Lets get real about torture [Graphic image ]

Some on the Left are criticising the use of torture right now by the Americans. I haven’t read their articles because I want to write this unencumbered by their rhetoric.

Lets distill the discussion down to its bare bones first. There are three kinds of torture.

One, to attempt to extract information from an unwilling subject.

Two, to try to force a confession or an admission of guilt ( Salem Witch trials ).

Salem Witch trials

Salem Witch trials

Three, to break a person down for revenge or sadistic pleasure.

Of those three we then have to break torture into physical torture and mental torture and of course a combination of the two.

Then or course there is the moral debate as to whether or not torture is right or wrong. Some might say but of course it is wrong just like killing is wrong but they forget that we have a number of situations where in our society we find killing acceptable.

We can kill in self defence.

We can kill to protect another.

We can kill accidentally ( whoops sorry )

We can kill unborn children ( legally )

Now that we have torture neatly put into a few boxes and have outlined how even killing is not a black and white moral issue,I can start to debate torture intelligently.

First lets look at the last two types of torture. It seems clear to me that if you tell me that unless I confess that I am a witch you will torture me, I am very likely to say that I am a witch to prevent or stop the torture. If I withstand the torture I will be burned alive at the stake anyway so I might as well confess on the off chance that I will be rewarded with a painless death.

This reason for torture then seems to me to be unjustified as any confession gained under duress is unlikely to be genuine. Also where is the moral justification for inflicting this kind of harm on another person? How does forcing me to confess to something help society? Why is this confession important enough to violate my basic human rights?

Next we have torture to ‘ break ‘ a person for revenge or sadistic pleasure. That one seems pretty clear cut to me. As much as I might want to inflict pain on someone for something terrible that they have done to me or my loved ones I am not morally justified in doing this to them as it makes me as bad as them or worse. My only purpose for torturing them is to get personal satisfaction or even pleasure from their pain.That is not a morally acceptable reason for violating their basic human rights.

Al-Qaeda torture methods

Al-Qaeda torture methods

Now we turn to torture where our purpose is to extract information from an unwilling subject. This is where the issue of how effective torture actually is comes in. There is some debate that torture does not work or has very limited success. There is another school of thought that says it actually is effective and can provide very valuable information especially when time is of the essence ( ie Where is the bomb? )

If we assume that torture is effective and will get us the information we require the moral issue is this: is the information we require important enough to justify taking away an individual’s basic human rights?

How many of us can genuinely say that we would not want a person to be tortured in order to find out the location of our child who had been recently kidnapped by a Pedophile and was in imminent danger of being removed from the country? If torture would quickly and efficiently get the information needed to save our child would we support it?

A mother cries out during a demonstration in Abuja with others who have daughters among the kidnapped schoolgirls. Photograph: Gbemiga Olamikan/AP

A mother cries out during a demonstration in Abuja with others who have daughters among the kidnapped schoolgirls. Photograph: Gbemiga Olamikan/AP

Let’s say that a terrorist has been captured and intel tells us that he is part of a group that intends to blow up a school or a large building full of people at lunchtime. We know it is happening today but we do not know where. We have limited time to get this information in order to save lives. If torture will successfully get us this information are you prepared to sanction it for the greater good?

We could debate all day whether or not torture is actually effective but I can share with you two stories told to me by someone who was a soldier in a war a long time ago. He was trained to withstand torture and of course in order to do that he had to be tortured. Part of it involved being confined in a way that meant he could not lie down or stretch. It also involved isolation and lack of sleep and food. The fact that he was able to learn how to survive it helps the argument that torture is not effective. He was then questioned and he had to ensure that he only gave his name rank and serial number.


On the other hand he was present when an enemy soldier was captured who had information that they desperately needed. Without it a whole village of people would be slaughtered, men women and children. Gaining the information meant that they would be able to get there in time and save them.

A fellow soldier asked for the information without torture and was told nothing. He then pulled down the enemy soldier’s pants and got out a knife. He held the knife to the enemy soldier’s genitals and asked him the question again. The soldier immediately gave him the information and as a result the village was saved.

Lets get real about torture.

Like killing, it is something that none of us want to think about but when the enemy is at the gate and our lives or the lives of those we love are threatened, how determined are we really, to protect the basic human rights of our enemy?



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  • Rachael Membery

    A moral dilemma and a moral imperative. The philosophical debate about the greater good. I vote for the greater good.

    • phronesis

      Don’t take this as a personal attack, but how would you feel about donating your body as a living organ transplant donor? It would serve the greater good as your death would result in many other lives being saved.

      • Rachael Membery

        That is the nice thing about philosophical debates, they do not pin point an individual. Is the live donor in possession of life saving information and is not telling. In the torture scenario, those with the knowledge are often quite prepared to die for ‘their’ cause. Not comparing apples with apples.

      • spanishbride

        Interesting, but a red herring to this discussion. In the case of torture a person loses their right involuntarily for the greater good as the decision is made by someone else. In the scenario you have outlined the decision to sacrifice myself for the greater good is my decision and my decision alone. Also in your example I have done nothing wrong to justify my death. Whereas in my example the person being tortured for the greater good is refusing to provide information that would save lives, they are therefore doing something morally wrong.

        • phronesis

          In the context of this discussion it is usually assumed that the organ donor would be chosen by lottery. It is after all hard enough to get people to volunteer after their dead at the moment! With respect to the victim “doing something morally wrong”. Don’t we all to some degree? But perhaps the lottery could be limited only to those convicted of crimes. There is some suggestion that the Chinese may already operate such a program.

          • spanishbride

            The thing with the Chinese example is that they actually kill to order. These are not criminals as we judge criminals here in the west. Their crimes are mainly political rather than murderers on death row who were going to be killed anyway.The Chinese match the needed organ and blood type to their criminal database and then kill them in a way so that the organ recipient can get it fresh and undamaged.

        • Wheninrome

          It could depend on which side of the argument you are on, the tortured, or the torturer. Maybe the tortured could be sending others to their death if they tell, or maybe saving lives if they tell, The question is which lives are more important, again on which side of the fence one sits. A matter of degree?

          • spanishbride

            Interesting, now in this discussion the tortured person has a choice, they can either avoid or stop the torture by providing the information or they can try to withstand it in order to protect either lives or an ideology that they value. Contrast that however with the people who represent the ‘ greater good’ what choice do they have? The answer is none. They will die if the information is not obtained.

          • Wheninrome

            The “greater good” is always interesting because again it is a question of who decides the greater good.
            In a simple way, labour feels they represent the greater good, as do national, the ballot box determines the answer, unfortunately sometimes it is not as clear cut as it was this election, then again in this country we are all supposed to have choice even if the majority is supposed to rule.
            A debate that could go long into the night and then some.
            Maybe do unto others as you would have them do unto you or something along those lines.
            If it comes down to donating body parts voluntarily or involuntarily, I vote voluntarily cause over here some are happy to have a body part, but it is against their ideals to donate, think Maori and organ donation.

          • R2D2

            Yes, but just a moment, you are assuming that the tortured person knows anything at all. In many cases, and I would suspect in most of the tortures by middle east forces against allies, they don’t give a toss if you know, or don’t know, the answers to randomly invented questions. Question 1: are you a direct friend of the evil western empire….”

  • Jonathan P

    If its goes on to save lives its a grim necessity.
    But just as with the “witches” you need to be careful of governments or the like that merely want a yes answer to justify their actions.

  • The Al Qaeda tactics reminds me of some of the things South Africa’s ANC got up to against members of the IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party). My folks have a book detailing some of their atrocities. One of which including cutting a chaps lips and ears off and forcing him to eat them.

    • Wheninrome

      My comment regarding Winnie Mandela and ring of fire above.

  • LabTested

    An interesting book is ‘the Men Who Stare at Goats’ by Jon Ronson, which explores the US military development of physiological interrogation techniques over a number of decades. – including the use of the Barney the Dinosaur kids program theme tune in the interrogation of Iraqi prisoners.

    They did put out a movie based on the more crazy parts of the book, but the film is only loosely connected to the book.

    • Wheninrome

      Winnie Mandela and ring of fire springs to mind.

    • Yeahright

      Crazy movie, but very cool. Is the book a good read?

      • LabTested

        Its a interesting read as it deals with all fringe (bizarre) theories that were being developed from the 70s onwards. But when it gets to Abu Ghraib & the famous photo of the women soilder with the naked prisoners – it all made perfect sense what was going on with that situation.

  • The problem is not whether torture can be justified (I think Dirty Harry summed that up quite well and easily). The problem is whether due process is actually being applied and what happens if you’re torturing the wrong person (which pushes you clearly into the second category you’ve specified). In a theoretical universe, where you know someone evil knows what you need, it’s simple. But in the real world, it’s far more complicated and why interrogation is a far more complex arena than the more emotive ‘torture’ discussions.

  • Just a thought….

    Although I am comfortable with the use of “torture” in certain scenario’s ( who decides this is a whole different argument ) it does raise the question of ” the ends justifying the means ” and is this not the very same argument / logic that Greenpeace uses all the time much to our contempt………….

    • dgrogan

      It’s definitely a difficult one for humanity. Can the ends indeed justify the means? For example, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought and end to WW2, according to historians.

      • spanishbride

        Yes, when discussing this with my daughter I pointed out that whether or not it brought an end to the war ( greater good argument ) it still was a war crime. I pointed out that history is written by the winners and that if Japan had won America would be in the history books as a country that committed a horrendous war crime.

        • Jonathan P

          I don’t know if they enjoyed it but it would certainly help legitimize what at the time was a very unpopular war.

  • Ghost

    There is a difference between torture and interrogation, one being for the simple effect of torture and the other to retrieve information, torturing someone information is a very fine line as too little they will tell you little, too much they will tell you anything. The report on the CIA I believe is inherently biased to produce a negative image of the activities (as if there ever could be a positive one) but I am sure that the information gained from them or according to the report, the lack of information, will never be released and the method of getting it I think will have proved to be effective. Apparently the information gained never prevented an attack, but this will never be told even if it did as they will never want to divulge additional information or what they do or don’t know.

    • spanishbride

      The question then is do we believe that the American government would torture people for fun? Do we beleive they would still use it if it was not effective? If we say yes to one or both then we believe that they enjoy causing pain for sadistic/ revenge type reasons which is evil in my book.

  • Shane M

    “How many of us can genuinely say that we would not want a person to be
    tortured in order to find out the location of our child…”
    I this case, who is it you would have tortured? Presumable not the pedophile, as the child would then no longer be in danger from them.

    • Rightsideofthebed

      Unless of course said paedophile has kidnapped them and is holding them somewhere they can’t escape and doesn’t have a full cupboard and unlimited water ….

    • spanishbride

      Poorly phrased by me. I meant to ask how many of us would object to a person ( who knew the location of our kidnapped child ) being tortured if they had refused to voluntarily provide the information?

      • Wheninrome

        A mother and her child, I don’t think you could count on one hand people who would object.

  • mike

    I yet to see any reasonable study that show that torture is an effective means of gaining information. And in intelligence you need at least two separate sources in order give any info credibility.

    Torture is an effective method of punishing someone. But is that something which we as a society can condone? I’d like to think we are better than.

    For Americas enemies to condemn America for using torture is hypocritical considering that most of them use it regularly.

  • Yeahright

    Bravo Two Zero, by Andy McNab. There is a book about torture! Only from the Iraq’s, it happens everywhere, I think a nessacary evil, normally for information to save lives, normally!

  • Wheninrome

    At the time of your death (long in the future) unless someone knows you are an organ donor you will go to your “grave” complete. My brother in law died fortunately my sister was with him at the time and could tell the ambulance staff he was a donor they put him on life support to keep the organs “fresh and living”. It was a positive experience at Auckland Hospital, they treated him as if he were alive, amazing what parts they used, not just the traditional and what we think of, i.e. hearts, kidneys eyes, lungs etc.,
    They have to get the body parts very quickly to stop deterioration, hence the call for a Donor Register.

  • caochladh

    I thought “torture” went out in the 70’s when it was reclassified as BMTS (Behaviour Modification Through Stress) and the six pack was just a punishment.

  • Citizen

    In part when soldiers go through torture so they know what to expect if captured. The reason is that anticipation can actually be worse than the actual event. Secondly, they know you will talk. What they want the soldier to do is delay giving information. As soon as the military know a soldier has been captured, the plans, locations etc are immediately changed, this is why there are rigidly adhered to check in times and codes at check in. Does the ends justify the means. Yes I believe it does!