Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The case for torture

Last Monday Four Corners provided a discussion of the moral and practical case for torture. It is the first of a two-part coverage. The second-part will deal with the issue of shipping suspects to foreign countries and ‘outsourcing’ torture.

I have previously discussed torture via the ‘ticking bomb’ problem on John Quiggin’s blog. This is a thought experiment which poses the issue of the case for torture starkly. Is it morally justifiable to torture someone in order to extract a confession on the whereabouts of a ‘ticking bomb’ if the subject knows where the bomb is hidden and where failure to detect will result in the deaths of millions? Do we need to choose between the evils of being cruel to an individual or millions of deaths? This way of posing this question tests the limits of utilitarianism.

The question itself has an immediate practical application in this age of Islamic terrorism. While torture is banned under international law the war on terror has changed things. Islamic terrorists who will kill innocents at the drop of a hat and have no reservations about torturing their opponents are people that one feels nothing but revulsion towards. Should they not be tortured to reveal their plots to kill? An immediate moral issue if this argument is accepted is to pin down the threshold. What is the utilitarian threshold (the number of saved lives) that justifies torture?

Dr Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment showed that most of us have within us the propensity to torture. In these experiments subjects were asked to give electric shocks of increasing severity to other subjects if they answered a question wrongly. Those portrayed as receiving the shock did not actually experienced a shock but prerecorded screams reflected pain that those administering the shocks thought resulted from their actions. More than half those giving the electric shocks in these experiments readily gave up to the maximum possible shock. The implication drawn was that anyone could be trained to torture and that low levels of torture could always be ramped up. It is a gloomy picture of the human condition.

What specifically is torture? Presumably cruel and degrading treatment is torture but this can be hard to identify. Some seemingly benign activities such as making a person stand motionless for long periods of time are in fact dreaded forms of punishment. They impose high levels of self-inflicted pain which is one of the main approaches used by successful torturers. The other ingredient is sensory deprivation which also evokes intense suffering. A combination of these techniques works best of all. Old fashion mutilations and physical tortures are unnecessary if one seeks to impose suffering to extract information. Phobias, such as placing people in coffins or dark places or in sexually humiliating positions, can also be exploited as a torture technique.

From this perspective the hideous events at Abu Ghraib have been dismissed by many as aberrant actions by marginal US service people. But from the viewpoint of the ‘science of torture’ the practices used were standard methods and anything but an aberration. In the main the techniques relied on sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain. Having hooded people standing still for hours with arms outstretched, as happened at Abu Ghraib, is a standard torturing technique.

By broadening the range of activities classified as ‘torture’ the issue of what is permitted becomes arguable. Is prolonged, intense questioning torture? Most of us would accept the value of such questioning for resolving serious crimes or terrorist threats.

There is a Kafkaesque ‘science of effective torturing’. The CIA, for example, have prepared the Kubark Manual for coercive questioning. How to do it?

While the existence of this manual raises intense moral concerns there are practical issues that the CIA have learned through its application. Interestingly the CIA has found that irrespective of moral concerns torture just doesn’t work. Torture provides unreliable information that is expedient rather than practically useful. Strong individuals resist even severe torture while the weak will say anything. It has been argued that false information extracted under torture led to the US involvement in Iraq.

For totally amoral agencies there are therefore practical arguments against torture because it just does not work. Indeed, the most successful way of extracting information, according to one CIA operative, was to build rapport. This was a useful way of getting accurate information.

Yet others argue that torture can always be made effective if appropriately designed. Others argue ways that one can always design repeat punishments and a punishment regime that guarantees eventual delivery of accurate information.

Another practical argument against torture is that public support for a justifiable cause is lost and resistance by an enemy is intensified.

Four Corners pointed out that more than half of the refugees coming to Australia have been tortured. Many of these people are psychologically devastated and have problems that never disappear. This is a startling conclusion that we need to keep in mind when thinking of the refugee and humanitarian intake. The psychological consequences continue forever.

Others in the intelligence community (often with strong moral ethics) argue that since the practice of torture is so widespread it should be legalized so we can at least decide consciously the terms under which it is used. . One suggestion is to use ‘torture warrants’ provided by a judge to justify torture. This is somewhat analogous to the case for legalizing illicit drugs. It puts things on the table where harm can be minimized even if the harm itself continues.

I found this episode of Four Corners to be a thoughtful and confronting. I would not always be an opponent of torture if I thought the rewards in terms of saved lives were large enough – for example if the hypothetical ‘ticking bomb’ problem actually arose.

But these hypothetical situations may not resemble any actual situations we face. It is hard to codify a set of situations where torture might be justified and, even if this codification could be effected, I have my doubts that information yielded by torture would compensate for the sufferings experienced by the subject and the damage done to the torturers. Moreover, the vast potential for abuse of any law giving the right to torture in any extreme situation makes me doubt the wisdom of ever seeking to justify a case for torture.

Watch Four Corners next Monday for the sequel episode of this interesting topic.


Jan said...

Harry, I fully agree with John Q's response to the ticking bomb situation. Moreover, as you say such 'hypothetical situations may not resemble any actual situations we face' and they should therefore not be the main driver of our view on torture.

Anonymous said...


I would like to raise a related issue on the use of corporal punishment in our system. Two comments:

1. Prison - particularly for long period of time is very very difficult for people - some more than others.

2. Would it be reasonable to offer two alternatives to prisoners

1. Imprisonment with the level of brutality in the prison specified
e.g. there will be x% probability that you will be raped, there will be y% probability that you will be beaten by other inmates etc.
2. Corporal punishment - maybe even involving permanent physical changes e.g. amputation.

We may get the deterrent effect of prison at a lower cost and in some way it may be more humane. Hypothetically, I would (much) rather lose a limb than the remaining 30 years of my life in prison, but of course would rather do neither.

Jan, Harry, any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

P.S. Hence I would describe our current legal system as having sentences that

1. Deprival of liberty


2. Probabilistic torture where the probability depends on the characteristics of the criminal rather than the crime (unless you believe sentencing takes this into account in the length of imprisonment - which is arguable).

Sorry if it is off topic - disregard freely.

Silence Dogood said...

Good post. I agree with much of it and the fact of the matter is that the ticking time bomb scenarios don't exist and have not yet and doubtfully will ever exist. They are, and have been used as justification for torture that is often time solely punitive, that is only for punishment sake at the zeal of the captor, and has little if anything to do with interrogation. The best interrogators tend to agree that a little bit of the stick, mild sleep depravation or food (for one or two meals) or a little of the carrot are what works most effectively and the big carrot and big stick don't.

The most interesting things I have seen on the debate of torture recently is that no one addresses (probably because it is easier) the vast number of innocent people that will indeed be tortured in a program like this despite best efforts to the contrary. Are they collateral damage? The hypo of you have ten people 9 of whom are completely innocent and 1 of whom is definitely knows of a 'ticking time bomb' Now do we torture? Or the better idea still of torturing friends and family members of the suspected 'ticking time bomber.'

I noted during recent U.S. Presidential debates the idea that "if it will save American lives" practically anything was on the table, specifically torture (humorously as long as it was not called torture). I found this curious as for the first couple hundred years or so the number one goal of America was preserving liberty, and now it appears to be preserving American lives? Why every go to war and fight when you could just role over and give up, offer to be slaves and probably save "American Lives."

These foolish hypotheticals really irk me, because as long as you are going to be in the no man's land of ridiculous hypo's why not say a "ticking time bomber" has a remote device and you know for sure he is in Hoboken, NJ across the river from N.Y. City about to detonate it remotely from his computer. It will kill a quarter of Manhattan if it goes off. Do you drop a bomb and completely wipe out Hoboken before the bomb is detonated? After all it will save hundreds of thousands of lives? It is a fun exercise in moral and ethical philosophy that should have absolutely nothing to do with the way the United States decides how to operate as a nation.

Silence Dogood said...

Ditto for Aussie Land as well.
I read the blog post quickly and didn't realize where the blog was written. As you can imagine torture has been a hot moral is stopic ue in the United States also.

hc said...

Anonymous, I don't favour offering people torture/internment tradeoffs. For the most part I think prison sentences should be bang-bang - either reasonably short-term (normally a few years) or forever.

Torture harms its subject and the people and society who carry it out.

Silence dogwood, I agree that a serious cost of torture is that it may be applied to the innocent. But even without such obvious costs I think it is very difficult to come up with principles that govern its use.

In a ticking bomb setting I might be willing to torture to save millions of lives. But:

(i) Hundreds of lives, 1o0 lives, 1 life? I don't know how to decide.
(ii) Will the information ever be reliable?
(iii) As you say is the scenario ever a plausible one? Has it ever occurred?