The ethics of Torture.

Author:Evans, Rebecca
Position:Critical essay


Torture: Does It Make Us Safer? Is It Ever OK? A Human Rights Perspective. Edited by Kenneth Roth and Mindy Worden. New York: The New Press, 2005. 201 pp.

Torture has once again become a timely topic. The "War on Terror" launched after September 11, 2001 has renewed a philosophical and political debate, in the United States and elsewhere, about whether torture is ever justified. The basic parameters of this debate revolve around the question whether there should be an absolute prohibition against torture or whether, under carefully specified circumstances, it is a lesser evil to torture a suspect for information to prevent a greater evil that menaces society.

A position of moral absolutism holds that individuals must "do things only when they are right" rather than calculating the consequences of their actions (Nye 2005: 21). Such a perspective condemns torture as an unacceptable practice, arguing that torture and related abuses should be absolutely banned because they are

antithetical to the entire concept of human rights. Rights define the limits beyond which no government should venture. To breach those limits in the name of some utilitarian calculus is to come dangerously close to the ends-justify-the-means rationale of terrorism. By contrast, a society that rejects torture affirms the essential dignity and humanity of each individual (xiii). Torture is morally unjustified, therefore, because it "dehumanizes people by treating them as pawns to be manipulated through their pain" (xii).

This perspective is reflected in the absolute moral imperatives laid out in various international conventions. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates, in unqualified terms, that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" (Article 5). The Geneva Conventions of 1949 not only provide protection for enemy combatants and civilians but also instruct that unlawful combatants must be "treated with humanity and ... shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial" (Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 5). The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibits torture even "during public emergencies that threaten the life of the nation" (Articles 4 and 7). Similarly, the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment insists that "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability of any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture" (Article 2).

Yet, despite these unconditional prohibitions, torture persists. Countries that have ratified treaties outlawing torture are in some cases actually more likely to use torture than countries which have not joined such international conventions (Hathaway 2004: 201-202). Although despotic and totalitarian regimes are the worst offenders, these are not the only kinds of regimes which find it expedient to use torture from time to time. Despite their support for human rights and rule of law, democratic countries have also adopted repressive policies, especially in times of perceived insecurity (Forsythe 2006: 467). Given the gap between rhetoric and reality, some scholars have called for a more pragmatic approach, arguing that the use of torture should be regulated rather than proscribed. Alan Dershowitz maintains that the better question to ask is whether torture should be allowed to continue "below the radar screen, without political accountability" or whether to require authorization from top political or judicial leaders as a precondition to the infliction of any type of torture. From Dershowitz's perspective, torture will inevitably occur, so a more "realistic" emphasis on accountability is important for reducing hypocrisy and minimizing the occurrence of torture (Dershowitz 2004: 259, 266-267).

Other scholars forward a different kind of utilitarian argument, criticizing the moral perfectionism of absolutists who prefer to "let justice be done though the heavens fall" (Levinson 2004). From this perspective, "far greater moral guilt falls on a person in authority who permits the deaths of hundreds of innocents rather than choosing to 'torture' one guilty or complicit person" (Elshtain 2004: 87). In order to thwart threats to national security and save the lives of the many, the rights of the one or the few must be sacrificed. Torture of enemy soldiers or terrorists is therefore justified in order to extract vital information that could prevent future attacks and save innocent lives (Bowden 2003: 53-54; Posner 2004: 293-294). This line of justification often focuses on a philosophical discussion of extreme cases--ticking bomb scenarios--in which torturing one guilty or complicit person prevents the deaths of thousands if not millions of innocents. Such theoretical examples have been reflected in popular culture, including television shows such as 24 that suggest that torture is both necessary and effective in obtaining information urgently required to avert a looming catastrophe (Green 2005).

Both the absolutist and utilitarian positions have widespread appeal and explain why there is considerable ambivalence toward the issue of torture. On the one hand, neither American policymakers nor the public openly legitimize the use of torture. The Bush administration categorically denies using torture; cases uncovered by the media have been attributed to a few "bad apples" rather than official policy. Public opinion polls shows that a majority of Americans (51 to 53 percent) believe that torture should rarely or never be used to gain important information from suspected terrorists (Foreign Policy Attitudes 2004; Thomas and Hirsh 2005: 26).

On the other hand, a sizable minority (43 to 44 percent) thinks torture can at least sometimes be justified (Foreign Policy Attitudes 2004). In a struggle against unprincipled, even barbaric enemies, many people believe that the government must do whatever it takes to prevent its citizens from being hurt. This sentiment was reflected in public comments by U.S. officials as well. In a television interview shortly after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney stated, "We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you wish. We've got to spend time in the shadows ... so it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objectives" (quoted in "Getting Away with Torture?" 2005). Cofer Black, a former director of the CIA's counterterrorist unit, testified in early 2002, "there was a before-9/11 and an after-9/11. After 9/11 the gloves came off" (quoted in "Getting Away with Torture?" 2005).

More privately, the White House also began to rethink its policy on torture, drafting internal memos that laid out a legal case for the use of torture by U.S. interrogators if acting under the directive of the President (Forsythe 2006: 471-479). In January 2002, Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo provided a legal rationale for denying detainees protection according to the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (Geneva Convention III), thereby authorizing U.S. interrogators to employ a wider range of techniques than would otherwise be permitted (Yoo 2002; Isikoff 2004). Later the same month, then-White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales endorsed Yoo's legal analysis, arguing that the new war against terrorism "places a high premium ... on the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians, and the need to try terrorists for war crimes" (Gonzales 2002). Gonzales further advised that "the president, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has the constitutional authority to order interrogations of enemy combatants" and can lawfully order torture, without regard to federal criminal laws or international law. Any measure "that interferes with the President's direction of such core war matters as the detention and interrogation of enemy combatants would thus be unconstitutional" (Barry, Hirsh and Isikoff 2004).

An August 2002 memorandum written by Jay Bybee, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, not only forwarded a particularly narrow definition of torture (an extreme act "of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure"), but also suggested that even if a government interrogator were to use methods against an enemy combatant that constituted torture, "he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network. In that case, we believe that he could argue that his actions were justified by the executive branch's constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack" (Bybee 2002: 46; Barry, Hirsh and Isikoff 2004; Priest and Smith 2004; Zernike 2004). In March 2003, a Defense Department legal task force agreed that "in order to respect the President's inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign ... the prohibition against torture must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander-in-Chief authority (Department of Defense 2003: 20; Lewis and Schmitt 2004).

Significantly, these deliberations took place privately rather than publicly. (1) Once the internal documents were publicized, government officials were quick to qualify the memos as legal research that did not signify any intention to use torture. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld insisted that the government did not order, authorize or permit "torture or acts that are inconsistent with our international treaty obligations or our laws or our values as a country" (quoted in "Torture Policy" 2004: A18) and Attorney General John Ashcroft stated categorically that "this...

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