Is torture EVER acceptable?

by Free to think, Free to believe

I’ve been spending my time doing that dangerous thing called reading… but to start with let’s begin with a common argument –

The Ticking Bomb; this is where somebody in custody is thought [for whatever reasons] to have planted a bomb and that if the forces of Law and Order don’t find out where it is in time then Innocents will Die…

It is claimed, from time to time, that this is the only argument which would justify torturing the fellow suspected of planting the bomb. I am going to go around the subject but rest assured I will get back to this…

In media torture is sometimes given an importance or romantic idea that it should not have. I’ve just watched the last of the third season of The West Wing and towards the end of that season there is a move based on the information given by an ally from the use of torture [Well, it is supposed to be from torture… and so that’s the way I’m going to use it.] the trouble with this is that given the info it is basically something that the torturers would want to hear. In 24 there is a case where a terrorist is apprehended and then their son is threatenned to be shot if they do not reply in a forthright and honest way…

Unfortunately both examples do not show anything useful. Let me explain – in the episode from the West Wing the only thing the President can rely on is that the torturers were satisfied when they heard what they wanted to hear and in ’24’ the suspect breaks down – unfortunately the example they give is one they might have based on actual facts and the case they recreated it did not actually work…

I’ve been reading whilst I’ve been away and one of the books I read was a torturously thorough examination of this topic – Torture and Democracy by Darius Rejali… The person they threatened that he reported who was confronted by this choice – his son or the truth, did not actually then break… and then they did shoot his offspring.

Indeed memory is one of the first things to go when tortured. Who was one’s childhood sweet heart at school is fine – it will remain sot but and this is the thing – the memories of recent events will deteriate. What Bomb? Which Street? Maybe this one, or was it that, no it was another… Is there a bomb?

These are the things that torture will wipe out. Making torture of someone with a ticking bomb useless. There are various reasons for this and if you are really interested I would recommend the book in its entirety to you, Dear Reader.

If torture is useless regarding the Ticking Bomb then what use has it in other spheres of questioning – none is the somewhat bitter answer. The reason why I think it a bitter truth is that for folk to be so harmed and for no good reason seems an even worse fate than if there was a good reason…

In Northern Ireland folk who were named as dangers to the population at large were hauled off and stuck in camps/prisons – much like Gmo Bay… What this achieved was that folk wrongly fingered were then made actively sympathetic to the cause they were swept up in… In short the camps did not work then and I don’t think Gmo Bay worked yesterday…

To return to the media and how it represents torture the most accurate view of torture on screen that I can remember is that to be found within Lethal Weapon where both of the dogged and heroic detectives are tortured despite their claims of ignorance. Indeed if they could have made stuff up – they would have. How would that have been satisfactory for their torturers? Well, bluntly the same for their torturers and torturers in the real world everywhere.

In ‘Democracy and Torture’ the one film that is examined is The Battle of Algiers where Rejali takes apart the entire dependency that is sometimes shown therein and shows how mistaken the film’s claims are regarding torture. Rejali also shows how much information is extracted by having informants, which are not [needless to say] tortured, and by good detective practices.

Basically, even if you have someone you are torturing who then claims there is a bomb – you would be a better manager of time by stopping the torture and then going out and looking for the bomb, which might not actually exist… The Ticking Bomb justification may make for a good argument for torturing someone but it does not mean you have any chance of finding the bomb by carrying on the torture…

As a postsript regarding a certain practice – waterboarding, if carried out for long enough it will drown the fellow being given this treatment. Alfie’s earlier comment during a post that it was not that bad when he had it done unto him brings to light the way folk learn how they then, given direct orders or other reasons (such as a CO saying ‘Get me that info and I don’t care how you do it!’) those who turn to tortures remember what has been done to them and then replicate such practices… or remember from other fields of operations what other folk have done and then do those…

Those merely undergoing SERE [Survival Evasion Resistance Escape] training (although I admit I may have got that slightly wrong) are trained so that they don’t talk are also as an unforeseen byproduct given a beginner’s course in How To Torture… without even thinking what that would do to them. Chip Frederickson, as championed by Zimbardo, was one who was unlucky enough to be compromised by the system and tried to perform to those he percieved as having authority over his operations and his story is a lesson to us all.

In the end we should say that torture is not, ever, acceptable and the costs that that inflicts – those on the torturers, the tortured and those in the wider world who look on – are not worth it and it is more worthwhile to resist such practices.



  1. Elric66 says:

    Glad you went out of your way to not to even define “torture”

    Of course to the left “torture” is defined as anything that makes captured terrorists uncomfortable. Also interesting for the left, the same who say that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” dont want “torture” whatsoever. More interested in protecting the comfort of terrorists than protecting the lives of the unborn. Twisted world we live in.

  2. Free to think, free to believe... says:

    Well, Elric 66 the problem with just defining torture as that which causes someone to be ‘uncomfortable’ or rather a practice which ’causes distress’ is that it is very loose… the problem here is that not everybody who is tortured is a terrorist – think of those tortured so that once they were ‘released’ would spout the tale they were told as in the communist show trials… Rejali produces accounts of police practice both in the UK and in Chicago so that they could produce ‘confessions’…

    To take the somewhat contested practice of ‘waterboarding’ given careful application you could provoke only the fear of drowning but if sloppily applied could drown the recipient… where does it stop being merely ‘discomforting’ and starts being ‘torture’?

    Rejali uses the rather interesting definition in his book as practices which show an abuse of state’s public trust…. but this becomes difficult in that if a state puts someone who has no trust in it or someone whom it’s public holds in no regard on a rack – is that torture?

    I would define torture as practices that are designed to cause harm to those who cannot resist such practices [ie they can resist giving info or signing a false confession but have no power over what is done to them] – psychological or physical [you can add emotional if you really want to] and I’m going to sight that the methods used by Isreali forces can provoke excruciating pain but are nigh on undetectable to even trained doctors…

    If after all this you want to try your hand at defining torture – then be my guest.

    A good interrogation may produce psychological discomfort and still stop short of torture – Rejali sights complaints between the FBI and the CIA – the CIA would raid the Feds and then complain that those snatched gave them nothing useful whereas the FBI would argue that they were able to get info from them beforehand…

    And just on an end note – whilst I am, personally, against abortion I would not to ban it and see that those who have had one later need support rather than condemnation. One of the things I wonder about is – isn’t that a backwards move given that they obviously needed support beforehand… but then again some women find themselves in a place where they cannot/do not see a better option. And sometimes they are right to think so, given their predicament.

    And isn’t that the terrible truth…

  3. Elric66 says:

    “but then again some interrogators find themselves in a place where they cannot/do not see a better option. And sometimes they are right to think so, given their predicament.

    And isn’t that the terrible truth…”

  4. Elric66 says:

    “the problem here is that not everybody who is tortured is a terrorist.”

    The problem is that every baby aborted is an innocent.

  5. Free to think, free to believe... says:

    Well, well…. I’d thank you to quote me properly, Elric 66, old bean, if that’s not too much to ask.

    I agree that every unborn child that is aborted is innocent I do however realise we live in a world that can produce very cruel choices for us all… If you mean that abortion is torture – say so.

    I make a distinction about what a woman does with her body by her choice as opposed to someone who is strapped to a table and then over hours/days is given pain to no end except for the torturers to be able to say that they are ‘doing something’… I know feelings regarding both torture and abortion run deep but I don’t think you can use the same arguments.

    And – although I may have the wrong end of the stick – apart from not wanting to make abortion illegal it seems I agree with you.

    Surely you’re are arguing that torture is wrong as well and so I’m not sure what you are trying to say except to try to highlight a deficit in ‘left’ thinking… which as I am someone not on the ‘Left’ might not suffer from…

    If you want to say abortion is torture then I think you should have a go at defining torture yourself and find out just what a minefield that is…

  6. Alfie says:

    Well there are those that like to think they are true moral absolutists. The thing is those that try are often the biggest hypocrites.

  7. Marc says:

    I think you missed the one successful use of torture. Cultural control. Scare the crap out of the people you intend to torture. Which is why the juxtaposition of the pro-torturers being Pinochet, Saddam, Pol Pot, Kim Jung Il and then the U.S.A. becomes so worrisome.

  8. Alfie says:

    Actually in my previous posts and comments I’ve stressed that point. BTW this was a guest post from my friend from across the Pond Free to Think.

  9. Free to think, free to believe... says:

    Well, Marc, the question becomes how do you define torture and how do you ‘scare the crap out of people you intend to torture…’?

    Well, I’ve been reading a rather thorough history of that sad conflict the Spanish Civil War1936-39 and whilst I have not yet finished and given it’s a rather domestic interest [ie I’ll probably put out anything that I decide to post back on my own home blog…] I’d rather just address your problem full tilt…

    Propaganda – that’s how, you print lies about opposition points of view and vilify them and those that hold them and argue how badly that they who have the shocking indignity to have a variant view to the state to mean real and terrible harm to everybody else… that’s how the communists gained so much control over the Republican Government…

    Going back to Algiers – there was a district that was targeted for what we might now call ‘special measures’ where anybody (and the statistics are shocking) could be picked up and tortured but the french counter-insurgency gained much more by the use of ‘the blues’ – informants and secret operatives. Given that 30-40% of the male population being arrested in a targeted area – France still lost the colony. Admittedly France did defeat, by various means, the ‘rebel’ forces within the city.

    So, whilst Franco [who also used propaganda] and others gained active control over their population by fear and carrot – to do this one does not need to torture… the odd snatch of a ‘traitor’ and the cost effective court martial and summary execution would do the job… More than that invites the position of ‘You have nothing left to lose…’ to be believed and could then be counter-productive.

  10. Alfie says:

    I have friends from Chile and I have to say from deep down they’d agree. Fear was very real but over time it fostered the desire for change. One of my friends claims that the popularity of soft drinks today are a collective repudiation of bans under Pinochet. Talk about proof of subconscious wiring tweaking something.

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