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Debate: Torture

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Is torture ever justified?

Background and context

Torture, according to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, is: "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him,
or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions."

In the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, the Bush administration implemented policies that including controversial, coercive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. Many consider these coercive techniques to fit within the above definition of torture. And, while the administration claimed that this was not the case, a debate was initiated within this context as to whether overt torture (however it may be defined) could ever be justified. The most commonly cited instance is the so-called "ticking time-bomb" scenario, in which an detained terrorists is known to know of the location of a nuclear weapon that is set to go off shortly, perhaps in one-hour. In this case, the question is asked, is torture justified to extract information necessary to save hundreds of thousands of lives? This question is one focus of this article, and is widely debated by experts and political leaders.

See Wikipedia: Torture and Torture and the United States for greater background

Contents

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Saving lives? Can torture help save innocent lives?

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Yes

  • Torture can protect the life and dignity of the innocent - While some argue that torture violates the dignity of man, it is necessary to view torture in the proper context of defending the life and dignity of the innocent lives that the man who is being tortured threatens. It would never be questioned morally if a man pulled out a gun to shoot innocent civilians and a policeman then shot him down. There would be no argument about the assailants dignity because the assailant was threatening the dignity, life, and rights of other human beings. As such, the assailant sacrifices many of their rights, including the right to be treated with dignity and to continue living (if the man threatens others). There is little difference between a man on the verge of shooting innocent civilians and a man that retains and withholds vital information that could help save the lives of innocent civilians (possibly millions). Both are poised to kill innocent civilians, and both have foregone their right to dignified treatment and life itself. The state has the obligation to protect the rights of the innocent over the assailant in both moments.
  • Torture has saved lives - Many claim that torture has helped saved lives. Various instances exist that appear to demonstrate that a terrorist plot was foiled by information acquired through torture.
  • Torture produces valuable and reliable information. - This argument is included in the above argument page. In order for torture to save lives, the information obtained from it must be reliable.
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No

  • Nations committing torture rally an even greater hatred from their enemies A country that performs torture can expect its enemies to exploit this fact as a tool for rallying even greater hatred around their cause. As this seed of hatred is strengthened, it can be expected that a country's enemies will be more effective in recruiting for their cause. This puts a country at greater general risk than before. While instances of torture might be cited as having saved lives, the general existence of torture as a rallying call for terrorists may lead to a greater loss of lives in the long-run.
  • Torture violates and weakens international law. Confidence in international law requires that it is followed. If it is not followed in regard to torture, it is difficult for other nations to trust that it will be followed in other areas.
  • Humane methods of interrogation are better at obtaining information than torture Mind control drugs, sleep deprivation, good cop-bad cop techniques, and verbal intimidation are some examples of these techniques. They may produce more reliable information because they do not take an individual to a level of pain that could cause them to lie desperately to stop the torture. And, of course, these methods are humane.
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Ticking time bomb: Might torture be justified in the famous ticking time-bomb scenario?

This scenario is typically used to justify torture as a means to save hundreds of thousands of lives from a "ticking time bomb" in downtown Manhattan. See Wikipedia: Ticking Time-Bomb Scenario
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Yes

  • Brutal killing is considered ethical in certain situations when at war. Are there situations where the less brutal water-boarding is ethical? -If a soldier is being attacked by the enemy and he has no weapon except a bayonet, he has been trained and is expected to stab and rip the enemy‚Äôs body in the most brutal and destructive way possible. This is considered legal, ethical, heroic and commendable. However, if the enemy surrenders, then the soldier must feed, medicate and look after the well being of the enemy soldier. Even the mildest torture of prisoners of war has been judged to be illegal, unethical, cowardly and punishable. Obviously the conditions of the situation determine what is acceptable and what is not. If all of the brutal ways of killing the enemy during war is considered the right thing to do under certain situations, then I propose that there are situations where water-boarding could be the right thing to do. What determines which actions are right or wrong? The SPECIFIC CONDITIONS OF THE SITUATION determine what is right. Arguments that killing/torture is always wrong, it violates the dignity of the human being, it violates protection of the vulnerable, that no one can know with certainty that the enemy will hurt the soldier, that killing that enemy may not make a difference, that killing erodes the character of a nation and its success in the war of ideas are obviously ridiculously insignificant when fighting a war with an opponent such as Nazi Germany. We should use our least brutal but most effective tool to persuade him to give information about his organization. Currently, our best tool is water-boarding.
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No

  • The "ticking time-bomb" imagines an impossible scenario of perfect information - It is nearly impossible that intelligence would lead to the certainty of the existence of a "ticking time-bomb", the exact nature of the bomb, the location, the timing of the detonation, and the lives at stake. It is also impossible to know with certainty that a suspect has information that will help locate and difuse the bomb. Finally, it is uncertain whether torture will be able to sway an individual to reveal this information (assuming they have it). In other words, it is impossible to determine with any certainty the exact end (the possibility of saving lives) as well as the effectiveness of the means (torture) in helping save lives. This makes it impossible to enter into the "ticking time-bomb's" ethical calculation that would justify the means (torture) by the ends (saving lives).
  • The ticking time-bomb scenario leads to a slippery slope of intrusion on rights - The ticking time-bomb scenario is based on probabilities of risk, not certainties, that could lead to a slippery slope of torturing individuals on the mere speculation that it could save lives. Rights could be trampled and torture justified on any intelligence that leads to the mere speculation that it could save lives. Such utilitarianism is highly risky and prone to abuse along a slippery slope that risks tyranny.
  • Torture erodes the character of a nation and its success in the war of ideas - A civilized nation cannot keep the moral high-ground if it commits acts of torture. This moral high ground is essential in the long-term war of ideas. If torture is considered brutal and uncivilized, than a civilized nation that desires to have a civilizing effect on the world must avoid torture, or risk undermining its ideological advantage. Even if the "ticking time bomb" scenario were possible, it must be weighed against these substantial costs. But, this scenario's unlikeliness of occurring makes it difficult to justify against the substantial costs that torture entails to the "war of ideas".
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International law: Is torture banned under international law?

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Yes

  • Terrorists relinquish most of their right to protection under the law. Michael Levin. "The Case for Torture" - "There is an important difference between terrorists and their victims that should mute talk of the terrorists' 'rights.' The terrorist's victims are at risk unintentionally, not having asked to be endangered. But the terrorist knowingly initiated his actions. Unlike his victims, he volunteered for the risks of his deed. By threatening to kill for profit or idealism, he renounces civilized standards, and he can have no complaint if civilization tries to thwart him by whatever means necessary."
  • Terrorists have no Geneva rights - The Geneva Convention applies only to Prisoners of War whom are troops of nations that have both signed and abide by the Geneva convention. This does not apply to terrorists who have not state affiliation, have no signatory connection to the Geneva Convention, and who willingly violate the rules of war on the Geneva Convention.
  • The Convention against Torture only applies to torture on a countrys' own soil: "...America had ratified (in 1988) the Convention against Torture, but that applied only to acts carried out on American soil, they said." This is justification for the use of Guantanamo Bay.
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No

  • Torture is discouraged by article 5 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, stating, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." In times of war, signatories of the Third Geneva Convention and Fourth Geneva Convention agree not to torture protected persons (POWs and enemy civilians) in armed conflicts.
  • Torture is banned under The United Nations Convention Against Torture - This treaty applies to all individuals, POW or terrorist. While some may argue that the Geneva Convention does not protect, for example, Al Qaeda terrorists because they are not parties to a state, the Convention Against Torture certainly does protect terrorists from torture. This is an unambiguous piece of international law forbidding the use of torture in ALL circumstances, including the "exceptional" ticking time-bomb" scenario.
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Protecting troops: Does practicing torture NOT undermine the safety of a country's own troops?

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Yes

  • Terrorists are going to kidnap, torture, and kill Western troops regardless of whether the West uses torture: Terrorists are brutal enemies that would not be affected by the decision of a Western country to use torture. They are already kidnapping, torturing, and killing foreign troops without any calculating consideration of whether the country they oppose is utilizing the tactic of torture. Terrorists are already as extreme as can be; they won't be made more extreme and threatening to sovereign troops because a country is committing torture.
  • Torture is not being applied to legitimate foreign troops, but terrorists: No Western nation is performing torture on prisoners of war (POWs) from other sovereign states. If they are performing torture, it is on terrorists or "enemy combatants", which will not cause other states to react in any way regarding the treatment of POWs.
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No

  • Performing torture puts a country's troops at risk of being tortured in return - One of the main reasons for international laws regarding the treatment of prisoners of war is to protect a country's own troops from mistreatment abroad. If a country performs torture, however, it becomes impossible to demand that torture not be performed on their own troops. In this way, the practice of torture jeopardizes the safety of a country's own troops.
  • Torture dehumanizes the torturer - Torture puts the torturer in a position of dominance and abuse that has a brutalizing effect. This brutalizing effect is dehumanizing, or at least it defeats the virtues of compassion, empathy, and dignity that define a good human being, perhaps in God's image.
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Punishment: Can torture be justified as an added form of punishment?

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Yes

  • Some terrorists may deserve a little extra punishment for the death and misery they've caused. - If some terrorist have inflicted a massive amount of pain and suffering, aren't they due a proportional amount of punishment. Isn't this their due desert? Or at least, should we flinch at the notion that the most evil of them are experiencing only a tiny fraction of the pain and suffering that they have caused or intend to cause?
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No

  • Cruel and unusual punishment is prohibited in all civilized countries, undermining a strict reading of due desert. While due desert is an important legal concept, there must be boundaries to it. A terrorist should be punished to the maximum extend, either with life imprisonment or even capital punishment, but that is the limit. Anything beyond these punishments, including torture, would be considered beyond the realm of acceptability by civilized nations.
  • Torture actually creates sympathy for people who should otherwise be scorned and shamed. Pity for terrible criminals and terrorists should not be fostered, as it undermines that appropriate punishment of shame and guilt. Yet, torture affords such figures an element of pity from a public that generally opposes torture. The defendant is pitied and defended by the public instead of vilified.
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Moderate forms of torture - Is it acceptable to allow more moderate forms of torture?

Although there is no definition of moderate forms of torture, such forms of torture could include sleep deprivation, exposure to extremes of hot and cold, prolonged stress positions, hooding and violent shaking.
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Yes

  • Advanced interrogations are perfectly legal: The infliction of severe pain or bodily damage is generally considered the definition of torture. But this leaves plenty of legal room for advanced interrogations that inflict serious discomfort and pain (not severe pain) on the suspect. The law actually allows for a substantial amount of aggressive interrogation techniques.
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No

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International torture: Does the widespread use of torture internationally make it less bad for the West to perform it?

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Yes

  • The West's use of torture is trivial compared to many countries - The problem with the heavy criticisms of the use of torture in Western countries such as the United States is that it seems to ignore the much more gruesome use of torture in third-world and developing countries. It is as if each instance of torture in a Western country would count as worse than the same instance of torture in a third-world or developing country.
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No

  • Countries should act on principle, not the prevailing trends of other countries. It doesn't matter what other countries or the world in general are doing. If torture is wrong, it is wrong. Countries should not use the prevalence of the practice of torture in some countries as a shield for their utilizing this unprincipled tool.
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Religious arguments

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Yes

  • Protecting the dignity of the innocent is the objective of torture. Protecting the dignity of man in God's image is an important concept. But, it is not violated by torture. Torture involves a trade-off in which the dignity of innocent victims, who are also in God's image, is weighed above the dignity of a terrorist suspect that threatens those individuals. It is acceptable to make this trade-off in the interests of protecting the most humans in God's image.
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No

  • Why Christians should not support torture - There are many Christian arguments against torture, but the primary of them centers on the dignity of man, made in God's image. To torture is to violate that image.
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Institutionalized torture? Could the institutionalization of torture be avoided?

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Yes

  • State sanctioned torture would not reduce morale if understood in the proper context of the national security mission. Torture, in the "ticking time bomb" scenario, can be effectively utilized to save millions of lives. If those that are engaged in the process of developing torture tactics have this valid and profound national security benefit in mind and at heart, they should have no problem with morale.
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No

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United States law: Does United States law allow for torture?

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Yes

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No

  • The US Supreme Court ruled in the 2006 Hamdan case that detainees are protected from torture by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions: The US Supreme Court ruling in Hamdan in 2006 ruled that all detainees, wherever held, were protected by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which bans all forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as well as torture. The Bush administration was forced to accept accept this ruling.
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Public support: Does the general public believe torture can be justified?

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Yes

  • Torture "to save lives" has a substantial body of support among publics: In an October 2006 BBC survey of 27,000 people in 25 countries, more than one out of three people in nine of those countries, including America, considered a degree of torture acceptable if it saved lives.[1]
  • "Half of Americans think that torturing terrorist suspects can be "sometimes" or "often" justified." ["Agent improbable", The Economist, June 2010]
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No

The majority of people think that torture can never be justified:

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US politicians

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Yes

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No

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Bibliography pro and con

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Yes

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No

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Pro/con organizations: What are the main advocacy organizations in this debate?

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Yes

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No

See also

External links and resources:

Books

  • Greenberg, Karen. "The torture debate in America". 2005.

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