Torture Ethics

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently the film Zero Dark Thirty has been getting a lot of press both in the United States and abroad. It is interesting how the reviews differ–in the United States, the film is regarded as a patriotic thriller celebrating the vanquishing of an enemy, and has received mostly positive reviews. In Europe, however, it is seen to glorify torture and celebrate the various ethically dubious practises of the United States over the last decade in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would like to venture forth into this discussion of torture and whether or not it ought to be permissible.

For a bit of comparison, here are a few lines from a few American reviews of ZDT:

Rolling Stone:

The knockout punch of the movie season is being delivered by Zero Dark Thirty.

TIME Magazine:

This is movie journalism that snaps and stings, that purifies a decade’s clamor and clutter into narrative clarity, with a salutary kick.

Richard Roeper:

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is the best movie of 2012.

Bold words from Roeper in a month that also saw SkyfallLincoln, and The Hobbit.

But then, from Europe, you have things like this:

The Guardian:

Without the pretense or, in some ultimate post-modern sense, the fiction that this is true, what you would have here, with all the lovely staged scenes of cinematic torture, is something as bent and campy and revisionist as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ.

And even the states, not everyone is raving. John McCain says:

Is McCain right about torture’s role (or lack thereof) in the capture of bin Laden? The short answer is almost certainly, though the report in question has yet to be released to the public. Unless McCain is lying, the report should show not only that torture did not lead to the capture of bin Laden, but that torture and the various “enhanced interrogation techniques” have not been effective from the get-go. This simplifies the discussion of torture ethics quite a bit. In order to evaluate whether or not torture is effective, we need to ask two questions in series:

  1. Does torture work?
  2. If torture works, does its results justify its inhumanities?

Proponents of torture often presume the answer to the first question to be that torture does indeed work. There is mounting evidence to the contrary. In addition to the report McCain references, there have been studies, testimony from people involved in torture, task force recommendations, all manner of things, and all of them say that torture is ineffective. The answer to the first question is consequently one of “no, most certainly not”, and in that case, the second question is made redundant. If torture does not work, then it produces no results to justify it with in the first place.

If you think about it, it makes quite a lot of sense that torture does not work. Let’s imagine if you will that I am a super villain out to destroy all human life, and you are the hero of our story. You know the location of some doomsday weapon that I need to wipe out all human life, but you, knowing that I am a villain, refuse to tell me its location. So let’s say that I, in my fictional ignorance of McCain’s torture report, decide to torture you to get the information. Now, I do not know where the doomsday device is–that’s why I am torturing you, to get this information. That means that whatever place you name, I cannot know that you are lying without actually going to where you describe and checking to see if the doomsday device is there. I have to take your word for it, no matter what you say. So you might very well say anything, any number of times, to end your torment, and each time you give a new location, I have to go to the trouble of investigating it. You could name every place you can think of other than the actual location of the doomsday device ad infinitum. Why wouldn’t you do this? Fear that I would know you were lying and torture you more? If I knew enough to know that you were lying, I wouldn’t need to torture you, would I? You’d just say anything to make it stop, and even then, I would still get no useful information from you, because I don’t know what’s a lie and what isn’t.

If torture worked, there’d be an argument for it in some situations under consequentialist lines. The traditional example to illustrate that point is something like the following: a terrorist has placed a nuclear warhead somewhere in Manhattan and set it to detonate. You have captured this terrorist, but he refuses to tell you where the bomb is so that you can defuse it. If you do not defuse it, millions will die in the blast and ensuing fallout. So your net consequences in each of the possible scenarios are:

  1. No Torture: Some number of millions of people die, New York City is destroyed, mass hysteria and panic ensue, probably a recession, all kinds of zany awfulness.
  2. Torture: One very nasty man gets beaten to the point of near-insanity.

Obviously, if torture worked, you would need to do it in that situation. But such a situation will never actually transpire, because torture does not work. If a terrorist plants a bomb in New York City and you torture him, you shoot his family in front of him, you waterboard him, you crucify him, whatever you do, he can just give a thousand different answers for where the bomb is, all of which only serve to misdirect you. Torture may, in fact, make you less likely to stop the bomb, because you will be following the leads of a blithering insane terrorist who has a motive to lead you astray rather than trying to find someone with knowledge who will talk to you or sending out every last man you have to search the city for the bomb. Probably some combination of the latter would be more sensible.

And, lest we forget, there are also the long-term consequences of torture–not merely dehumanisation of the tortured and the torturer, but also the loss of international respect and credibility that makes it harder to find people who actually want to give you the information you want. If you have a reputation for torturing people, more people won’t like you. The United States was very fortunate that the “outside source” chose to give it the knowledge to find bin Laden. It’s important to note that this was done of the source’s own free will. The source’s opinion of the United States and whether or not it deserved his help mattered quite a bit to the decision to give the United States his information. Countries everyone hates have a hard time recruiting good help. There’s a reason Saddam Hussein would have had an awfully hard time getting you or I to inform on the United States for him, even if we opposed the Iraq War (as I did, though I cannot speak for you). The man was a bit of a torturer and a murderer, and even though we may not have liked the war on his country, we certainly did not like him.

So if we really want to get the information we need to protect us from crazy people, let’s focus on being the sort of country to which people want to volunteer information. Let’s not engage in practises that not only do not obtain accurate information, but make everyone who has information want to share it with us less. That’s a bad plan, not only in the short term, but going forward. And as for Zero Dark Thirty? It may very well be quite a lot of fun as the critics suggest, but we certainly should not get our interrogation techniques from it or fall prey to thinking that real intelligence gets gathered that way, because well, we shouldn’t, and it doesn’t.