The Case Against Torture

I have struggled with whether to write about this subject on this particular blog for several months now, but I am itching to get my opinion out there beyond my student and colleague base. To start with, I must admit that I still have not seen the 2012 film “Zero Dark Thirty” directed by Kathryn Bigelow, which has brought the effectiveness of torture to the attention of the mass media.

Let’s start with what is torture. Torture is the when emotional, psychological, and/or physical stress is applied to the body. The goal is to not only produce pain (physical, emotional, and/or psychological) but to increase the anticipation of future pain and distress. In some cases, torture is employed as a method of extracting information. Additionally, it is done as a form of entertainment for the torturer or others. It may also be employed as a method of revenge. I have tried to define torture to encompass all forms that are found not only in contemporary times but in historical times.

There is a long history of the use of torture in human history and in many cases, the torture and response of the tortured has been well documented, i.e. during the Spanish Inquisition. Torture has been used by governments and other powerful groups to extract information and has been purportedly employed by the British Government, the Argentinian Government, as well as the U.S. government in the battles against paramilitary organizations, terrorist organizations, and against the general populace to discourage seditious ideologies.

The main argument with torture is: do the ends justify the means? In my opinion, NO. The general thought experiment is if you have someone in custody who has information about a bomb or attack that may lead to the deaths of thousands of civilians, would you use torture to get the information to prevent this attack? First of all, this is a highly unlikely and completely hypothetical scenario. Secondly, how do you know this person is indeed reliable, meaning having the desired knowledge? While you may encounter situations where valuable information is gained for the short term, in the long term, this tactic will undermine the legitimacy of your movement and ideology. I refer you to the 1966 film “The Battle of Algiers” directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, in particular to the Criterion Collection’s three-disc special edition. Included is a roundtable discussion of torture by Richard A. Clarke, Michael A. Sheehan, and moderated by Christopher E. Isham.

In any conflict, victory not only relies upon the exertion of power and domination over your opponent but also in gaining the support of the sympathizers of your enemy. Torture does not gain sympathy. In many cases, in the pursuit of information, innocent and uninvolved citizens may be tortured. What happens to those individuals upon release if they are released or even to their family members and social groups once they become aware of the torture? They tend to sympathize not with the side of the torturer but the other side. What you effectively do is promote the ideology and build the support base for your enemy by demonstrating the barbaric methods you employ to gain information.  The conflict in Northern Ireland would be a good example. When overt violence is perpetrated against a civilian or group of civilians, you lose legitimacy and support. On January 31, 1972, the event known as Bloody Sunday occurred in Derry, Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association planned a peaceful march to protest gerrymandering of election lines and inequality among employment and housing practices. The British government responded by sending paratroopers to overlook the march. At one point during the march, the paratroopers began firing upon the unarmed crowd, successfully ending the peaceful civil rights movement and building the ranks and support for the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Several inquiries later over several decades, it was finally uncovered that indeed the civilians were unarmed contrary to initial reports by the British government. This was a black spot in British and Irish history and marked the beginning of one of the most deadly years in the history of the Troubles. I refer you to the writings of Tim Pat Coogan, John McGarry, and Brendan O’Leary and the 2002 film “Bloody Sunday” directed by Paul Greengrass. Please note that I have many more references for this information, but for the sake of space and time, I am noting just a few. A fictional depiction of the impact torture has on a movement can be found in the 2006 film “Catch a Fire” directed by Phillip Noyce which takes place during the time of Apartheid in South Africa.

Finally, the issue of reliable information comes to the forefront in any discussion of torture. Any well-organized paramilitary organization, government-sponsored or trained or otherwise, will train its soldiers in methods to survive torture without compromising the overall mission or information. It may not have the capability to train all soldiers, but certainly the ones with the most valuable and accurate information will be trained to withstand torture while maintaining the integrity of their mission and movement. How does one do this? First by providing information that is of low value but may be verified as being true, and then give information that might be of high value (true or not) but cannot be appropriately verified. Thus, the torturer has a problem with deciding to act on the information they have procured because it is unclear whether this information is true and accurate.

In regards to the issue of the U.S. war on terror and the use of torture, I stand by my statement that torture should not be used if we want to avoid future attacks. Ultimately, this will defeat any attempt the U.S. makes in trying to demonstrate that the democratic values that we uphold are superior or in the best interests of human rights than our enemies. By using torture, we automatically become hypocrites in any suggestion that we stand in defense of human rights. The only way to gain ground in this protracted conflict is to demonstrate how our ideology supports human rights and life-affirming and life-enhancing peaceful initiatives.

As someone who has lost friends in the September 11, 2001 attacks as well as in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq following these attacks, my personal resolve to find justice for the loss of life is quite strong. However, whenever we are embroiled in an emotionally-charged situation dealing with issues that we are passionate about, it is important to step back and think about the issue from a rational perspective if we truly want redemption and not simply revenge. So much attention since 2001 has been placed on international terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda but the bottom line is that the U.S. has suffered more attacks and more loss of civilians perpetrated by domestic terrorist organizations than international terrorist organizations. We need to set our emotions aside and step back to look at this issue from a distance. Not only should we consider any short-term gains from the tactics employed but also the long-term consequences of our choices in tactics. We need to consider the experiences of other organizations engaged in similar conflicts and assess the effectiveness of the approaches and tactics used. Bottom line, torture is not effective as a method of extracting information. Its long-term consequences will inevitably erode our legitimacy, the information procured may not be accurate and reliable, and finally, we will continue to support the use of violence in its most barbaric forms as a method of solving problems. It is no wonder that so many individuals in recent times have resorted to the use of violence as a method of revenge or making some type of personal or political statement. The cost is the loss of innocent lives from Aurora, CO to Newtown, CT.

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One thought on “The Case Against Torture

  1. Well thought out…great points

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