresponsible, torture is financially and legally irresponsible—and ineffective. When torture is used to confirm information, it can often lead to less-than-accurate results. Torturers are often pushed to meet requirements, and are progressively more aggressive in order to meet them. Rather than working towards accurate information, they are torturing for any information at all.
Major Paul Burney, a psychiatrist at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, told the Senate Armed Service Committee that “a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq and we were not successful. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link … there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.” Torture often does no more than give administrations the shallow confirmation they need to move forward with the ideas and connections they havve already assumed.
Victims are often called on to identify the perpetrator of the crime in ordinary criminal cases. However, there is growing doubt about the accuracy of witness identification of criminals in a line-up, and fewer and fewer jurisdictions use these methods as evidence. It is recognized that memory—especially under stress—is not the most reliable source of information. Anyone who has ever played telephone could tell you that in a minute. Why do we trust a criminal to recount his thoughts under stress, but question an innocent witness’s testimony? The reliability of information procured through torture is questionable at best. Rather than wasting time on a potential dead-end or source of minimal or inaccurate information, our intelligence forces should be putting their resources to surer methods.
Although torture clearly does not work in practice (because it gives inaccurate information), that is not to say that it will never be accurate. Perhaps someone will develop an algorithm or invent a machine that can (almost) guarantee accuracy. Unlikely as it may be, it is important to consider this possibility of torture one day working and still be able to reject it as a means of obtaining information; if torture did work, why would it still be wrong?
Perhaps the most immediate reason for condemning torture is that it is strictly forbidden by numerous international laws, conventions, and protocols. However, this alone is not a conclusive argument against torture because we made those conventions. They are not some universal fact that we are mandated to follow; we signed on to torture prohibitions, and we can back out of them.
Condemning torture should be a matter of international values, which should in turn be supported by policies. Torture brings to light the morals and fundamental philosophical beliefs of a society. The question is not whether or not the international community accepts torture it is whether we should accept the decisions of the leaders who agreed to forbid it in the first place.We cannot have a society where a vital safety mechanism is structured around the suffering of one, or a few. And encouraging ignorance of the situation only makes it worse—we lie to ourselves and others.
Above all else, torture is a violation of human rights. We place limits on human rights when we take criminals into custody, tax public goods, and restrict movement through borders and tolls. So, we must ask ourselves, why can we violate some rights for the greater good, but not others? What makes torture different?
If we are willing to admit that torture is ever justified (for instance, in a case of low-impact torture that yields good results, like the instance we first examined), then we must also be willing to accept that there are at least some grounds to justify torture. Accepting one case of torture weakens the claim that torture is wrong, even when the divide between right and wrong seems clear to us as individuals. Although each of us may have a point along a spectrum where she draws the line on torture, this firm line warps when we try to synthesize our views to create national policy. The hard line we draw is challenged by both sides until it becomes less clear to even us, and soon what was once ruled entirely unacceptable to us is acceptable, and hidden in a collective responsibility we can no longer control.
It may seem ridiculous that withholding a few meals from a criminal for the benefit of everyone else is even called into question. Clearly, torturing this one individual yields a net benefit to society; however, though this may seem to be the case, it teeters on the edge of still having a net negative effect. Should we accept torture—no matter to what degree—of one individual, then we risk accepting torture on greater scales (either more people or more severe torture methods). By crossing the line and accepting torture, we allow for the potential of regular, institutionalized torture. Torture is a moral concern, but if the utilitarian approach must be taken, then it still cannot be justified. By torturing one, we endanger all to be subjected to the same fate.
Call it a few missed meals, enhanced interrogation techniques, or simply maintaining order in society, but the fact remains that torture is torture. Violating the rights of an individual for social gains cannot be tolerated, let alone institutionalized as a valid state procedure. We often speak of torture as something distant from ourselves—as something that could never happen to us, or the people we know and love. But torture is closer than we would like to believe. It happens to asylum seekers, our favorite journalists, and truly innocent people.
A problem does not go away no matter how much you refuse to look at it. Ignorance does not grant us a free pass to violate human rights. And the blame cannot continue to be passed around: the preservation of rights is a responsibility we must take on as individuals and as a society. Torture is different from other ways in which we restrict human rights for the common good. It inflicts incredible harm, yet it is not absolutely necessary; more often than not, we can obtain the same information by other means. And when we do get information from the people we torture, there is no guarantee it is right. Torture is a gamble for information, and the initial stake is the rights of another person. The odds are not great, the cost is high, and the return is minimal. Ask any gambler, and they would tell you to fold.
Danielle Schmidt is the Chicago Section Editor for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.