Why not torture?
by Collie Collier
Short answer: acts which deliberately inflict pain and damage, in an effort to denigrate human dignity, are wrong.
Long answer: Like most of the difficult ethical questions in life, my path to this decision came slowly, with quite a bit of soul-searching and long discussions with patient friends. A review of that path follows.
Some time ago I wrote a review of one of the "Introducing..." series of books. This one was Introducing Ethics by Dave Robinson & Chris Garratt. Because the book was such a light overview of the subject, I found myself rather unmoved by it, and consequently with not much to say. So, in an effort to both attempt to give more to my readers, and get something worthwhile from the book, I answered the list of ten questions which were mentioned in the book as being constants through the ages. One of them was "Are there certain kinds of acts (like torturing children) which are always wrong? If so, what are they?"
In a nutshell, I decided I believed incidents which might be classified as torture should be viewed in context before a decision was made as to whether or not they did indeed qualify. For myself, I considered standard circumcision to be unnecessary and torturous, but painful physical therapy imposed on a child so they could maintain later physical capabilities was not truly classifiable as torture, using the definition I finally came up with. That ended up being as follows: acts which deliberately inflict painful damage in order to denigrate human dignity. I consider torture as so defined to be morally wrong.
And that was that, and I was somewhat smugly proud of myself for my surely-so-well-considered response. And of course, as always happens when I get smug about how smart I am, something came along and shattered that cocky self-assuredness.
He was a long-time friend, and he had some ethical questions he was struggling with himself as well, at that time. Most of the questions were pretty easy for me to answer, but there was one that hit me hard. It was phrased as a hypothetical:
"Let's say you've captured a mad bomber. He's planted a bomb somewhere in the country which will kill thousands, and it's set to go off in a few hours. You're sure giving this guy a few minutes "working over" in the back room with 'Guido' will cause him to sing like a bird -- and the unwitting hostages will all be saved.
Ouch. There went my certainty.
I didn't have an answer. Well, I didn't have a good answer. What I had was a gut reaction -- yes, I torture him to save the thousands! -- but I also had an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach about it. Usually when I have that uneasy feeling I know it's my non-conscious mind whispering to me that I'm wrong -- I don't know precisely why yet, or what the right answer is -- but the answer I'm using is not the right one. So I gave my hesitant reply, added that I was still highly unsure about this, and posed the question on my LJ.
I have great readers on my LJ. Lots of folks considered. Some said yes, they would torture for such an ethical cause, and gave good reasons why. One courageous lady firmly said under no circumstances would she torture! Others debated whether religion could justify torture, or what effect it would have on the society, or how the question should be phrased, or other related subjects... and in the discussion I realized my initial uneasiness was directly related to the emphasis on a simplified initial premise.
Life just isn't that dull and flat. The most fascinating and compelling questions in life are more textured and nuanced than something which can be solved with basic 'yes/no' answers. When they appear that way initially, I've invariably found I didn't yet have all the data. That's why I was so pleased by the LJ -- I suddenly realized, from the thoughtful commentary folks made, that the question was constructed specifically in order to create a particular desired answer!
In retrospect, it was obvious, of course. The assumptions are clear when you read it again: the bomber is mad, therefore assumed as not really human. The listener is subtly predisposed to believe torture will break the madman quickly, and unquestionable truth will be revealed. Further, the listener is encouraged to identify with the thousands who will be potentially saved by his or her 'courageous' decision.
However, there's no mention of two critically important pieces of data which have been revealed repeatedly in every thorough study of torture ever done. One: torture takes time. People don't break in an hour or two. Sometimes it takes days or weeks for them to break -- longer if they're truly convinced of the righteousness of their cause. Two: the victims of torture (once they break) are interested in only one goal -- stopping the pain. This means almost invariably they do not tell the truth, but rather what they believe their torturers want to hear.
So right there we see the entire hypothetical 'to torture or not to torture' rendered completely moot. The question becomes not one of saving the lives of thousands... but rather whether you're willing to deliberately damage and humiliate another simply because you're frustrated. How... noble...
Incidentally, the above two results of torture have been well-documented since the 1930's or so. The Spanish Civil War clearly demonstrated the inefficacy of torture for timely and pertinent intelligence gathering, and the studies done later by the Israelis only backed up those results. Over and over, time after time, we keep getting the same results: for gaining good information in a timely fashion, torture doesn't work.
So if that's the case, why does torture keep happening? What does it actually accomplish, that people keep using it? According to Michel Foucault's writings on power, there must be some benefit to someone involved, or it wouldn't keep cropping up. If we can figure out what torture really accomplishes, I think we'll be well on our way to solving these questions.
Theories & torture
Michel Foucault is a somewhat controversial anthropologist who's much in and out of vogue, depending on who you ask. One of his favored fields of study was social power and how it is expressed. He first twigged to his beliefs concerning power when he studied prisons -- specifically the relationship between the guards and the prisoners. He also wrote a fascinating book called History of Sexuality, vol. I.
In this book he asserts power is socially accepted not merely because it is repressive. It does not only deny certain social behaviors, but it also "traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse (pg 119)." In effect, "social power" allows select socially approved individuals to exercise power over others.
For individuals to continue to perform this power, they must both have handy victims, and society must believe they need this sort of power to be so expressed. Torture is a perfect example of this sort of vicious, creeping meme: the powerful who espouse torture need only convince the masses through "produced discourse" that torture is critical in maintaining the safety of the society and its members.
Armed with societal approval for results at any cost, the torturers are now free to step up their attacks on those guilty of nothing worse than looking or behaving differently than the masses. Unsurprisingly, the members of the attacked social group will begin to protest such vile and unjustified treatment -- which the torturers gleefully point to as evidence of the need for torture, rather than the logical result of their attacks on the innocent.
By "forming knowledge" so, the torturers have produced a new way of seeing things: they have re-cast what are in actuality innocent victims as being actually wicked attackers of all that is just and right in the society. In such a situation, it is easy to convince the fearful, the gullible, and the uninterested that more torture is required in order to end this (created) threat.
According to Foucault, power becomes pervasive and expanding (i.e. gets out of control) when five necessary conditions are met:
As a society, this begs the question: why on earth would we put up with this sort of deception? I believe it is mostly because the average vocal middle-class person (who is also frequently white and male) can feel more secure in the belief that folks who look like them are protectively in control.
Unfortunately that theoretical protection has a price: obedient compliance with those who are in power. This need for compliance can go damagingly far beyond simply unquestioningly accepting the views of those in power, ranging from participation in the attack on "deviants" through subtle forms of disapproval or punishment, all the way through rejection of any individual who is so "radical" as to express criticism of this type of group-think.
How far along this path have we come, as a society? I don't know, but frankly I'm deeply disturbed by much of what I read in the news regarding the CIA's supposed detainment camps in other countries.
So what is torture? In its purest form, torture is a physical expression of the uncontrolled anxieties of those in power, graphically inscribed on the minds and bodies of those they fear. It is part of the process by which a powerless social group is dehumanized, so they can be destroyed without moral qualm.
It is convenient to blame those in power for this sort of thing. However, once evidence of torture comes to light, if it is not rooted out then the entire society becomes complicit. This is true regardless of whether the dehumanized group differs from the attacking group only in skin color, religion, sexual preference, gender, or whatever other justificatory excuse is being used.
Perhaps it seems overly generalized to blame an entire society for the actions of a violent few. After all, who does the actual torture? It would surely take a deeply disturbed mind to do such terrible things to other innocent human beings, after all, right? It's comforting to reassure ourselves we'd never torture, and neither would our friends or relatives.
That's what we'd like to believe, at least. Unfortunately, both in experiments and real life situations, it appears torture occurs not when deeply disturbed individuals are present... but when ordinary, everyday folks like ourselves are eased into an environment which supports and encourages atrocities.
The most famous theoretical case I know of is the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. You may have heard of it: a group of male college volunteers randomly selected based on their mental equilibrium, health, and "normality," were divided up into two groups. One group became the "prisoners," while the other group were the "guards." In the words of Dr. Phil Zimbardo, the professor who conducted the experiment,
Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress....
This experiment ran for six days; imagine what torture which lasts for years must do to the participants. I strongly recommend reading the web site; it's quite horrifyingly fascinating. Admittedly, this was not torture in the classic sense, but it clearly demonstrated people put into an unsupervised position of power over others will behave in ways we consider inhumane. Further, I found it creepily telling it was only the "guards" who objected to ending the experiment early -- obviously power was clearly inducing pleasure for them.
In the end, the experiment teaches us several useful things. First, ordinary people with no training or experience (who are put into complete control of other individuals) are quite capable of atrocities when they have been taught this is "normal." The power of the situation to overwhelm both personality, and one's best intentions, is surprisingly pervasive. Ordinary social institutions prevent such behavior, of course, but thrusting someone into a new role which is unconstrained by society's usual laws, norms, or ethics means new roles and ways of coping must be developed.
Further, once those new behaviors become the expected "norm," everyone tends to obediently follow along, preferring not to buck the system. Thus the Stanford Prison Experiment had some 50 to 100 outside observers come in and interact with the "prisoners" and "guards" (including the researchers, family, friends, a Catholic priest, and a lawyer), but in the end only one person was actually courageous enough to protest -- the afore-mentioned Christina Maslach.
We'd like to believe we're more than the sum of our experiences, but sometimes we really aren't, and it's possible we never are. Good people can be coaxed or seduced or initiated into evil, antisocial behavior -- and by evil I mean behavior which is stupid or irrational or even self destructive. All it seems to require for this horrible transformation of ordinary human nature is complete immersion in a social situation which challenges expectations of the consistency and stability of both social institutions and individual personalities. In such situations, both morality and character suffer, as people struggle to compensate for what would be otherwise an outrageous predicament to them.
Such situations eventually require validation of the new, "normal" roles and behaviors. Unfortunately most often such validation comes from ill-considered ideology or outright bigotry. The most recent "real life" example I know of is, of course, Abu Ghraib. The Iranian prisoners were effectively dehumanized, and the US soldiers had no training in being prison guards. Unsurprisingly, a new means of coping, a new role, was created by those involved -- and once again we see nice, "normal, average, and healthy" young people being put into positions of power over others, with torture resulting.
Torture is an easy way out, a means of projecting potential violence onto the dehumanized group, while justifying it as self-protection. The very question which first stumped me is an excellent example of this mind-set. After all, if we didn't torture them to learn their evil plans and teach them a lesson, they'd surely kill us all, right?
We're just doing what they're making us do, in order to defend ourselves, in order to keep control of the situation. Given a choice, we wouldn't have to lynch them or burn them at the stake or beat them up with baseball bats or send them to the ovens or rape and murder them -- it's really their fault for forcing us into this sad position in the first place, right? Right?
And there, in the above examples, we see what sort of mind-set torture ends up creating. It allows us to make a brutalizing mental short-cut, to believe in simplistic answers like "we are good and human, therefore they are bad and inhuman." It teaches us it is better to strike first and ask questions later, that everyone is after us so we better attack them now so they can't ever hurt us, that might makes right. It allows a religion or government or other social institution to manipulate individuals in order to make itself more powerful -- to the detriment of the deceived individuals.
Goodbye to torture
There are plenty of books and photographs and web sites about the horrors of torture and the suffering of the victims. The people which can be reached by those will have seen them. This "Firestarter" is for those who don't realize there's another aspect of it, that we harm ourselves when we (as individuals and as a society) permit and validate torture. In the end, torture is as damaging long-term to a society as it is short-term to its victims.
There are (unfortunately) plenty of examples of what happens when some of a culture's members are dehumanized, while others are taught to think in brutally hierarchical terms. From the horrors of slavery to the abuses of Abu Ghraib, real life experience teaches us torture is not just ineffective at gathering intelligence, or damaging to social morality, or shattering to the humanity of those who permit and endorse it. Quite simply, it is wrong.
The United States of America is my home, and ordinarily I'm proud to be an American. I believe in aspiring to what our country is supposed to stand for: a land of the free and a home of the brave; a beacon of respect for human dignity. I know we have a long way to go on that goal, of course. But I also know there are people the world over who struggle to come here, to a land where they don't have to live in constant fear of the midnight hammering at the door, or their government deciding to exterminate them. I know I am unreasonably lucky to have been born here, and I do what I can to continue to love my country, and to try to put her right when she's wrong.
So... what happened?! Holy crap, people -- have we forgotten so much, do we live in such fear of the "outside world," that we'll turn a blind eye to what our government is doing in our name? Where is our morality, our self-respect, our courage?
If you think killing that which scares you is a reasonable solution to your fears, then by all means vote for a government which believes in torture and lies to its citizenry about it. But for those of you who still believe in concepts like the inherent dignity and rights of humankind, please help me remember and make it truth this time, with your words, your actions, and your votes:
Real Americans don't torture.
05.05.06: Jonathan F.'s thoughts
(and my replies)
I don't disagree with the truth behind the justifications you have for sidestepping the hypothetical on tortue, but I don't think that those realities neccesarily justify maintaining an absolute statement on torture. Rather, it seems you've established that torture as defined is not acceptable so long as any of things are in place: a) it's not needed, or b) it is known to take too long, and so can't work, or c) it is likely to bring out false statements. The hypothetical addresses A as not being a problem, and you bring in outside information that establishes B and C, thus maintaining the answer as no. But what if all those factors weren't a problem?
Whoa, lots of interesting questions! Okay, answering paragraph by paragraph... ;)
There is no drug in existance that will guarantee people will tell the truth, but there are many drugs that will make it much more likely. What if you were certain that upon administering the drug, they would be too heavily intoxicated to make something up, and would be guaranteed to tell the truth? I have read a book on CIA interrogation techniques during the cold war. Though they downplayed the effectiveness of physical torture, there are mental torture techniques that are designed to strip people of their sanity and leave them naked to questioning. This may not fall under your definition of torture, but should it? Is it ethically different to coerce someone through damaging their psychology than to coerce them through damaging their physiology? Even if it is, why can't we do both?
No, I don't find it ethically different to torture someone mentally as opposed to physically. Both cases make an effort to degrade human dignity, after all, as per my initial 'short answer.' That would be my answer to your question as to why we can't do both, also. Just because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean we should, after all.
That leaves only the second problem, and that's time. But why can't compensate for this in framing the question, and push back the bomb's explosion? Or, who's to say we can't simply use a method of torture that's almost certain to work within hours? Is it completely inconcievable that a mad bomber would reveal where the bomb was within that time? I don't think it is.
This all is not meant to question the rest of your examination of torture, the reality behind your arguments against them, or the conclusion that it should not be legal. But I don't think that your reasoning to avoid the hypothetical ethical conflict between torture and the lives you could save with it is strong enough to completely avoid the question; rather, it only restrains it to more specific circumstances. However rare or unlikely it may be for practical application, is isn't it still worthwhile to answer the question of whether torture would be justified if we knew that it was 100% guaranteed to save millions of lives?
Hm, I can tell by your reaction I've not been clear; my apologies. It was not my desire to sidestep the hypothetical question of whether or not to torture, but rather to point out how the question itself is designed to elicit a desired response -- one which, unfortunately, is currently a very bad answer, and which predisposes people to make bad decisions in real life based on incorrect information.
And if you don't say it's wrong then, that opens the question: what if it was less than 100% likely to work, but still more than 0%? Would it be worth it? And really, when you think about it, isn't that visit with 'Guido' one of those cases where it might work, even if you're not sure? Looking at the consequences of defeat, is it even ethical to not try?
I do say it's wrong, actually. To me, torture is like the death penalty -- if you find extenuating evidence later, it's darned hard to say you're sorry and put things back the way they were. But I quite agree regarding these not being easy questions. Frankly, I'd rather someone think things through carefully and decide torture was something they could condone, than simply agree with me because it was easy.
Again, that's not to say it isn't... but I don't think these are easy questions.
Thanks for your interesting comments! ;)
05.05.06: "Terminotaur"'s thoughts
A good mental excercise I have found is when presented with theoretical examples is to pull at each point to see which are the critical factors. The other technique is to turn the situation around and present the worst outcome so as to see how that sits as well. So, for example, in the old bomber example maybe it should also be asked, if you round up several suspects, torture them, leaving severe physical or emotional scars (or possibly even death) and no information results or they were totally innocent, what is your belief of that?
Another particular example you may want to check out (wish I had the reference handy) was an experiment that occurred after WWII where the researcher made a subject administer greater and greater "shocks" (none were real, but they were acted out) to people being interrogated. In most cases they could get the person to administer a "lethal" dose. Authority figures and dehumanization of the victim worked to improve this outcome, though in a number of cases just one dissenting voice was enough to have the person refuse (the silver lining to this). It also shows the importance of even just one person standing up and saying no.
Oh, I like that 'turn-around' example! Also, if you get a chance check out the Stanford Prison page I link to in the Firestarter -- he mentions the very experiment you talk about. He was apparently greatly influenced by Milgram's pioneering work, in fact, and there are several fascinating papers in the biography which discuss its ramifications also.
Another angle that I've not heard anyone address with relation to this and other issues of privacy/security is that in the western countries we live in we place a high value on freedom, defending it, and being willing to die for it. So, I think it needs to be asked if a person is willing to die as a victim of some sort of violence by maintaining those freedoms. See, I am, but I think its a question that I'd like to see addressed by many that put up a lot of bluster yet seem to favor anything that is shown to be tough on "criminals".
I would not have as much issue with someone who chose to die for a cause they believed in, as I do with torture. Implicit in the 'case scenario' for torture is a lack of agency on the part of the victim. In fact, in some cases I've read of, the victims have utterly no idea as to why they were picked to be tortured. It doesn't get much more helpless than that. :(
It refers to a personal annoyance of mine of many people talking in very grandiose terms about being willing to die to defend freedom, yet will then favour most legislative curtailments of said freedom in order to feel safer from criminals, terrorists, etc.. Living with certain freedoms entails some greater risks to personal safety in the day to day world, but there seem to be many that divorce the daily risks from the maintenance of freedom. "freedom" is something you defend from armies and foreigners, not the slow drip drip of insecurities.
Reply from Jonathan
There is one important question to ask here, and I've found it interesting in that no group of people has ever come up with a like answer -- that is, the answer has never been the same between people, even between people within the same group. And if it has, then the answer has been somewhat canned... and the people involved have their own interpretation of the 'canned' answer.
That question is: "What is Freedom?"
Perhaps as important, "What makes Freedom worth dying for?"
And again: "What makes Freedom worth killing for?"
See, I ask this, because for a long time now I've seen propaganda, pop culture, and even movies and other entertainment extoling the importance of 'Freedom.' Freedom this, Freedom that, Freedom the-other-thing. But either the definition of freedom is so vague as to be meaningless, or it is unique to the individual. The definition of what Freedom means appears to be a vastly important stumbling block for this country to overcome, and without the answers to the above questions, it seems to me that our foreign and domestic policies will continue to appear schizophrenic; and in addition the idea of 'Freedom' can be too easily suborned for other purposes.
Reply from Terminotaur
Thank you for that. Actually I torpedoed an entry I was going to make about this. I may try to rescue it as a result.
And it's no surprise that "freedom" has become such a meaningless word. I think Orwell even included it in his small list of words that had been so tortured and misused that they had no meaning.
"The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another."
Reply from Trey to Jonathan
I agree that that is a well-asked question. I am pleased and (irrationally - since I had nothing to do with it) proud that the founders of this country weren't really interested in 'Freedom'.
What they hoped to secure and defend was 'Liberty'. Liberty is a scary word because, as another poster here pointed out, giving people choices means facing risks that they will choose to do other than as you might wish them to. And liberty is unencumbered choice. But it is also a concept whole and complete in itself, and the advantages and disadvantages of giving individuals or groups varying degrees of liberty may be discussed to people's heart's content.
But 'freedom' is only half a concept, half a thought. We can no more ask what 'freedom' means to a person than we can ask them what 'insurance' means to them. ('Car insurance?', 'Life insurance?', 'Health insurance?').
It is always 'Freedom from X'. (Though '... from X' is often inferred through context.) And its value will depend strongly on what 'X' is. 'Freedom from oppression', 'Freedom from fear', 'Freedom from hunger', 'Freedom from responsibility'. To know what it means to a particular person -- and whether it is worth killing, or dying for -- you need to know what 'X' is. If you're having a discussion about the worth of 'Freedom ...', I strongly suggest you begin by making sure all the participants are talking about the same X.
05.05.06: Norman R.'s thoughts (from LJ)
Today I read pyat's long quote of George Orwell reminiscing about 1913, then collie13's essay on torture and power. I daresay this is what the Internet is all about. ^.^
05.05.06: Greg's thoughts
I don't remember if I responded to this when it first appeared in your LJ, but your newest foray into this subject has brought some thoughts to mind.
It's important to remember that in this day and age of technology, that the growing issues of torture are less about "the enemy" and more about the extreme catastrophic degree of damage one person can do with just a little bit of knowhow. Powerless groups? I wouldn't call any individual or group that has the power to make a bomb powerless. He has the power, and if he so chooses, can exercise it, and destroy dozens, hundreds, thousands of lives in the blink of a heartbeat. While I balk at the idea of dehumanizing any one person or group of people, it is hard for me to look at someone who is willing to kill indiscriminately, kill as many as possible, for no greater reason than our beliefs offending them. That sort of behavior is as reprehensible as the torture we would subject them to. No wonder, then, that one such evil would begat another.
Many of the most heavily trafficed places in our country have security guards, surveilance, all sorts of technology to protect against that sort of incursion. But the simple fact of the matter is that a man could walk into a Starbucks during the afternoon rush, 'accidentally' drop a package, walk out...a minute later, blam. Two or three dozen potential funerals, right there. Where's the protection against that? Doesn't that make you feel powerless?
Sure, that could make me feel powerless, if I let myself obsess over it. Heck, I suspect the only reason I'm alive today is because of a thoughtful photograph developer who caught the intended DeAnza Bomber.
In the mind of the average person in the face of terrorism, torture is as much or more about wanting to pay this person back for using their power, as it is preventing further death. It is the desire to do in kind to them. And that, perhaps, is what is scariest about torture.
That's one of the things which I find vaguely creepy about some of the replies I've gotten on this article -- like there's this almost visceral need to arrogate unto ourselves the "right" to harm or kill others if we decide it's "really necessary." That's... rather alarming, in a way. It's like the folks who least should be doing it are the ones who most want to have access to it. I don't understand that.
Do I sanction torture, state sanctioned or otherwise? No. But do I see a point wherein I might be willing to give up my high ground because I personally have been so wronged by another, and want to exact revenge on their flesh? Absolutely. I have no illusions that I am so strong that I couldn't give in to that compulsion. Can I hope that won't? Sure. But I'll never know unless I am given reason and opportunity...and I hope I never will.
Well put; I quite concur.
06.05.06: "McGuffin"'s thoughts
You voice far more eloquently something I'd said awhile back. Thank you.