Torture:  Foolish and Wrong



Craig Duncan

Ithaca College

Department of Philosophy and Religion



President Bush says he opposes torture.  Today, though, he signed into law the “Military Commissions Act of 2006,” which (among other outrageous things) would allow him, alone and in secret, to determine which interrogation methods do and do not comport with the Geneva Conventions.  In all likelihood, the Bush Administration’s aim is to continue abusive interrogation methods that on any reasonable definition amount to torture (methods such as “waterboarding,” for example, in which a detainee is laid on his back and choked with water until he believes he is drowning). This new law, however, is both foolish and immoral:  foolish, because torture won’t make Americans safer; and immoral, because torture is the grossest of affronts to human dignity.

Start first with its foolishness.   One reason torture is foolish is that in the short-run torture is unlikely to produce the information needed to stop terrorist attacks.  For starters, the tortured person may well be innocent.  Or he may be guilty, but by just making up answers he may be able to stall long enough for the attack to proceed.  

A second, even more important reason not to torture is that torture has counter-productive long-run consequences, and hence carries a high danger of at best winning the battle but losing the war.  Why is this?  At least four reasons stand out.

First, relaxing our constraints against prisoner abuse only encourages the abuse of American troops who are captured in war. 

Second, torture gives evidence of American brutality, and terrorists’ appeals to this evidence serve their recruitment goals.  Thus, even if you actually foil a bomb plot, you have in all probability merely created scores more bombers. 

Third, torture can serve terrorists’ political goals by inspiring a rise in anti-Americanism among even non-terrorists. The harm this does to the fight against terrorism is incalculable, since foiling terrorist plots requires the pooling of international intelligence resources.  Political leaders in countries with strong anti-American publics will feel less free to cooperate with American intelligence agencies.  Moreover, disgruntled civilians in those countries will be less inclined to inform on any terrorist activities they learn of. 

Finally, engaging in torture surely has a harmful, brutalizing effect not only on those unfortunate American officials who are assigned to be torturers and hence forever changed for the worse, but also on American culture at large, to the extent that torture encourages us to approve of cruelty.

Please don’t be tricked by Hollywood into approving of torture.  Movies give an extremely misleading picture of real-life torture in many ways:  by not showing the “good guys” torture suspects for hours on end; by not showing the good guys torture innocent people by mistake; by not showing the good guys torture guilty people and still end up with no useful information; by not showing the good guys being tortured by our enemies in retaliation; and by not showing the long-term harms to American security done by the good guys’ acts of torture.

These considerations show torture to be foolish.  It is also gravely wrong.  Torture is the ultimate insult to another person’s dignity, the most complete act of humiliation possible.  This is so because torture is the total subjugation of one person within another’s power; thus it destroys the subjugated being’s very integrity—his or her wholeness, his or her separateness—as a person.  In short, torture aims at nothing less than the utter destruction of its victim’s will, the essence of his or her personhood.  That is why it is the ultimate form of disrespect for human dignity.

If you are inclined to say “Big deal, terrorists are no better than animals,” then reflect for a moment on the fact that in holding these suspects morally responsible for their actions, you are already putting them above other animals:  you are imputing to them a freedom of choice, the possession of which makes them responsible for their actions, and hence deserving of punishment for abusing this freedom.  Since it is this freedom of choice that constitutes our human dignity, however, it follows that in holding criminals responsible for their crimes we are imputing to them at least a minimal form of dignity—a dignity that places moral limits on how badly we may treat those people who possess it, no matter how execrable those people may be in all other regards. 

In short, you cannot have it both ways.  You cannot hold terror suspects responsible for their actions and at the same time regard them as mere animals.

For all these reasons it is both foolish and immoral to get rid of the legal ban on torture.  Of course, the Bushs and Cheneys of the world may object that a legal ban on torture is still too risky.  What, they will ask, about a ticking time bomb hidden in Manhattan?  Shouldn’t we torture a suspect to learn its whereabouts?  

Two replies are in order here.  First, this thought experiment simply ignores the many dangers of torture described above. In effect, it proposes that we dismantle the legal ban on torture with the unpredictable one-in-a-million supreme emergency case in mind, and thereby unwittingly bring upon ourselves the lethal and all-too-predictable, odds-on dangers of torture mentioned earlier.  Instead of harming ourselves like this, let’s keep the legal ban on torture, and if that one-in-a-million emergency case ever arises, let’s have those officials who break the ban use the legal strategy known as the “necessity defense,” and argue in front of a jury that their lawbreaking—that is, their torturing—was justified.  (“Necessity defenses” are used by individuals who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances where it makes overwhelming sense to break the law—as in the case, say, where a pharmacist dispenses a life-saving drug without the legally required prescription, in order to rescue a customer who has collapsed on the floor of his shop in a medical emergency.) 

True, when defendants use the necessity defense  there is not, and should not be, any guarantee that the jury will agree that the lawbreaking was justified and exempt the defendant from punishment.  Hence, necessity defenses are not without their risks.  But people who shun all risks surely don’t become soldiers or military officials in the first place.  Let’s give due credit to our soldiers’ and officials’ courage, to their willingness to run risks for the fellow citizens’ safety.

Second, the Bush/Cheney argument that a legal ban on torture is too risky is flawed inasmuch as it insults, not just the courage of our soldiers and officials, but also the courage of the American people in general.  “Just do anything to save us, please!!” it portrays the American people as saying.  “We will give up who we are!  Forget our deepest values, our cherished traditions!  We’d rather sacrifice those things than be exposed to any risk of danger at all, no matter how slight!  Yes, America beat the Nazis without legalizing torture, but that was ‘the Greatest Generation’—not us, the craven generation!” 

This, however, is not the American people I know.  Last time I checked, we were still the home of the brave, NOT a country of cowards concerned only with saving our own skins, no matter what the cost to our honor.


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