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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