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The application of torture in the fight against terrorism

The word torture can be defined as, the act or exercise of inflicting serious pain on someone as a punishment or with the aim of forcing them to say or do something against their will (Rodley, 2000: 7). According to international law it is illegal for anyone to use torture under any circumstances whatsoever. In every war, information is a powerful tool. And in the “war against terrorism”, where the enemy hides among the general public, and wears no uniform, information can be important even more.

However, does that entail that torture can often be justified to retrieve information in such grave circumstances? By applying the Utilitarian theory, torture is morally justified in some severe cases, nevertheless, torture is not to be institutionalized or legalized outside these severe cases. In this essay, I will talk about whether the United States was justified to defy international law conventions, and to use torture in the war against terror. I will first begin by giving a background on torture and the war on terror.

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I will then do a critical analysis of the “ticking bomb” case, which is normally used to justify torture in severe cases. After explaining the ticking bomb case, I will go on to the consequentialist and deontological approaches to torture. I will also discuss how torture was used by the US in the war against terrorism, and what led the US to invade Afghanistan. I will conclude by saying weather the United States was justified or not to use torture.

A background on how the story of torture began

On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists unlawfully seized four airliners, they flew two into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, and on into the Pentagon in Arlington, this resulted in the deaths of over 2700 innocent people, including people from eighty nations (9/11 Commission, 2004).

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These terrorist attacks were of a large scale and they set off security implications globally (Enders and Sandler, 2005: 260). President George Bush of America just hours later issued a public statement about a US-led war on terror with the purpose of protecting the security and life of citizens from any future terrorist attacks (Gordon, 2007: 53). This war against terror presented new challenges to the international community, leading to the presumption that new measures were in need to fight which went against some human right norms. The idea that torture could be used as a powerful weapon in the war on terror entered political debates, both in the United States and internationally (Sussman, 2005: 2). The prohibition of torture has growingly been questioned and this has also sparked a debate about whether torture should be legalized or not to be able to protect innocent civilians from terrorist attacks (Hoffman, 2004: 943).

Torture and the war on terror

Terrorism seeks to escalate fear in a society with the purpose of gaining certain political goals (Booth, 2008: 66). Terrorist attacks thus threaten the life and security of civilians. And it is the duty of the state to protect its residents from such threats. In this fight against terrorism, the United States are constantly held accountable for going against international law by using strategies that are morally questionable (Hoffman, 2004: 949). Utilizing torture as an interrogation method is one eminent example of human rights abuses, next to detaining people without charging them (Haque, 2007: 657). Proof that torture was used as a method to extract information from prisoners at Abu Gharib, Bagram Air Base and Guantanamo Bay is given by the International Red Cross, US intelligence officers, and statements from the detainees (Ramsay, 2006: 104). According to statements of the International Red Cross (ICRC, 2004: 12), “interrogation sessions of prisoners at Abu Gharib included ill-treatments such as deprivation of sleep, waterboarding, exposure to extreme levels of heat and cold, and sexual degradation etc.” The extensive and organized use of torture that these incidents were not just misguided individual behavior, but a planned component in the interrogation of suspected terrorists (Bellamy, 2006: 123).

The Ticking Bomb scenario

The “ticking bomb” scenario is a frequently mentioned ethical issue that causes us to question our moral priorities. The scenario typically involves uncovering a conspiracy to destroy parts of a city with bombs which are set to explode at any minute. It would not be possible to evacuate the entire city in time, but it would be possible to disarm the bombs if the authorities knew exactly where to find them. The person who is suspected of knowing the location of the bombs is captured by the authorities but refuses to give the details about the whereabouts of the bombs. Should the suspect be tortured to get the information? The scenario compels us to choose between two evils (Dershowitz, 2002: 133); we can either do nothing, but it will result in thousands of deaths of innocent civilians, or we can choose to do something immoral, which is to torture the suspect in order to save the lives of many. The conflicting sides of the discussion can normally be located in the form of consequentialist and deontological approaches.

The consequentialist approach to torture

The consequentialist approach is merely the perspective that normative properties depend only on the consequences. The bad of torturing one person is weighed against the good of saving hundreds of innocent civilians to be able to come up with a decision on the right course of action. This method of moral evaluation is what Bentham calls the “principle of utility” (Turner, 2005: 16-7). This approach gives rise to many complex questions such as, is it right to torture eighty-five in order to save nighty people? Is torture the less evil if its only to save a single individual? In principle, this kind of reasoning can justify severe cruelty provided that it is identified as the less evil (Dershowitz, 2002: 146). In order words, this argument can be said to be based on a mere cost-benefit analysis, that torture can be morally justified if it is the lesser evil (Bufacchi and Arrigo, 2006: 357). To strengthen this argument, the people who defend torture rely greatly on the ticking bomb scenario (Bellamy, 2006: 141). However, the ticking bomb scenario is a rather weak foundation to base these arguments since it is a mere hypothetical scenario, and even if it could be regarded as well-grounded theory, its implementation in reality remains debatable. This is because of the mere fact that the scenario is drawn from a set of misleading assumptions (Bellamy, 2006: 137).

The deontological approach to torture

The deontological approach places special importance on the relationship between duty and the morality of human actions. Its beliefs about essential human rights were very important in banning the use of torture (Turner, 2005: 7, 15). Kant’s deontological approach gives rise to two general rules which address moral questions: “Act as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature,” and “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only” (Turner, 2005: 14). Under the first rule, torture may not be justified as we would not accept it being globalized and possibly used against ourselves. The second rule refers to torture as wrong because torturing someone with an aim of forcing them to say something, is to use them as a means only (Turner, 2005: 15). Therefore, Kant’s reasoning leads to a conclusion that torture cannot be justified in any situation. A person who makes a choice not to torture is making the right moral decision irrespective of the horrible consequences that might occur. Kant’s approach emphasizes the disrespect of the victim’s right of self-government and agency, and the violation of human rights that follows from torture.

Some political scientists disagree with this approach by highlighting the fact that other forms of violence exist that are equally demeaning and cruel but are justified under particular circumstances. For example, if killing someone can be justified in the name of self-defense then torture can also be justified under related circumstances too (Steinhoff, 2006: 337). Even though this approach sounds legitimate, comparing self-defense killing and torture can be misleading given the following grounds. Firstly, killing someone in self-defense is established on the basis that the other individual threatens the survival of our own, and therefore this gives us the right to defend ourselves. On the other hand, torturing a detained terrorist is, “an act of violence against a defenseless victim” (Shue, 1978: 125, 129). Secondly the rationalization of one form of brutality is not exactly a solid defense for the rationalization of another form of brutality.

The ban of torture by international law

Inside the context of international law, torture is never justified. International law consists of various documentation that prohibits torture any forms of maltreatment. The prohibition of torture is demonstrated by the Geneva conventions, the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman treatment, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights (Ramsay, 2006: 104). According to Article 2 (CAT, 1984) of the UN convention against torture, the use of torture is forbidden under any circumstances and “no special circumstance may be cited as justification of torture.” This prohibition of torture is also highlighted in the International Covenant on civil and political rights, which forbids the use of torture even during a public emergency which endangers the safety of the whole country (ICCPR, 1966: Art. 4). In addition, protection against torture is regarded as an international human right. Article 5 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights declares that “no one should ever be subjected to cruel, demeaning, or inhuman punishment or treatment” (UDHR, 1948: Art. 5). The Geneva convention specifically forbids “violence to life, cruel treatment. mutilation, and torture and disapproves of any degrading and humiliating treatment of any sort” (Dershowitz, 2002: 135). A lot of countries that use the most severe forms of torture are signatories to the Geneva convention, but theoretically choose to ignore it. The United States also agreed be bound by the convention but only to the degree that it is in line with the Eighth Amendment (Dershowitz, 2002: 136). The Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the use of physical force to retrieve information in order to save lives. Therefore, if the US chose to use non-lethal torture in severe cases, it would still be incompliance with its obligation (Dershowitz, 2002: 136). However, torture still remains immoral and in the context of international law it is illegal. By applying torture, the United States defied international law.


As mentioned above, the application of torture in the fight against terrorism as a method to retrieve information became a fraction of a broader strategy to counter terrorism, favoured by the United States and a few of its allies. Reports of torture being used at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Bagram Air Base triggered questions about whether or not the use of torture should be justified to protect innocent lives from terrorist attacks. The state has an obligation to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks. However, the correct route to accomplish this responsibility cannot include more violations of human rights standards. Furthermore, protection against torture is regarded as an international human right, therefore a moral justification of torture cannot be given. From the perspective of the deontological approach, torture is morally wrong because it goes against the victim’s right of self-government and agency, and it violates human dignity in an incomparable way. As for the consequentialist argument in favour of torture, it has to be dismissed because of the fact that the ticking bomb scenario is a mere hypothetical scenario and its implementation in reality remains questionable. Torture is also not a very reliable method of gathering information as it often results in false confessions from the victims.

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The application of torture in the fight against terrorism. (2019, Dec 17). Retrieved from

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