The Morality of Torture
Senator McCain argued “Our enemies act without conscience. We must not … It is essential to our success in this war that we ask those who fight it for us to remember at all times that they are defending a sacred ideal of how nations should be governed and conduct their relations with others — even our enemies.”
Senator Ted Cruz — also a politician I respect, and whose presidential ambitions I intend to support in 2016 — echoed McCain’s view: “Torture is wrong, unambiguously, period, the end.”
But is torture “a stain on our nation’s honor,” as McCain’s says, or “wrong, unambiguously,” as says Cruz? I argue that in very limited circumstances torture is not only not ‘unambiguously wrong,’ but may be the most moral of possible options. In fact, I contend that it may be, in some situations, immoral not to torture.
“Torture defenders” often imagine what’s normally referred to as a Ticking Time Bomb scenario, based on the hypothetical along the lines that we have captured a terrorist who knew the location of a nuclear bomb that is set to detonate in 24 hours. According to a Pew poll, 71% of respondents approve the use of torture in at least rare circumstances and this scenario certainly qualifies. (Interestingly, former law professor and AACONS radio guest, Alan Dershowitz, in fact, argues that these sorts of cases are acceptable but “this should be a decision made at the highest level possible”).
But for some, like Professor Henry Shue, even the prevention of catastrophe is not enough to justify torture: “Some of us may, or may not, as a result of our refusal to tolerate secret torture bureaucracies and their gulags, die in some other catastrophe, but civilized principles will survive for members of future generations, who may be grateful for our sacrifice so that they could lead decent lives.”
And the United Nations is even more clearer in rejecting the Ticking Time Bomb scenario. In its Convention Against Torture, it declared “no exceptional circumstances, whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
But when faced with the capture of a suspect who may have knowledge to prevent great harm, one generally has three options. The first option – the most common and clearly the most ideal – is normal interrogation techniques; such as building a rapport, using questioning and threats, lie detectors maybe, and so on. This method takes time however, and I wonder how effective it is with a detainee whose resistance is hardened by faith or fanaticism. The second would be to surrender the possibility of extracting the information, either resigning oneself to the consequences of this or perhaps hoping that there will be no consequence. Or one can use enhanced interrogation techniques (“torture”).
Assuming the rare circumstance that the first option is not a workable option — maybe because of time constraints or some other reason — which of the other two remaining options would most likely result in the least amount of harm? And, is that option, because it results in the least harm, not then the most moral?
For torture to be moral, however, it should be emphasized that it must be a last resort option inflicted with the least amount of severity possible. Most importantly, it must be for the greater good. Torture for the sadistic pleasure of the torturer — much like the torture Senator McCain endured — is of course evil and distinguishable from the sort of torture I would support under desperate conditions.
Some would raise the point that the Ticking Time Bomb scenario is so far-fetched that it does not deserve consideration. “It’s never happened. It probably never will.” says The Atlantic. Professor Shue wrote a paper entitled, “Torture in Dreamland: Disposing of the Ticking Bomb” to roll his eyes at the scenario. But Ticking Time Bomb scenarios do occur more often than these critics realize, even if they do not involve hidden nukes threatening million of lives.
One frequent guest on our AACONS radio show is former Representative Lt. Col. Allen West. While serving in Iraq, West was faced with a Ticking Time Bomb scenario. He had an Iraqi detainee who had information about an impending ambush on his unit. West was then faced with the scenario described earlier. He had to choose between hoping that normal interrogation techniques would work before he and his men were killed; forgoing the information and accept as inevitable the death of his men; hoping that the ambushers would change their minds; or using enhanced interrogation.
West decided to fire a pistol near the head of the detainee. The Army decided this was torture, fined West, and forced him to resign or face of very serious charges. West resigned. But today, he and his men are still alive. West made the moral choice.