The practice of resorting to torture in order to elicit vital information goes back to ancient times. While human civilization has much progressed in many areas, this tendency has held humanity back. The practice of torture is not merely repulsive to the senses. Beyond the obvious pain and suffering inflicted on the victim, it poses several ethical questions to the practitioner. In the recent geo-political context, the fight against terrorism has reopened this debate. The United States’ military personnel, with permission/instructions from higher authorities (going as high up as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld), have tortured suspected terrorists since the beginning of its War on Terror operations. While some of the methods employed in eliciting important information from suspects is degrading and inhuman, one has to understand prevailing political contexts in which such actions become inevitable. For example,
“to counter an enemy who relies on stealth and surprise, the most valuable tool is information, and often the only source of that information is the enemy himself. Men like Sheikh Mohammed who have been taken alive in this war are classic candidates for the most cunning practices of this dark art. Intellectual, sophisticated, deeply religious, and well trained, they present a perfect challenge for the interrogator. Getting at the information they possess could allow us to thwart major attacks, unravel their organization, and save thousands of lives. They and their situation pose one of the strongest arguments in modern times for the use of torture.” (Bowden, 2003, p.52)
The rest of this essay will try and present more points in support of torture as a key interrogative tool, and show why its continued employment will save thousands of innocent lives in the future. Foremost among the rationales for usage of torture techniques is the current era of warfare we are living through. The September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and other targets within the United States had illustrated clearly the scope and magnitude of jihadist terrorism. (Bowden, 2003, p.52) This event showed to leaders of democratic nations that terrorism has indeed come of age. In this new era of warfare, battles are no longer waged between symmetrical power entities – one state upon another. Rather, in the asymmetrical military engagements of today, conventional states confront non-state enemies
“who are palpably post-modern: trans-national, decentralized, more closely resembling a fog or that mythic beast with multiple and multiplying heads, the hydra, than the traditional more or less well-defined and (at least potentially) containable national enemy. Moreover, this hydra is one given particularly to living amongst and preying upon civilians. In other words, as the smoldering ruins of Ground Zero reminded us, this is an enemy who does not respect the traditional moral parameters of warfare. Accompanying this recognition is the suspicion that these developments have finally rendered the just war tradition obsolete, irrelevant, impossible.” (Bell, 2006, p.34)
Hence, in these uncertain and insecure times, traditional criteria of measuring fairness and justice no longer apply. Waging the War on Terror successfully requires rejection of antiquarian views of “legitimate authority, last resort, and the possibility of distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant.” (Bell, 2006, p.34) Our leaders no longer have the luxury of “moral purity or clean hands” that the just war tradition requires. Moreover, one has to make a distinction between acting morally and acting foolishly. It would amount to acting foolishly if key protections of the Bill of Rights are extended to ruthless enemies who do not share America’s vision of war, justice and morality. The key question to ask is whether the imperative to destroy the evil called terrorism justifies some of the criteria of the just war theory. (Bell, 2006, p.34)
Another persuasive reason why our government should not hesitate to use torture in preventing terror is the impotency of traditional legal interrogation techniques in gathering intelligence. For example, in the ten years since September 2001, hundreds of detainees were captured both within and outside the United States. This group of detainees has “offered up very little information through traditional legal interrogations.” (Andersen, 2002, p.21) The fact is FBI and CIA agents are subject to so much frustration during conventional interrogation that they are pushed to use torture. This sentiment is reflected by public commentators too, as in an op-ed column for a major newspaper, conservative thinker William Buckley asserted that “while torture may be necessary, it is an ugly necessity and thus should be kept out of sight. We should not torture an al-Qaeda prisoner as a general rule. But to torture the one who knows where the hijacked, airborne Boeing 737 is beaded is an exemption to the rule, though it is not one we would wish to codify. Some acts of warfare, like some intelligence, are works of art, not articles of war.” (Buckley, as quoted in Andersen, 2002, p.21) Hence, while torture might be necessary during interrogations, law-enforcement officers should celebrate or be boastful about it. They should always hope that such techniques become unnecessary in the future.
Buckley’s reasoning is not so much to justify torture but rather to accept exceptional circumstances under which it is committed. Concurring on Buckley’s views, author Binoy Kampmark presents legal re-interpretations of torture in the War on Terror context. According to him, two dominant narratives are seen in the ongoing investigations on torture. The first narrative involves legal exclusion and qualification of detainees’ rights through a limited interpretation of the rules of engagement.
“Second, the memoranda in question see the terrorist subjects and their due treatment as subjects of only lexical significance; if they are not combatants, it follows that certain conventions do not apply; if the Convention Against Torture does apply, it only does in rare instances of ‘extreme’ pain. What does not exist on the statute books or in the case law is evidently permissible. The report from the Office of the Attorney General (21 August 2002) regarding the applicability of the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishments is peculiarly revealing in noting a flexible threshold of torture US officers should be cognisant of. Such measures as the ‘deprivation of light and auditory stimuli’, the use of hoods in transporting the inmates, was regarded by Diane E. Beaver, Staff Judge Advocate, as permissible as long as the ‘government objective’ was discernable (176). Nothing improper was seen in the authorised measure to create an impression of imminent harm to the inmates’ life.” (Kampmark, 2005, p.65)
Hence, in conclusion, for all the aforementioned reasons, torture is permissible in the ongoing War on Terror operations. This is especially valid, since access to vital information at key moments could save thousands of innocent civilian lives in the United States.
Andersen, Martin Edwin. “Is Torture an Option in War on Terror? Interrogators Increasingly Frustrated with Hardened Al-Qaeda Terrorists Are Considering the Use of Tactics Once Unthinkable for U.S. Law-Enforcement Officers.” Insight on the News 17 June 2002: 21+.
Bell, Daniel M. “Can a War against Terror Be Just? or, What Is Just War Good For?.” Cross Currents Spring 2006: 34+.
Bowden, Mark. “The Dark Art of Interrogation: The Most Effective Way to Gather Intelligence and Thwart Terrorism Can Also Be a Direct Route into Morally Repugnant Terrain. A Survey of the Landscape of Persuasion.” The Atlantic Monthly Oct. 2003: 51+.
Kampmark, Binoy. “Torture, Truth and Liberty: Placing the Conduct at Abu Ghraib in Context.” Contemporary Review Aug. 2005: 65+.