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The act of legalizing torture has been a debate amongst people for a long time. Most people feel discomfort imagining someone being tortured, whether under any circumstance, however, there are those who feel that torture can be beneficial to the government, in the most extreme cases, seeking information. For example, after the events of 9/11, where al Qaeda terrorists hijacked commercial airplanes and used as weapons of the Pentagon and World Trade Centers, the debate on whether or not “to torture captured terrorists to prevent civilian or military casualties has taken a great urgency.” Using torture, in this kind of extreme case, is what is being debated. However, does using in this kind of situation still make it justified and moral?
Torture can be defined in two ways: the narrow and the broad. In a broad sense, torture may be regarded as “a range of practices, physical or mental forms of interrogation, from minor humiliation all the way up to lethal coercion” (Lasser 1). Narrowly, however, tortured can be defined as, “inflicting unbearable and potentially lethal physical or psychological pain” (Lasser 1). With the debate on torture the narrow definition is the one most people refer to when discussing the morality and permissibility of the act.
Clinton Van Zandt, is a security consultant. In his essay, It Should Be Permissible to Torture Suspected Terrorists to Gather Information, Van Zandt is clearly for the permissibility, as noted also from his essay title. Van Zandt believes that the permissibility of torture should only be used under the scenario of the “ticking time bomb.” His essay quotes that a ticking time bomb scenario is, “a situation when a suspect is thought to have time-sensitive information affecting the lives of thousands—or even millions—of people” (758). Only when torture is in dire need, is when Van Zandt suggests the act of torturing. As a way to go about executing whether or not a situation calls for torture, Van Zandt believes that there should be a special court that is able to decide whether or not a “duress-interview warrant” (758) should be given if a situation calls for it. The courts would be the deciding factors on this form of punishment. He states, “there may come a time when our nation must quickly try to obtain information critical to the lives of millions of people from a person who refuses to talk” (758). He also goes on to suggest that, “there would be no appeal process and no public or media scrutiny. The authority of the court would be absolute” (758).
In response to Van Zandt’s essay, Vincent Iacopino, director of research for Physicians for Human Rights, shares his opposing argument on the matter. Iacopino believes that torture can never be justifiable, narrowly or broadly defined. In his essay, It Should Not Be Permissible to Torture Suspected Terrorists to Gather Information, Iacopino states, “Torture cannot be justified by any government, for any reason, despite recent reports of the U.S. officials and others attempting to justify such practices” (759). According to the U.N. the U.S. is required to prohibit torture and prosecute perpetrators who go against this law. Iacopino believes that the people that are advocating for the use of torture are arrogant and ignorant. He gives several points of the said “arrogance and ignorance.” He claims that using torture does not make a state safer or more secure and that the use of torture would spread even if it were only intended for the “ticking time bomb” (Zandt 758) scenarios. In his words Iacopino states, “Torture does not make any one person or society safer or more secure…Also, U.S. sanctioning of any form of torture will escalate its already widespread use” (760). Iacopino also describes Van Zandt’s “ticking time bomb” scenario as, “naive, abstract fantasies that serve no to assuage the moral conscience of perpetrators and collaborators” (760).
Iacopino suggests that the act of torturing someone goes against the moral beliefs that society has been built on. He states Torture will never serve the interests of justice because it undermines the dignity of us all. We all lose when the “war on terrorism” ends up threatening the protection of human rights. The United Stated must neither silent nor, in any way, complicit with such practices, or indeed, we risk losing that which we seek to preserve—our humanity. (760)
In Iacopino’s last points he essentially denies the “ticking time bomb” scenarios. However, he also states that, “Acts of terror must be prevented and punished” (760). Unfortunately, even though Iacopino denies that ticking time bomb scenarios exist but that acts of terror must be prevented and punished, he never discusses how to prevent them. So ensues a stronger case of debate.
Phillip B. Heymann, former United Stated deputy attorney general, is also against the use of torture. Heymann believes that if torture becomes legal its practices would only be abused by law-enforcement authorities. In his essay Torture Should Not Be Authorized he states that, “The use of torture would increase sharply if there were ‘torture warrants’” (804). In Van Zandt’s argument, he suggested that “torture warrants” should only be insisted under the “absolute authority of the court” and that “there would be no appeal process and no public scrutiny” (758). Heymann believes that the only reason this idea was suggested by Van Zandt is so that if a prisoner being tortured should die under the act that the, “costs of errors are born by suspect tortured, not by those who decide to torture him” (804). If judges were made to believe that in a case of emergency, there was a bomb and that the suspect knew where it was and that the only way to get the information out of would be to torture him, Heymann believes that, in most cases, the judge would allow the torturing. So trying to limit the act of torturing to “torture warrant” scenarios will only prove to be a mistake. Heymann’s experience as a U.S. deputy attorney general has, “taught him that law-enforcement agencies face a large percentage of ‘false positives’” (Lasser 2).
Heymann says that 60% of torture cases are likely to involve all sorts of miscarriages of justice. “You would get six false positives out of ten occasions of torture” (805). He goes on to say And even if you would tolerate this number of false positives if torture were in facet the only way to get the needed information to defuse the bomb, there are frequently other promising ways (such as emergency searches, or stimulating conversations over tapped phones) that will be abandoned or discounted if torture is available.” (805)
Alan M. Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, apposes all of the points Heymann makes in his argument. Dershowitz opposes Heymann’s arguments point by point. Heymann’s last point was that “emergency searches” and getting important information from “stimulating conversations over tapped phones” would be abandoned of torture would be permissible. However, Dershowitz believes that those means of getting important information would be ineffective anyhow because the FBI and police would not know the location of the bomb. To Heymann’s argument that the use of torture would lead to abuse, Dershowitz states in his essay, Yes, It Should Be “On the Books”, that, “A carefully designed judicial procedure is more likely to reduce the amount of torture actually conducted, by creating accountability and leaving a public record of every warrant sought and granted” (806). To Heymann’s point on the suspect being held accountable if he were to die from being tortured, Dershowitz implies that the “congressional hearings would likely find those who had both authorized and those who had done the actual torture accountable” (Lasser 3). In his article Dershowitz had stated, “If we want to prevent the death of hundreds of innocent people by subjecting one guilty person to nonlethal pain, then we must find a way to justify this exception to the otherwise blanket prohibition against torture” (807).
In this statement Dershowitz had brought a distinction between his and Van Zandt’s argument, which would be, “subjecting one guilty person to nonlethal pain.” The reason why pro torture debaters, Van Zandt and Levin, never made this distinction would be understandable. The ticking-bomb scenario requires that the suspected terrorist will eventually reveal the needed info precisely because s/he fears dying under torture, a fear that automatically disappears under Dershowitz’s “nonlethal,” which “being on the books” would be common knowledge among terrorists precisely because we are an open society.” (Lasser 4)
On a final note, Dershowitz contradicts Heymann’s statement refusing to have torture “on the books” by pointing out that Heymann unintentionally encourages law enforcement authorities to operate “off the books.” Dershowitz states that, “The road to tyranny is paved by executive officials authorizing actions which they deem necessary to national security, without subjecting these actions to the check and balance of legislative approval, judicial imprimatur, and public accountability” (807).
Michael Levin, who educated at Michigan State University and Columbia University, implies a utilitarian argument as answers to Heymann’s claim on false positives and the reply to Iacopino’s belief that “torture cannot be justified by an government for any reason” (759). Levin uses Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian principle to counter act the con arguments. The principle is that “any act is morally permissible if its consequences yield more good than evil” (Lasser4). After the events of 9/11 and T.V. footage depicting suicide bombers, Iacopino’s belief that the “ticking time bomb” does not exist is purely naïve. Levin states in his essay, The Case for Torture, “Suppose a terrorist has hidden an atomic bomb on Manhattan Island which will detonate at noon on July 4 unless . . .(here follow the usual demands for money and release of his friends from jail” (808). Levin believes that torture in a case like would be permissible because lives of millions of people would be at stake. In this case the utilitarian principle would justify because the good, the millions of people that would be saved, out weighs the bad, which would be the torture of the one terrorist, even if he does die. However, the question of who would be accountable for deaths arises. Van Zandt’s view shows that the authorizing court would not be responsible. Iacopino and Heymann’s views on having torture laws on the books, shows too that no one would be responsible.
However, under Dershowitz views, those authorizing and those carrying out the torture would be accountable. IN Levin’s conclusion he states that, “There is little danger that the Western democracies will lose of they chose to inflict pain as one way of preserving order…Some day soon a terrorist will threaten tens of thousands of lives, and torture will be the only way to save them” (810). With this statement it is clear that Levin would rather have torture laws on the books than off them.
Charles Krauthammer is also for the act of torture. Krauthammer poses the scenario in his essay, The Truth about Torture, “A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He’s not talking” (813). Krauthammer then poses the question: “If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it” (813)? Krauthammer believes that there is not only is permissible to hang the terrorist but that it is a moral duty. Krauthammer justifies himself by stating, “However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information)” (814). Krauthammer then goes to use a non-hypothetical situation as an example. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is captured in Pakistan. Not only has Mohammed killed innocent, he was also responsible for the 9/11 attack that killed near to three thousand people in one day. Water boarding is said to be an example of torture.
It is a “terrifying and deeply shocking torture technique in which the prisoner has his face exposed to water in a way that gives the feeling of drowning” (Krauthammer 816). In Krauthammer’s essay he reposts that, “According to CIA sources cited by ABC News, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ‘was able to last between two and 21/2 minutes before begging to confess.’ Should we regret having done that” (816)? Krauthammer questions whether or not we should abolish the law. There could be several more terrorists like Mohammed.
Krauthammer does not deny the severity of torture. He is aware of how corrupting and evil it can be. He states, “There is no denying the monstrous evil that is any form of torture. And there is no denying how corrupting it can be to the individuals wand society that practice it” (816), however he goes on to say, “But elected leaders, responsible above all for the protection of their citizens, have the obligation to tolerate their own sleepless nights by doing what is necessary—and only what is necessary, nothing more—to get information that could prevent mass murder” (817).
Andrew Sullivan wrote the essay The Abolition of Torture. Contrary to what Krauthammer believes, Sullivan believes that torture is, “both antithetical to the most basic principles for which the United States stands and a profound impediment to winning a wider war that we cannot afford to lose” (821). Sullivan believes that to torture an individual means to take away that person’s freedom. Sullivan explains that If the point of the U.S. Constitution is the preservation of liberty, the formal incorporation into the U.S. law of the state’s right to torture—by legally codifying a physical coercion, abuse, and even, in Krauthammer’s case, full-fledged torture of detainees by the CIA—would effectively end the American experiment of a political society based on inalienable human freedom protected not by the good graces of the executive, but by the rule of the law. (823)
Sullivan argues Krauthammer’s first hypothetical scenario of the “ticking time bomb” first. With this scenario, he mentions that Krauthammer believes that once you have conceded that torture is justified, in the case of this scenario, then it would have to be justified any many more cases. Sullivan believes that that kind of formulation would be too shallow. He explains himself by way of analogy with civil disobedience. “In that case, laws are indeed broken, but that does not establish that the laws should be broken…it implies precisely that laws should not be broken, and protesters who engage in it present themselves promptly for imprisonment and legal sanction on exactly those grounds” (825).
Sullivan next argues against Krauthammer’s second scenario involving terrorists Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In this argument, Sullivan expresses how Krauthammer’s point that “unless you can prove that torture never works, it should always be retained as an option” (826). Sullivan believes that Krauthammer has used an extreme example to justify his point. He asks, “How do we tell good intelligence from bad intelligence in such torture-infested interrogation” (827). Sullivan explains that you cannot. He states, “By allowing torture for ‘slow-fuse’ detainees, you sacrifice a vital principle or for intelligence that is uniformly corrupted at best and useless at worst” (827). Sullivan concludes his arguments by summarizing, “If we legalize torture, even under constrained conditions, we will have given up a large part of the idea that is America. We will have lost the war before we have given ourselves the chance to win it” (829).
The debate on torture is a long and hard one to think about. It is hard to imagine what society would be like if torture is, in fact, legalized. Will it corrupt the morals of Americans and the freedom of people? Or will it be useful to the government in protecting the citizens of America from terrorists such as those from the aftermath of 9/11? Both sides of the argument prove to have significant points on whether or not torture should be legalized or not. A part of me wants to think that torture should be legalized, but only in the extreme scenarios such as the “ticking time bomb” however, concerns about the abuse of doing this does come up. There were no alternative solutions argued about how a situation under the ticking time bomb scenario would be used on terrorists to seek information. Other than, of course, torturing them, which proved to work with the terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I believe that if a person is responsible for murdering another person, let alone thousands of people, than that person’s life should also be taken away. After the events of 9/11 the situation with terrorists can’t be taken lightly. Something needs to happen. As a whole, I believe that I am for the permissibility of torture, but again, only when the extreme cases find it warranted.
Barnet, Sylvan, and Hugo Bedau, eds. Current Issues and Enduring Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking and Arguments with Readings. Eighth edition. New York: Belford/St. Martin’s, 2008.
Dershowitz, Alan M. “Yes, It Should Be ‘On the Books.’” Barnet and Bedau 806-08.
Heymann, Philip B. “ Torture should not be authorized.” Barnet and Bedau 804-05.
Iacopino, Vincent. “It should not be permissible to torture suspected terrorists to gather information.” Seventh, edition. Barnet and Bedau 759-60.
Krauthammer, Charles. “the truth about torture.” Barnet and Bedau 812-20.
Lasser, Fred. “In torture Permissible.” 1-5.
Levin, Michael. “The Case for Torture.” Barnet and Bedau 808-10.
Sullivan , Andrew. “The Abolition of Torture.” Barnet and Bedau 820-29.
Van Zandt. “It should be Permissible to Torture Suspected Terrorists to gather Information.” Seventh edition. Barnet and Bedau. 758-59.