Torture is one of the most controversial actions that a government can undertake. As a means of extracting information from suspects, torture is highly questionable in terms of both morality and effectiveness. Despite this, governments still discreetly torture individuals through a variety of means in an effort to improve national security. This sample essay from Ultius explores the use of torture to obtain information from enemies of the state.
Effect on torturers and moral implications
There is a well-known idiom that states “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” also known as Hammurabi’s Code. This phrase dates back to ancient Mesopotamian culture and is often used to incite the sentiment that simply exchanging the same loss leaves everyone a loser in the grand scheme. When examined through the lens of state-sanctioned torture in the United States, the idiom breathes fresh context in determining the legitimacy of torture as a means to prevent some more detrimental action or event.
Michael Levin (1982) builds a utilitarian argument in The Case for Torture in which he describes the act of torture as “morally mandatory” in certain cases (302). Levin proposes a set of hypothetical (yet still realistic) scenarios in which the verdict ultimately becomes that torture as a whole is a necessary evil to prevent a worse evil. But what Levin fails to account for is the effect of torture on those who administer it on a defenseless (albeit potentially guilty) subject.
Sanctioned torture as means to an end
Sanctioned torture has a negative moral effect on torturers. This paper will discuss the effects of torture on those administering the torture, the faulty science supporting torture as a method of interrogation, how choosing torture is choosing unnecessary cruelty, torturers choosing it over other methods for obtaining evidence, and how torture becomes increasingly harsh as it is used more.
Levin’s overall assertion is that the option to torture someone who has planned to murder innocent victims should always be given the green light as preventative measure regardless of its incredibly cancerous impact on the torturer.
Levin states: “But torture, in the cases described, is intended not to bring anyone back but to keep innocents from being dispatched. The most powerful argument against using torture as a punishment or to secure confessions is that such practices disregard the rights of the individual” (303).
Zero Dark Thirty and the torture of al-Qaeda terrorists
A film depicting the 9/11 terrorist attack mastermind Osama bin Laden. called Zero Dark Thirty, was released amid both acclaim and controversy. The film itself is an engrossing, expertly crafted film, but the controversy surrounded depictions of torture by Americans as they attempted to pry information from unwilling participants with varying degrees of guilt and involvement in many of bin Laden’s more notorious attacks.
What these scenes provide the viewer is a look at the face of torture as it exists in a modern society and its lasting impact on those administering the torture, and it also exhibits the ineffectiveness of the science behind torture as a method of interrogation. In many of these scenes, the method of torture escalates quickly and fails to produce the results it is intended to produce.
Levin fails to account for several things in his proclamation of torture as essential as a preventative measure; chief among them is that someone who is involved in planning or carrying out an event resembling his hypothetical situations would be so devoted to their cause and their marching orders that no method of torture would elicit any pertinent information to prevent future damage.
Zero Dark Thirty depicts this at several junctures throughout the film, and anyone with knowledge of the history surrounding the bin Laden manhunt knows how long it took and how brutal some of the implored, ineffective methods were. And once torture is chosen as the path to take, there is little to no room to turn back; the only escalation remains as the viable choice.
Unnecessary cruelty gains little information
Only that viable choice employs unnecessary cruelty while retaining its ineffectiveness to protect national security from terrorists. Noam Chomsky (2003) offers up a set of truisms related to international diplomacy in his book Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, one of which can be applied and related directly to the effect of torture on those administering torture.
Chomsky states that “actions are evaluated in terms of the range of likely consequences” (187).
If a conversation is being had about whether or not to engage in torture to prevent a larger catastrophe, the range of consequences being considered and evaluated should include the effect of delivering the torture on the torturers themselves; especially if the torture is not generating any of the desired results. If the results aren’t being produced, then choosing torture becomes an act of choosing unnecessary cruelty.
This unnecessary cruelty does not evaluate the range of likely consequences Chomsky’s truism indicates is essential. It neglects not only the impact on the torturer; it fails to present any legitimate alternative to torture. Levin’s position indicates that torture is permissible, but he fails to identify any rubric of alternatives from which to pursue the same ends. Certainly, torture at its base is cruel by design. When the stakes are raised by the torturer yet no results are imminently available, Levin’s case ignores another strong point: that torturing then becomes the only method for obtaining evidence.
Torture versus more humane methods used on targeted groups
When torture becomes the most prevalent option for obtaining information, it becomes the method that is turned to most often in favor of more humane methods. And this also becomes an issue of targeting groups and members who have been identified as Islamic terrorist groups and other Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) with the expressed intent or torturing those people to collect more information without considering additional options for preventing a future attack or lessening the impact of an already developing attack.
On the identification of FTO’s, Chomsky (2011) states: “The Department of State continually monitors the activities of terrorist groups around the world to identify potential targets for designation. When reviewing potential targets, the Department considers terrorist attacks that a group has carried out, whether the group has engaged in planning and preparations for possible future acts of terrorism, or whether it retains the capability and intent to carry out such acts” (165).
Given this information surrounding the identification of terrorist organizations around the world, a list that in 2011 contained forty-five different FTO’s, might torture already be the decided method for intelligence gathering for possibly each and every member of these nearly fifty organizations? And for members of the groups on the government designated list of terrorist groups, might the type of torture not start at any level other than intense severity?
United States and foreign dictators
The United States has long been involved with regimes around the world that have carried out some of the most vicious atrocities that resulted in the loss of human life by providing aid to the leaders of those countries. Chomsky (2007) provides a litany of examples, countries like Colombia, Egypt, Israel, and other Latin American countries with notorious records of horrific human rights and torture, spanning from the Carter Administration through the Clinton Administration (164-165).
Taking a historical perspective, and given the development of more torturous methods, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that torture has become harsher the more it has been utilized as a means of gathering intelligence. The development of these methods allows for torturers to push a subject all the way to their physical, emotional, mental, and psychological limits.
In order to make a case for torture as Levin attempts to do, you have to be okay with resorting to methods that lump the United States in with some groups we’ve long verbalized our abhorrence for. You have to ignore the ability of the United States to take the “high road” in preventing attacks that result in loss of life. If torture is an accepted method of legal counterintelligence gathering, it says of our culture that harsh, often senseless violence is okay as long as you proclaim a just cause for doing so.
And the science used in developing the case for torture, including Levin’s case, often neglects the effect of torture on the torturers, affecting them just as much as those who are being tortured. It provides an unnecessarily cruel, increasingly harsh manner for procuring information, and it becomes the preferred and only method once it has been utilized.
If the United States is going to be a part of the solution, resorting to extreme violence is not the image to portray to a global community who often looks to us to lead the way as a global power. The United States is setting the stage for violence to be the number one choice of regimes all around the world, and a case for torture is a case for regression, and that is simply unacceptable.
Bigelow, K., Boal, M., & Ellison, M. (Producers), & Bigelow, K. (Director). (2013). Zero Dark Thirty [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.
Chomsky, N. (2003). Hegemony or survival: America’s quest for global dominance. New York: Metropolitan Books, p. 187.
Chomsky, N. (2007). What we say goes: Conversations on U.S. power in a changing world. New York: Metropolitan Books, pp. 164-165.
Chomsky, N. (2011). 9/11: Was there an alternative. New York: Seven Stories Press, p. 165.
Levin, M. (1982). The case for torture. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 301-304.