The idea of torture has been around for thousands of years. Over approximately the past 200, it has become a particularly touchy subject in many parts of the world, garnering more scrutiny since the emergence of Al Queda and the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centers in New York. Torture has been used as a means of interrogation, as a punishment, to force confessions, and coercion. However, it has also been used to save lives, many innocent lives, in some cases. The debate is fierce on both sides. Many say it should be abolished entirely and those engaging in it should be punished decisively. Others believe it to be a necessary evil; a terrible thing that must sometimes be employed by respectable people to save others. While the methods are cruel and unquestionably inhumane, it is essential to consider all aspects of the past, as well as potential future situations of its use, before levying final judgment. It is also necessary to understand how widespread it has been, and continues to be, used.
While among the opposing viewpoints regarding torture there is a clear distinction between what some believe to be justifiable, and what is almost universally deemed an unforgivable, depraved act, such a distinction does not exist in International Law. It is downright illegal, every single time, regardless of any potential positive results born in its wake.
The United Nations Convention Against Torture defines it as "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."
The Unites States and UK definitions are similar. They all refer to lawful actions of inflicting severe pain, which people sometimes do not fully understand. These would be cases including inflicting pain during medical procedures, or wounding enemy soldiers during wartime. These actions are considered lawful, and pain directly resulting from such is not considered to be torture, although it may be severe, and it is undoubtedly intentional. The UN also declares torture an unacceptable violation of human rights in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In spite of 147 states having ratified the Convention Against Torture to date, there are definite questions about whether and unconditional view is actually shared fully by administrations around the world.
During 2004-2005 alone, over 10 countries with anti-torture policies across Asia, Europe, and Africa, have documented cases of torture. There have been cases of “third-party torturing” allegedly being advocated by the United States, as well as other nations worldwide. This method of torturing is carried out by apprehending a subject, then having them sent to another country for detainment and subsequently tortured. In these cases, the alleged perpetrator would, of course, deny that the subject was sent there for the purpose of being tortured, as well as deny said torture was taking place at all.
There are numerous scenarios one can come up with that might make people pause to consider their stance on torture. Using informal polls, taken as he prepared his essay in the 1980's called The Case For Torture, Michael Levin detailed specific scenarios for people who were against torture. For example, he asked 4 new mothers if they believe torture would be justified in the terrible event that a terrorist had kidnapped their newborn, and hidden them in an unknown location before being captured by police. Not only did all 4 mothers immediately express their opinion that it would be justified, and necessary, one of them even told him she would want to do the torturing herself.
Questions like these pose a problem for those against torture on principal. The moral argument is not complex. The premise being, every human being deserves not to be subjected to certain treatment under any circumstances. People of this view do not believe that the end could ever justify the means of torture. Many powerful political figures have spoken out in this way throughout the past century.
The perspective that all of mankind has inalienable human rights is usually shared by those who support torture as well. However, there is an element of preemptive strike mentality that also bears heavily in mind when dealing with potential torture cases. Nations around the world have shown the willingness to strike first when they feel an imminent threat is at hand, with the purpose of rendering incapable those who pose it.
A clear example of this is the decision by the United States to invade Iraq in 2003 and put an end to Saddam Hussein's rule there. However controversial that decision may have been, ultimately it should be assumed that it was made based upon the administration believing the US Citizens, and the United States as a whole, were in immediate and grave danger.
Even within the legal system in the United States, people can be punished for crimes they have not yet committed. If it can be proven that someone had the intent to commit a crime such as murder, or theft, they can be arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit said crime. This is another example of a situation where a preemptive strike is accepted. The person loses their civil rights in spite of not having yet acted on their plans to break the law.
Consider a terrorist who plants a nuclear bomb in a bustling city within the United States. They are apprehended, but the location of the bomb is unknown. They have not yet committed the crime of mass murder, but they can be punished for having conspired to do so. In these cases, the crime will still be carried out even after their capture. How should the authorities deal with this kind of situation? Fully evacuating a large city within the United States would no doubt be impossible, and would still result in thousands of deaths. They could have placed the bomb on a route likely to be used during evacuation, or even placed it outside of the city in a place they know will be likely to evacuated. Their capture could be a calculated method to actually increase the number of people affected by their actions. There are so many variables. The authorities, without the right to torture, can do little but watch helplessly as the horror unfolds before their eyes.
Legality And Moral Considerations
The United States supports capital punishment in many states. This means that a person who is proven guilty of committed a heinous crime will be killed in retribution. Capital punishment is not about rehabilitating someone, it is not about given them a chance to live a life with reduced rights in the hope that they may recover their sense of right or wrong, and through the prison system continue to contribute in some way to society. Whether a person who has committed a terrible crime is sentenced to death, or life in prison without the possibility of parole, the aftermath of their crime cannot be undone. If they murdered another person or persons, there is no hope for their lives to be returned to them. When the person convicted for that crime dies, the victim is not reborn. This is in stark contrast to situations that many believe justify torturing another human being.
For one thing, consider the legal system's view on people who take rights away from others. People who commit crimes of civil rights violations, things like assault and battery, larceny, or extortion, in turn have their civil rights revoked. Even light punishments such as community service, or house-arrest, are forms of withholding the civil rights of a convicted perpetrator. This is generally thought of as okay. So what about human rights violators? Again, consider capital punishment. In most cases, this is reserved for the “worst of the worst”. A last-resort method of punishment enforced only on those who commit the most vile of crimes. These people have not only taken another person's civil rights away, but they have committed human rights violations as well. The most basic of all human rights, the right to live, in the case of murder, is stripped from the victim. Capital punishment thus becomes a situation of the State involved taking away the convicted felon's human rights.
This is done, legally, in spite of the fact that it does not recover the victim's life, or repair the damage done by the rape. The act of retribution against the convict in itself has no benefit. It may bring some level of comfort to some people, though many often say even after the execution, they do not feel nearly as comforted as they had previously expected.
In such cases where torture could be employed to stop that irreversible act causing so much pain and suffering, the moral implications of not doing must surely be considered equally. Take the scenario listed above, where a newborn baby has been kidnapped and taken somewhere, but the suspect has been captured. In these situations, they fully understand their position of power. Everyone involved understands it. Without the suspect willingly divulging information to save that newborn's life, he or she will die. There is no other option but to do one's best to convince the suspect that giving up the information is the optimal choice. It is easy to see how this presents a whole new kind of moral conundrum.
The moral decision becomes one of violating the rights of one person to preserve the human rights, and life, of another. The obvious difference being that one of them has already made the conscious decision to violate the rights of the other. The innocent life is at the disposal of the kidnapper, and, indirectly, at the disposal of the authorities detaining them. Most would feel a moral responsibility to save the child, at any reasonable cost. Some might go so far as to put other innocent lives in jeopardy, and many would probably adjust their world view to be one that recognizes the need for torture in some very specific situations.
These types of situations are real moral predicaments. You cannot make a decision that is entirely morally sound. You must choose to preserve the rights of an evil person, fully aware that person will knowingly,, directly, and with malicious intent, rape a perfectly innocent child of all rights whatsoever, civil and human. Alternatively, you can choose to grossly violate, probably causing permanent and irreparable physical and mental damages, the human rights of said evil, for the chance to preserve the human and civil rights of the innocent figure in question. Either way, a large portion of society will consider them a monster.That is a decision no person should ever have to make, and is one brought about solely by the chosen course of action the perpetrator has taken.
Enforcement and Possible Future Legal Adjustments
Clearly, the question of whether torture can ever be justifiable, as with most other issues dealing with emotional evaluations of morality, is not exactly black and white. That being the case, the idea of enforcing laws on torture also become a problem. The UN Convention Against Torture has been ratified by 147 states, yet Amnesty International reports that they have received claims of torture being used in over 150 countries in a 3 year stretch spanning 1997 to 2000. A year before that, it was said that 1 in 3 countries was using torture either officially or unofficially. Given that in most polls taken in the United States and the UK, only 50-75% of people feel that it is not justifiable, no matter what innocent lives may be at stake, one could assume that as many as 1 in 4 political figures feels that is not the case. It is also crucial to reflect on the fact that, in the case of the average responder to a poll of this kind, there is no experience of being in the stressful position of having to make that call.
If international law is wholly black and white, as it is now, it forces people who find themselves in situations they feel justify torture to go about it in a clandestine fashion. The idea of third-party torture, as mentioned above, is one such way they might go about it. People always want to be able to wash their hands of it. They do not want to have to make that tough call. They do not want to be the single individual responsible for ordering the torture of another human being. So, as is the case with so-called third-party torturing, they send the detainee to a country that does not recognize International Human Rights laws, and request that they be “interrogated” but not expressly requesting for their torture. It is understood what they are after, and the interrogators on the other side of things see to it they get their desired results.
A very real, and recent, example of this exists in British history. A mere 7 years ago, the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan became aware of detainees being transferred there and, and he felt there was evidence they were being tortured. He reported it, but was met with disciplinary action rather than accolades. He resigned his post, ousted for witnessing an international crime and reporting it diligently. All of this buy a Nation claiming an unwavering stance of opposition to all instances of torture with complete and utter disregard for the idea that any torture could ever be justified in any circumstance.
This should serve as an eye-opener, illustrating just how difficult torture can be to control, regulate, much less halt effectively. Countries without due process open their doors to take in detainees from countries bound to adhere to International Human Rights laws, often behind closed door, completely out of the public eye. They provide the originator with what is usually referred to as a “diplomatic assurance” that no torture will take place. These are, however, countries that are operating outside the scope of International treaties, and often well known for a history of torture, and other war crimes and crimes against humanity.
When situations like this are encounters, there is little that can actually be done. People in power protect others in power. When it is demanded a perpetrator be produced, it is usually a “fall guy” and does not even amount to a children’s band-aid being placed on a gunshot wound. In order for this kind of thing to take place, it is absolutely ridiculous to assume anything but the highest level of involvement. Whether a high level official is “turning their head the other way”, practicing intentional oversight, or whether they are directly ordering torture, their actions mark involvement and in the eyes of many would render them just as culpable, or not more so, than the actual interrogator conducting the torture.
Another serious potential problem with making torture legal under certain circumstances is that every boundary would have to be clearly defined. A look at everything that must be weighed heavily shows this to be a daunting tasks. Additionally, one of the most critical points to be clarified, which is how far an interrogator could go, could fully undermine the effectiveness of the operation as a whole. Some people actually believe this could be one reason for such a publicly oppositional stance with regards to torture. By portraying oneself as being thoroughly and utterly against it, it means that in cases where it is employed, in a secret fashion, the subject of the torture may likely feel more threatened and vulnerable, thus may be more willing to give up that crucial piece of information they have.
Considering the current laws, and the fact that typically 1/3-1/4 of people do not agree entirely with them, there are a few ways to approach the legality and justifiability, or lack thereof, of torture. The first, which many people believe is what is happening now, is to deem it unequivocally inhumane and unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances, while unofficially letting it go on in secret when necessary. The other option would be changing the law to allow torture in certain situations, simply defining those extremely clearly and keep it highly regulated.
In either situation, strict rules about when it could be put to use would be paramount. Michael Levin outlines them well in his essay. First, innocent lives must be directly at risk, and second, the person who is to be tortured must have the ability to save those lives. Applying these to criteria would allow for what over 35% of Americans consider to be “justifiable torture”.
The next step of defining a “morally justifiable” torture would be to define the scope of the actual torture itself. What can and can't the interrogators do? This presents one with some difficulties, as mentioned above. Over the course of history, torture was usually employed in a much less understandable setting. Torture of enemy troops after devastating battles, strictly for the purposes of “revenge” was high on the list. The Catholic Church was responsible for mass torture of people claiming a variety of other faiths. Their torture was typically carried out to one of two ends. Either the person renounced their faith, words, or actions which brought them the charge of heresy from the church, or they eventually died.
In more recent years, with the rise of terrorism worldwide, torture has turned to be about national security concerns. While this may not make it a morally right act, or even justifiable in a person's eyes, it likely does seem more understandable. Unlike the Catholic Church, which was after a public cry of denouncement, modern day torture you read or don't read about is usually carried out in secret, for the purpose of garnering sensitive information hopefully resulting in thwarting acts of terrorism. Modern day torture uses a much more complex approach than the crude machinery fashioned by the Catholic church. They used devices like the rack, pulling people apart from their limbs, causing their bones to become disjointed, or placing them above wood and brush and lighting it on fire, more commonly referred to as “burning at the stake”.
The old method of torture results in confessions, faith denouncing, essentially hearing whatever you want to hear, or watching the person die. The most effective methods of modern torture do not seem to be simply those that inflict incredible physical pain. Rather, they are inflicted in a way that put both the body, as well as the mind, under extreme stress. They play on fears and emotions, coupled with intense physical pain to break the subject down. Death is never an acceptable result. When attempting to extract crucial information in order to save someone, or many people, the subject cannot believe that death will be a way out. Interrogators go to great lengths to keep people both alive, and alert, during the procedures. It is truly a horrifying thought.
When thinking of limitations, the problem that arises becomes the need for the subject to believe wholeheartedly that there are absolutely no limits. If they can be made to believe that, they might eventually give in. Even terrorists who truly think they are doing a great thing and are righting a wrong, or many wrongs, usually have their own fears, have their own things they love and cling to. Interrogators try to learn about those things so they can use them to their advantage. Fighting against a person with such powerful ideals, and who is completely willing to die for their beliefs is a monumentally difficult task. Where to draw lines would have to be one of the hardest decisions a person could make.
It is clear how difficult it would be to define all limitations, while still maintaining an ability to carry out the torture. In addition to those difficulties, there are also a host of other problems with making something like this legal, and likewise benefits of taking a hard stance against it, even if a Nation is willing to carry them out on occasion.
The horrific nature of something like torture instantly conjures up a variety of feelings. Sensory responses are common when imagining another person's excruciating pain. It brings forth vivid imagery, and thus an emotional reaction is created. This being the case, it makes sense for Nations to stand behind the ideas of things like the UN Convention Against Torture. It gives people a perception of a morally strong Nation, one which doesn't compromise its values or integrity. Admitting to torture is the opposite, it instills fear within one's own ranks. It causes most people to feel disgust, and ultimately pity for people who could be doing some unimaginably terrible things.
Likewise, seeking to enforce anti-torture laws with swift punishment puts that disgust for torture on display for all to see, and speaks far more than just words ever could. There is also an underlying advantage touched on earlier. Being willing to cross a line that a Nation itself drew very clearly instills much more fear than being openly wiling to cross that line. It implies desperation, and there are many things people will do out of desperation that they may normally consider repulsive. There is also a very fearful moment witnessed in nearly any person, when they realize that the person across from them has just crossed a line, and is willing to go as far as it takes.
Yes, torture presents all sorts of issues that could be debated for an eternity. It is in some cases, however, the only available means to stop something terrible from happening. With the rise of a new kind of global terrorism, there are many out there who feel as though its legal use must be reconsidered. However, when you carefully examine the methods, the effectiveness, and the external factors in play surrounding sanctioned use of torture, you quickly see that maintaining a legal framework that is inherently opposed to it makes the most sense of all.
That legal framework is, has been, and will continue to be undermined. That must be an accepted fact. Torture violates human rights, and when it is discovered being put into use, heads may roll. However, when thinking about the situation, it makes sense that they would. If an administration is driven to torture someone as a means of saving hundreds or thousands of lives of their citizens, surely they would be willing to let a few of those citizens fall on the sword, so to speak.
Enforcement of anti-torture laws is selective at best. While there is public outcry from organizations such as Amnesty International, and other human rights awareness groups, it often ends there. It is clear that many countries taking official positions of harsh opposition, look at torture from a practical standpoint from an almost “don't ask, don't tell” point of view. Large countries around the world deal with torture victims with regularity, often coming as refugees from countries where torture is reported as commonly used. This kind of torture is usually one of the least “justifiable”, one where people are often tortured simply as punishment for being of a certain nationality or tribe, and focus on instilling fear other potential victims. It is because torture is so widespread in modern times, that an objective examination of the methods and motivation to torture are so crucial.
According to Amnesty International, reports of torture are coming in from over 100 countries worldwide. To put that into perspective, there are only 195 (soon to be 196) recognized nations in our world, and of those, 147 have ratified the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture.
Torture presents a moral paradox in many situations, as outlined previously in this essay. However, the paradox of how internationally, at least in an official capacity, it is viewed as completely illegal, yet the sheer number of countries involved in it, is also hard to fully comprehend. The UN expressly forbids torture in 3 different declarations and conventions laid out over the past 63 years, the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the 1975 Declaration Against Torture, and the 1984 Convention Against Torture.
Most people will probably never understand torture. Many are content not to have to. It has been used for purely malicious purposes. It has also been employed in successful efforts to save innocent lives. Torture is, and has been for quite some time now, generally regarded as a horrific act, and actively advocating its use can be classified as an international human rights violation,and can even be punished as a war crime. That being the case, it has still emerged as a continued practice, publicly in some places, and in secret in others.
Regardless a person’s viewpoint, the idea of torture, its legality, enforceability, justifiability should be carefully considered before rendering an opinion.
1. 1984, United Nations, United Nations Convention Against Torture, 1p
2. Oct, 2004, Robin Gedye,The Telegraph, The envoy silenced after telling undiplomatic truths
3. 1982, Michael Levin, The Case For Torture
4. 2005, Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2005
5. 2006, Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2006
6. 2008, Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2008
7. 2011, Wikipedia - Various Contributors, Wikipedia: Torture, htt://http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torture