Truth or consequences

Torture. Before September 11 only the scummiest Mafiosi, drug-crazed Liberian thugs, Chilean corporals or Dirty Harry vigilantes did it. Now in its determination to protect its citizens, the government of the world’s most powerful, most democratic nation is not only doing it, but refining it, drafting training manuals for it and training personnel in it. 

It is a sign of how persuasive a utilitarian approach to human life has become in public policy. Utilitarianism, the doctrine that no actions are always and everywhere wrong and that we can only seek the greatest good for the greatest number, has a certain superficial plausibility. As a way of hacking a way through the bioethical thickets of modern medicine it is the machete du jour. Utilitarian bioethicists all support the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube and the destruction of human embryos for their stem cells. Their arguments are echoed by many influential scientists. But the dangers of utilitarianism appear all too clearly when it is used to justify torture.

That systematic psychological torture is taking place in Guantanamo Bay and other American-controlled prisons is beyond dispute. The repellent abuse at Abu Ghraib prison was apparently committed by rogue guards. The Government denies that anyone is being physically harmed and says that it condemns torture. But the US military has continued to sanction techniques of persuasion which must appal any decent person. Interrogation of dangerous prisoners for vital information must surely be ethical. But surely the nation which put a man on the moon can piece together that information without violating their physical and psychological integrity. Recent events Last weekend, Time magazine published excerpts from a Guantanamo interrogation log in the winter of 2002-2003 which described how information was extracted from Mohamed al Kahtani, a man alleged to be the 20th highjacker on the 9/11 flights. Tactics included sleep deprivation, placing pictures of scantily clad women around his neck, making him bark like a dog, slapping him with a glove, shaving his head and beard, and forcing him to urinate on himself.(1 )

The US military confirmed the reports — and vigorously defended itself by citing the good outcome of Kahtani’s interrogation: “information that has saved the lives of US and coalition forces in the field as well as thwarted threats posed to innocent citizens in this country and abroad.

“The Department of Defense remains committed to the unequivocal standard of humane treatment for all detainees,” a press release said, “and Kahtani’s interrogation plan was guided by that strict standard... his interrogation proceeded according to a very detailed plan, which was conducted by trained professionals in a controlled environment, with active supervision and oversight.” (2 )

With the highest authorities in the American government ready to defend torture by textbook— so long as it yields useful results — perhaps we should ask whether it is wrong to feel the repugnance of torture so keenly. Perhaps we are being woolly-headed, soft-hearted and weak-kneed if we feel that there is something amiss with this kind of abuse.

Utilitarian-minded people think so. This week Senator Dick Durbin read into the Congressional Record a report from an FBI agent about what he had seen at Guantanamo in 2004:

On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. ... On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor. (3 )
It is hard to believe that anyone could fail to shudder at this image of degradation. But James Taranto, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, derided the Senator’s concerns. Torturing evil foes is not such a big deal in a post 9/11 world: “We are fighting an enemy that murdered 3,000 innocent people on American soil less than 3½ years ago and would murder millions more if given the chance.” (4 )

So it isn’t just rednecks who see torture as a patriotic act. No, the alarming news is that after 9/11 torture is growing in intellectual respectability. Even outside of military circles it is increasingly viewed as a relatively insignificant evil to be tolerated for a greater good. Academic defenders of torture Torture even has prominent academic utilitarian defenders. Their unsettling ideas may arouse controversy, but there every reason to expect that they will gain in credibility with time, especially if terrorists strike again on American soil.

Take Alan Dershowitz, for instance (5 ). He is a professor at Harvard Law School who successfully defended Claus von Bülow, Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson. Dershowitz has become notorious for advocating what he calls “torture warrants” so that people can be tortured “with accountability and openly”. Dershowitz has openly advocated “non-lethal torture, say, a sterilized needle underneath the nail” to persuade terrorists to talk in an emergency. (6 ) You can read more about the details in his book “Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge”.

“There’s no absolute right not to be tortured, no,” he once told the Harvard Political Review. “If you have a ticking bomb and if you have to torture one human being in order to prevent five thousand deaths, I wouldn’t call it a natural or a human right... I don’t believe in inalienable, inherent, God-given, or natural law rights. I think they’re all fictions.” (7 )

Another Harvard professor (what is there about Harvard?), Frances Krumm, Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, is far from flamboyant but she has constructed a justification for what she calls “terror killings” for the sake of the greater good. “It might be permissible to avoid a thousand non-terror combatant deaths by terror-killing one combatant,” she contends. In fact, if it will help to terrorise other foes, killing “in a particularly horrible way” is to be recommended. (8 )

The most recent academic defence of torture comes from Australia. Professor Mirko Bagaric, the head of Deakin University Law School, caused an international uproar when he argued that “torture is permissible where the evidence suggests that this is the only means, due to the immediacy of the situation, to save the life of an innocent person”.(9) He will be publishing his argument at greater length next month in the University of San Franciso Law Review in an article entitled, “Not Enough Official Torture in the World? The Circumstances in Which Torture Is Morally Justifiable”.

Professor Bagaric believes that utilitarian arguments cut through the messy emotions surrounding torture. First of all, the right to life of a multitude of innocent people outweighs the human rights of a single individual. Secondly, he says, if we decide to refrain from torturing a suspect at the cost of many lives, we are logically and morally responsible for the loss of life. “People need to extend their moral horizons and look beyond that and look at the consequences of actually not torturing, and those consequences could be horrific.”(10 ) This adds a new twist which turns conventional bleeding-heart morality on its head. Bagaric is arguing that we can be morally obliged to torture people. The slippery slope Utilitarianism has a glib plausibility. But everyone should be alarmed at the way that utilitarian arguments keep expanding in scope, launching us down a slippery slope towards actions which seem ever more repugnant. Professor Søren Holm, of Cardiff Law School in the UK, has pointed out a number of practical difficulties in the utilitarian justification of torture. (11)

“Ethicists and lawyers should therefore be extremely wary of stating the ‘in principle’ justification of torture,” he says.” They may want to say ‘Torture can be justified in very extreme circumstances, but these never occur in real life’, but if they say that, they can be almost certain that the first part of the sentence will be remembered and the second part forgotten.”

First of all, as Holm points out utilitarians operate on probabilities. So they have to accept that torturing ten innocent people is acceptable as long as one guilty one reveals his secrets. “We are therefore likely to torture a large number of bad people who have no valuable knowledge at all, which on all accounts is a very bad thing to do,” he observes dryly.

Second, utilitarianism will necessarily lead to the torture of innocent people. “Sometimes [it will] be more efficient to torture the innocent – a terrorist may ‘break’ more quickly if we torture his child than if we torture him”. Worse, since we cannot be absolutely sure that the suspect has the knowledge that we seek, we may even have tortured an innocent person uselessly -- but justifiably, according to a utilitarian way of thinking.

And there is a third reason why utilitarian torture expands its scope continually. How does the interrogator know when to stop? When the suspect has ceased to yield useful information? But how does the interrogator know when the information has cease to be useful? In a bureaucratic environment, every scrap of information can be deemed “useful”. After more than three years of incarceration, it is hard to believe that details gleaned from torture will have much practical relevance in the ever-changing war on terror. Utilitarianism: the easy way out We live in a society without universally accepted ethical principles. Many people have no coherent way to distinguish right from wrong and in a commercially-oriented society utilitarianism seems to work. It assesses the morality of an action by the “bottom line” of benefits minus costs. It’s easy to do the maths. You don’t have to think very hard. It’s the reasoning that says that one large cured adult is worth more than thousands of microscopic embryos.

But the tawdry allure of utilitarianism must be resisted. It is odd that Americans who fought utilitarianism with tooth and nail over issues like stem cell research and euthanasia have been so silent over prison abuse. Perhaps they feel in debt to the Bush Administration for its support of a “culture of life” and fear losing it by breaking ranks. But acquiescing in utilitarian arguments for torture will eventually weaken the logic behind the “culture of life”. We will not protect the high and humane ideals of Western civilisation by dehumanising its enemies. 

Prisoners, however dangerous, are persons like you and me with an inherent, inviolable dignity, persons who can be disciplined but never abused as sub-humans. The moment we reject the conviction that all policy must be grounded on this principle and embrace utilitarianism, we open the gates to ever more repugnant and vicious behaviour by us, the jailers. In the end, it is we who are corrupted. In the words of Eric Saar, an Army sergeant who spent six months at Guantanamo and worked with interrogators who sexually humiliated a 21-year-old Saudi man, “I hated myself... there wasn’t enough hot water in all of Cuba to make me feel clean.” (12)


 (1) “Extracts from an Interrogation Log”. Time. Jun 12, 2005.

 (2) “Guantanamo Provides Valuable Intelligence Information”. U.S. Department of Defense news release. Jun 12, 2005.

 (3) Congressional Record. Jun 14, 2005.

 (4) “Durbin supports the troops.” Opinion Journal. Jun 15, 2005.

 (5) Alan Dershowitz. Wikipedia

 (6) “Dershowitz: Torture could be justified”. Mar 3, 2003.

 (7) “Freedom Fighter”. Harvard Political Review. Dec 1, 2001.

 (8) Frances Kamm. “Failures Of Just War Theory”. 2003.

 (9) Mirko Bagaric. "A case for torture." The Age (Melbourne). May 17, 2005.

 (10) “Moral means of saving lives?”. Radio Netherlands interview. Jun 10 2005

 (11) “Lawyers and ethicists should be careful when talking about the permission of torture.”

 (12) “Not a nice place.” Review of Inside the Wire, by Eric Saar and Viveca Novak. The Economist. Jun 9, 2005.


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