Thursday, January 6, 2005

The Ethics of Torture

The ethics of torture are back in the news, and again the question first from our lips should be how the word torture is being defined. It's difficult to say whether or not torture is justified when we don't know what it is we're talking about.

Part I, Article I of the Geneva Convention Against Torture defines torture as:

... any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

The problem with this definition is twofold. First, the word "severe" is frustratingly imprecise. Second, the signatories to this agreement did not envision the kind of world in which we live today. World-wide terrorism and weapons of mass destruction have rendered the Geneva definition anachronistic.

Viewpoint has discussed this matter before, particularly here and here, and we don't wish to cover too much of the same ground now, but there are some things that bear elaboration. One is the problem with the use of the word "severe."

A pair of articles by Steve Weissman at illustrate the difficulty. In the first essay Weissman decries the military's resort to "torture" in Afghanistan and Iraq:

The first clue became visible at Bagram Air Base near Kabul, when American soldiers systematically put cloth sacks over the heads of their captives, whether al-Qaeda, Taliban, or some poor Afghan villager mistakenly taken prisoner.

In part, a hood, blindfold, or spray-painted goggles made prisoners easier to control. But the visual deprivation began the process of disorienting them, enhancing psychological stress as the CIA's torture manuals recommended.

The troops kept the prisoners standing or kneeling in painful positions for hours at a time, forced them into other agonizing postures, often stripped them naked, humiliated them non-stop, threatened them, deprived them of sufficient food and sleep, or left them in freight containers, where they suffered extremes of heat and cold. The soldiers also withheld medical treatment and needed medication, especially painkillers, and kicked their prisoners around a bit, just to show who was boss. For selected captives, like those on the long flight to Guantanamo, the sensory deprivation became more elaborate. Full-face hoods took away their sight and some of their hearing. Thick gloves reduced their sense of touch. The 30-hour flight to a completely unknown destination added to the effect, cutting them off from anything known and reassuring.

Weissman evidently lumps all of these acts together under the rubric of "torture", but should he? Is it torture to put a hood over someone, to limit their food or sleep, to make them stand for hours at a time? In other words, when does discomfort become severe pain? And is inflicting severe pain always wrong? If so, why so? Is there anyone reading this who would balk at inflicting severe pain upon someone if that was the only way to save the life of their child?

Imagine that terrorists have been apprehended, and the military has reason to think that their associates are planning to attack an elementary school, as happened in Beslan, Russia. The authorities don't know where or when, but they have good reason to believe that the captured men know. By putting them under stress, duress, and even some pain they might be able to get the information from them, but, heeding the advice of such as Mr. Weissman, they decline to do this. The attack takes place, it turns out to be the school to which you send your children, several hundred terrified youngsters are murdered, your child among them. Would you feel that the military had made the correct decision? If you answer yes, then the question you should then answer is: Why is the comfort of a terrorist killer more important and valuable to you than the life of your and other people's children?

Weissman seeks in Part II to reply to examples such as this. He writes:

From the viewpoint of those who would use it [i.e. torture], the inescapable problem with torture is its lack of efficiency. Interrogators never know whether their victims are telling the truth or making up stories just to end the pain. Investigators then waste valuable time chasing down false leads. In the absence of rock-hard supporting evidence, intelligence analysts never know how much faith to put in some tidbit of coerced information. And governments often end up ignoring the scrap of truth they should heed.

Well, of course, one never knows whether one is getting the truth, but this is a ludicrous argument. The principle Weissman articulates here is that nothing should ever be chanced unless it is guaranteed of success. Because the "torture" may not work, we are to believe, therefore it should not be used. We can imagine the reaction of people across the land after having witnessed New York City be vaporized in a mushroom cloud if they discover that the NYPD had apprehended the terrorist who had planted the nuclear bomb hours before it was set to go off. They perhaps could have prevented the blast, but they had accepted Mr. Weissman's reasoning that they shouldn't torture the recalcitrant mass murderer to learn the bomb's location because, after all, he just might lie to them. Better to try to entice the bomb's location from him with bon homie and free tickets to Radio City Music Hall.

We agree that torture should not be used indiscriminately, but there is no moral case against using it upon those there is probable cause to think are willfully withholding information which could save human lives. Moreover, it should only be used when it is necessary to prevent harm to others, it should never be employed simply to hurt or punish someone. This leaves a lot of room for gray areas and judgment calls, but that's the way life is.

We also think that some distinction needs to be made between depriving a person of certain comforts and doing them lasting harm. Playing loud rock music should not be considered torture. It is unpleasant, to be sure, but unpleasantness should not be a criterion of illicit torture. Nor should making terrorists stand for several hours be considered beyond the pale. If stress and discomfort constitute torture then confining criminals to jail cells would be a violation of the Geneva Convention since it certainly is both stressful and uncomfortable for most people.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this debate is the assumption that torture, however we define it, is ipso facto immoral. We need a vigorous debate in this country of the grounds for that assumption.