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The Twisted Logic of Torture

A warped and dangerous logic lies behind the Bush administration’s refusal to reject coercive interrogation.  Many American security officials seem to believe that coercive interrogation is necessary to protect Americans and their allies from a catastrophic terrorist attack.  Torture and inhumane treatment may be wrong, they contend, but mass murder is worse, so the lesser evil must be tolerated to prevent the greater one.  Yet, aware of how fundamental the prohibition of torture is to modern civilization, even proponents of a hard-line approach to counter-terrorism are reluctant to prescribe systematic torture.  Instead, they purport to create a rare exception to the rule against torture by invoking the “ticking bomb” scenario, a situation in which interrogators are said to learn that a terrorist suspect in custody knows where a ticking bomb has been planted and must force that information from him to save lives. 

The ticking bomb scenario makes for great philosophical discussion, but it rarely arises in real life—at least not in a way that avoids opening the door to pervasive torture.  In fact, interrogators hardly ever learn that a suspect in custody knows of a particular, imminent terrorist bombing.  Intelligence is rarely if ever good enough to provide such specific, advance warning.  Instead, the ticking bomb scenario is a dangerously expansive metaphor capable of embracing anyone who might have knowledge of unspecified future terrorist attacks.  After all, why are the victims of only an imminent terrorist attack deserving of protection by torture?  Why not also use torture to prevent a terrorist attack tomorrow or next week or next year?  And once the taboo against torture is broken, why stop with the alleged terrorists themselves?  Why not also torture their families or associates—anyone who might provide life-saving information?  The slope is very slippery.

Israel provides an instructive example of how dangerously elastic the ticking-bomb rationale can become.  In 1987, the Landau Commission in Israel authorized the use of “moderate physical pressure” in ticking-bomb situations.  A practice initially justified as rare and exceptional, taken only when necessary to save lives, gradually became standard procedure.  Soon, some 80 to 90 percent of Palestinian security detainees were being tortured—until, in 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court curtailed the practice. 

Other schemes have also been suggested to allow only exceptional torture.  Judges might be asked to approve torture.  Consent of the highest levels of the executive branch might be required.  Yet in the end, any effort to regulate torture ends up legitimizing it and inviting its repetition.  “Never” cannot be redeemed if allowed to be read as “sometimes.”  Regulation too easily becomes license. 

The Bush administration tried to allow just limited coercion through close regulation, but that, predictably, led to more expansive use.  Once a government allows interrogators to ratchet up the level of pain, suffering, and humiliation, severe abuse will not be far behind.  That’s because a hardened terrorist is unlikely to be moved by minor discomfort or modest levels of pain.  Once coercion is permitted, interrogators will be tempted to intensify the mistreatment until the suspect cracks.  And so, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment gives way to torture.

As most professional interrogators explain, and as the U.S. army’s interrogation manual confirms, coercive interrogation is far less likely to produce reliable information than the time-tested methods of careful questioning, probing, cross-checking, and gaining the confidence of the detainee.  A person facing severe pain is likely to say whatever he thinks will stop the torture.  But a skilled interrogator can often extract accurate information from the toughest suspect without resorting to coercion.

Moreover, once the norm against torture is breached, it is difficult to limit the consequences.  Those who face increased risk of torture are not only “terrorist suspects” but anyone who finds himself in custody anywhere in the world—including, of course, Americans.  After all, how can the United States protest others’ mistreatment of its troops when their jailors do no more than what Washington does to its own detainees? 

In addition, a compromised prohibition of torture undermines other human rights.  That endangers us all, in part because of the dangerous implications for the campaign against terrorism.  Why, after all, is it acceptable to breach the fundamental prohibition of torture but not acceptable to breach the fundamental prohibition against attacking civilians?  The torturer may justify his conduct by appeal to a higher good, but so do most terrorists.  In neither case should the end be allowed to justify the means. 

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005