Torture back on the agenda

Posted: January 30, 2017 in stop torture, Uncategorized, USA
Tags: , , , , ,

Donald Trump’s favourable comments on the use of torture have put this topic back on the agenda

As early as the third century A.D, the great Roman Jurist Ulpian noted that information obtained through torture was not to be trusted because some people are “so susceptible to pain that they will tell any lie rather than suffer it”.

President Trump said last week that ‘torture absolutely works’ and threatened its use at Guantanamo.  I want to do everything within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally but do I feel it works? Absolutely I feel it works.”  It now seems he is resiling from this after an outcry.

Amnesty disagrees that torture works.  And here’s five reasons why…

1: Torture is illegal under international law.  It reflects the widespread belief that torture is cruel, inhumane and morally wrong.  The physical and psychological damage it causes is often permanent. Even if it was effective, it would still be wrong.

2: No ends justify torture as a means. You might be able get useful information out of torture in the short term, but in the long term it’s counter-productive.  It does more damage to the reputation of the country that commits torture than any criminal or terrorist. Statistics prove that American use of torture is Al Qaeda’s number one recruiting tool.

3: Torture produces false intelligence.  Some victims will say anything to make the torture stop.  At best this wastes only time and resources.  At worst people may be implicated and even convicted for crimes they did not commit, on the basis of false evidence.

4: While it remains illegal, information extracted through torture cannot be used as evidence in court of law.  It actually makes it harder to bring people to justice for any crime they have committed.

5: You can’t condone torture even in ‘special cases’, otherwise it becomes normalised and a “torture culture” emerges across the chain of command. In the USA the CIA used waterboarding on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, and low-ranking soldiers tortured for sport in grotesque ways in Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq.

Of the more than 700 men held at Guantanamo Bay since 2002, many are now acknowledged as ‘merely guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ Originally described as “the worst of the worst,” by Vice President Cheney, many were subjected to torture particularly waterboarding.  More than 400 of these men have now been released or cleared for release (Center for Constitutional Rights, 2009).

A common justification for the use of torture is the implausible ticking-time-bomb scenario.  This is beloved by Hollywood and was the opening scene in the TV series 24 staring Kiefer Sutherland.  It rests on several questionable assumptions: that a specific piece of “actionable” information could be used to avert the disaster; that somehow interrogators know for certain that the suspect possesses specific information about the location of the bomb; that the threat is imminent; that only torture would lead to disclosure of the information; and that torture is the fastest means of extracting this valid, actionable information. 

Of course, part of the appeal of this scenario is that it also portrays the torturer as a principled, heroic figure who reluctantly uses torture to save innocent lives. This carefully rigged, forced-choice scenario pits the temporary pain of one evil person against the deaths of thousands (or even millions) of innocent people.  And, once we have acknowledged that there might possibly be a situation where torture could yield precious, life-saving information, it is then a small step to conclude that we are sometimes morally obliged to use torture.  While this scenario might provide a useful stimulus for discussion in college ethics courses, or an interesting plot device for a television drama, there seems no evidence that it has ever occurred.  As one scholar put it, “Even though torture is not, on balance, effective or rational, it persists through its deep psychological appeal, to the powerful and the powerless alike, in times of crisis. The reality of torture is unpleasant as one FBI agent put it:

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18 to 24 hours or more.  FBI agent on visiting Guantanamo

CIA report

Picture: Washington Post

The Inspector General of the CIA conducted a review in 2004 and although great chunks of the report were redacted, they found that interrogators assumed detainees were withholding valuable information but this was not always supported by objective evaluation of available information.  Guilt was assumed despite the dubious nature of their capture.  Very little actionable information was obtained and there was little evidence to show that it could not have been got by ordinary means.

Morality

Setting aside its effectiveness – or rather lack of it – the main objection is morality.  Around the world governments and the various agencies working for them, use torture sometimes routinely to brutalise, suborn, humiliate and coerce their citizens.  Amnesty has credible evidence that it is used by 141 countries.  As the leader of the free world, America should be setting an example not joining with the sordid list of countries still carrying out this barbaric practice.

We hope President Trump’s change of mind is permanent.


Sources: Amnesty International; CIA, Inspector General Report, 2004; New York Times

The Effects and Effectiveness of Using Torture and an Interrogation Device: Using Research to Inform the Policy Debate Costanzo, Mark, Gerrity Ellen, in Social Issues and Policy Review, Vol 3, No: 9 2009

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