Is It Ever OK to Use Torture?

February 9, 2012

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Medieval torture rack

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This is certainly a busy week for interesting political news. We have Rick Santorum winning the Republican caucuses in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota. In California we have Prop 8 being ruled unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. We even have a news story that’s an extremely interesting read; more and more countries are moving away from a United States style of constitution. Yet, I’m not going to cover any of those. I’m going to talk about something that quietly reared its ugly head in the US’s neighbor to the north.

Open your imagination for a bit and picture something many people have pictured before: 24’s Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland.  Somewhere there’s a bomb ticking away, set to explode. Jack has one of the suspects in custody and needs to find this bomb before it blows up, possibly killing thousands of innocent civilians. The suspect sits there, hands cuffed behind his back. A fresh welt on his cheek clearly shows he’s taken a hard punch or two in the last minute. Jack pulls out his trusty sidearm, and puts it up against the suspect’s knee, clearly intent on using harsh and violent methods to extract the information he needs to save the day and be the hero.

Too overblown? In the Tom Clancy book The Sum Of All Fears the United States has been the victim of a terrorist nuclear attack, the perpetrators have been caught, and vengeance is being sought. Good-guy hero John Clark gets the evil-doers to ‘fess up by breaking all their fingers, preventing the US from mistakenly nuking the Muslim holy city of Qom located in Iran and making good vibes spread all around. Tom Clancy has been hailed as ultra-realistic, so how can this be unfeasible?

So what does Canada have to do with this? Well, it was revealed this week that the Canadian federal government had directed the CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, to use any and all information – including information derived from torture – when public safety is at stake. I know, I know, some of you are saying to yourself “but this is information that was simply passed on to them, and it could save innocent lives, what’s the big deal?” The big deal is that previously the Canadian government said if there was any indication that intelligence was “tainted” – essentially derived in any way from torture – that intelligence would be discounted. Some of you are still wondering what the big deal is, because The Bad Guys would do anything to hurt us, including lying and torturing, right? The big deal is actually a lot of little deals, including honor.

First and foremost it has been proven on many occaisions that torture is not a reliable method of extracting information. Legitimate bad guys will give false information simply to make the pain stop. Innocent folks will confess to crimes they didn’t commit simply to make the pain stop. Pain has the effect of removing the mind from long-term decisions; if you’re being tortured you do the most expediant thing to make the torture stop. Former Army Interrogator Travis Hall goes even a step further saying that when a person is subject to extreme stress due to torture or the threat of torture, they will have trouble recalling exact information. Do you really want a government’s secret agencies using information that may not be correct over direct intelligence usually obtained through years of hard work? The idea of using any method necessary to save people might be a romantic one, but you’re going to end up flat-out wrong at some point if you attempt to save people based on false information, and then you end up not only not saving people, but you’ve then tortured for no good reason too.

Second, torture is immoral. Part of being a civilized society is not torturing people. Once you start waterboarding, breaking fingers, sleep deprivation, etc, you’ve already lost your civilization. Torture is not part of a zero-sum game, either. Higher stakes do not merit “harsher” methods of interrogation – once you’ve exacted that first amount of deliberate pain with the intention of gaining information you’ve already revealed yourself as so scared that you’ll do “anything” to gain said information. Part of what makes, and made, the United States the best place in the world to live is the fact that we’re better than that. We signed the Geneva Treaties. We decried torture as wrong in World War II when it was used against us. We said it’s wrong, we need our actions to speak louder than our words.

Third, torture breaks the “Golden Rule.” In almost any instance of diplomatic protest the country protesting is stating that the country they’re protesting is doing something that’s just downright wrong. “Hey, we wouldn’t torture your people, you shouldn’t torture ours.” Treat others as you yourself would want to be treated. Devil’s advocate asks, “If we don’t want to torture people, why do we train our soldiers to withstand torture, then?” We also train our soldiers proper protocols for biological, and chemical attacks, but you don’t see us using biological and chemical weapons on people. Part of why Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) works is because we don’t want those same weapons used on us. By using torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantonimo, we have at the very least increased the possibility it will be used on our citizens.

Finally, torture is not only against our own constitution, but also against the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Under the general idea that torture is degrading and usually permanantly damaging, and after witnessing what the Nazis had done to prisoners in World War 2, the nations of the world all came together and signed the UDHR.

Why is the Canada issue a big deal, then? Well, in my first point I noted that information extracted under torture is unreliable. Secondly, if you put torture up against other capital crimes like rape and murder, condoning it is almost as heinous as committing it yourself. It’s a shame that the issue keeps popping up, in part thanks to the glamorization of Jack Bauer getting the job done – despite the US Army’s protests to the image it portrayed. It doesn’t change the fact that torture is not only wrong, immoral, and inhumane, it’s ineffective.


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14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Martin Kelly
    Feb 09, 2012 @ 14:17:24

    Zarberg — 100% correct!


  2. kosmo
    Feb 09, 2012 @ 14:49:57

    “The idea of using any method necessary to save people might be a romantic one, but you’re going to end up flat-out wrong at some point if you attempt to save people based on false information, and then you end up not only not saving people, but you’ve then tortured for no good reason too.”

    True, you might get false information, but you may get good information and save the person. I definitely agree that information obtained this way shouldn’t be allowed as evidence against them, but I’m torn as to whether it should be used in an attempt to save lives.

    If it was the lives of my family at stake, I’m guessing I’d probably push the “any means necessary” button.


  3. zarberg
    Feb 09, 2012 @ 14:59:33

    While none of us in our soft little lives can truly know what we’d do in an extreme stress situation, you say you’d do it despite the proven evidence that it is just as likely to yield false evidence?


  4. kosmo
    Feb 09, 2012 @ 15:53:38

    Yes, because there’s also the chance it could yield good information. Perhaps not, but if you don’t have anything else to go on, than at least this gives you the possibility of good information. A 50% chance – or even a 5% chance – is better than nothing.


  5. zarberg
    Feb 09, 2012 @ 15:56:39

    What’s to stop the person being tortured from giving you information that will be harmful to other innocents?


  6. kosmo
    Feb 09, 2012 @ 15:59:09

    Well, that’s always a danger with any intel. You always need to perform due diligence after obtaining the information.

    To clarify: I would see this as a last resort in a desperate life and death situation – not a standard tactic. I wouldn’t like doing it, but I’m pretty sure I would do it.


  7. Evan
    Feb 09, 2012 @ 19:32:56

    I’m torn on this one, too. I’m morally opposed to it, and I understand that the information often (usually?) isn’t reliable. But what about one of the extreme examples you gave, where thousands of lives could be at stake, and other means aren’t working? Very tough call. I might come down on the side of “once we go down that path, we lose the moral high ground and also push things further to a point where that conduct becomes accepted, and eventually our own troops and people will be in harms way as a result.”


  8. Zarberg
    Feb 09, 2012 @ 19:40:15

    Outside of Hollywood, when do those situations occur? I know the details of something like that would likely be classified for many years, but I’ve never heard of anything even remotely like this. Situations like that are better avoided with solid intelligence and a country based on freedom and law. Let’s keep “would you use torture to save your family?” in the same category as those stupid hypotheticals you play when you’re drunk – “would you rather sleep with Dick Cheney or have your genitals mauled by a piranha?”

    In one of the links I cited, not only was the US Army upset over the way torture was glamorized in the show “24”, they went as far to meet with the director and producer to help keep that idea from spreading. ( )


  9. Sqeaky
    Feb 10, 2012 @ 16:27:36

    Seriously boyz…..are you kidding me? You are actually saying you’d rather give Jimmy the terrorist a sucker, a new Nerf football a pat on the back and a thank you for not giving us information that could save people’s lives? Do you honestly think that it isn’t happening today?

    I would cut off each finger of the person that had information to save any member of my family. I would shoot the knee that Zarberg is discussing. I’d break out my Dewalt drill and show him just how far the bit can drive into one person’s knee if it would help. Waterboarding? Are you kidding me? Me and a couple buddies tried it.

    If the person was too stupid to give accurate information…round 2. Very simple cure because then I will know that I stopped too soon the first time. Fool me once shame on me, fool me twice….not gonna happen.

    24. Zarberg, that is not very nice. I feel as though YOU’VE just violated the golden rule. Thou shall not speak ill of 24. Jack Bauer will be watching you now.

    The article saying that torture doesn’t work is an opinion of a historian from the University of Wisconsin. I find this article much more convincing, maybe it will help you understand it better as well:

    With one more terrorist dead, most notably a terrorist mastermind, don’t you feel a little better about things? Don’t you believe it was worth it? Maybe that is just one stark difference between us, but I stand behind torture for national security, prevention of terrorism and protection of my family. You can go to bed feeling good that you lived by the golden rule. That is one time that I’ll pass.


  10. Zarberg
    Feb 10, 2012 @ 17:04:45

    You’re really coming across as having a major internet-tough-guy crush on torture. That ticking clock scenario has _never_ _happened_. Hollywood, 24, action movies, they’ve all glamorized the “do-whatever-it-takes” false machismo of torture. I’m sure I’m not going to convince you otherwise in this polarized day and age, you’ve proved that much for sure. I know you’re joking about me poking fun at 24, but it’s drama. Heck, even the director agreed that the torture is in there simply as a tension-building device. You can dramatize yourself in that situation in your imagination, I’d rather see our country build better spy networks and not bully countries around so we never have to be in a ticking bomb situation in the first place.

    You can post as many links as you want saying torture “works”, and I’ll come up with at least one for every one you offer. Dick Cheney and any former CIA director all have a self-serving reason to say it worked: they are facing public scrutiny in the face of experts saying it doesn’t, and they are facing criminal charges in various courts around the world for ordering the use of torture. They have zero to lose and a lot to gain by saying it works – it’s like Ndamukong Suh justifying the use of overly violent play in the NFL. The article you linked contains zero facts, merely the statements of 1 person who started an unjust war that killed tens of thousands and made his former company a lot of money and a few people who worked under him. Heck, look at the article’s author:

    “A former speechwriter for President George W. Bush (2004–2009) and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld”

    You don’t think that’s slightly biased?

    Here’s one from a former front-line interrogator:
    Here’s one that cites a former air force officer:
    Here’s one that says while torture can provide correct information, it’s just as likely to provide false information that uses up more resources than is practical:
    Another CIA interrogator saying it yields information, but that information is not practical:
    This one has a Department of Justice official saying they got more out of a guy without torture than with:
    European operations chief from the CIA saying it simply doesn’t work:
    Leon Panetta saying torture DID NOT help find Bin Laden:
    A collection of neuroscientists saying it has a counterproductive effect:
    Heck, the Army Field Manual says it doesn’t work:
    Finally an aggregation of dozens of former intelligence experts:

    I’ll believe my list over Dick Cheney any day.

    Finally, the information that Dick Cheney released was a collection of all intelligence from a specific time period – torture and otherwise – pointing toward a few results. That’s akin to me driving 20 over the speed limit home and then pointing out that I didn’t kill anyone, thus driving over the speed limit is perfectly safe.


  11. Squeaky
    Feb 13, 2012 @ 11:19:51

    I’m a little confused by the term internet tough guy. It sounds as though you’re saying that I am presenting one side of myself to you here on this site and there is another that people see in real life. I’m sorry, but you couldn’t be more mistaken. What you see and hear on this site is the real me. I have one me and I don’t sugarcoat my feelings or my thoughts. I’m cutting in business and I’m cutting in person. If you say something that I disagree with, you will know it.

    As for my views on torture, protection of my family at all costs, etc…they are also the real me that I believe at my innermost being. Remember my past Zarberg. I have been trained in numerous situations ranging from hostage negotiation, crisis intervention, surviving lethal encounters/surviving a knife attack, etc. Years ago I dealt with the what if’s. How would I handle this situation or that situation. I’ve had people shot and killed feet from me. I’ve lived situations that were so disgusting that people who haven’t been through it before immediately throw up. I’ve thrown up from them. I’ve seen people with their brain hanging out the back of their head. People dying as they choke on their own blood and writing down their last thoughts. People with their entire head blown off, people who had limbs severed. Auto erotic deaths, necks stretched to disgusting lengths. Bodies weeks told ready to explode from rotting in the heat.

    These experiences made me what I am today. People that work in areas that could potentially use torture have prepared for that and trained for that much more than I. They know what they are doing, they know what will kill and what will simply induce panic. I find it troubling when educators and scientists that don’t have the same training as them and don’t have the perspectives from the same training and experience making decisions that impact their ability to do their job. Let’s face it, a classroom at a liberal college versus the field training and intelligence that the CIA has are of no comparison. You say that you wouldn’t trust Dick Cheney or other conservatives because they had skin in the game. I understand that. However, I wouldn’t trust the “scientists” and educators that you cite because of the reasons I mentioned…they have no basis to make those decisions.

    Much like you discussing torture, or an educator discussing torture, citizen review boards carry an interesting perspective. Most of the times these boards are asked to decide if an officer was appropriate in using a certain level of force based on the continuum of force employed by that agency. While there are some general continuums that can be applied, the different actions, the durations the forced was used, the decision to skip some levels and the outcomes are being reviewed (by-and-large) by individuals with no experience in these matters. I appreciate the idea behind this, but struggle to see how a civilian with no training on use of force can effectively decide these issues.

    The same issue applies with civilian leaders making paramount decisions with the military. I know next to nothing about the military. I wouldn’t pretend for a moment that I can second guess their decisions especially when they are made by those with feet on the ground and they are privy to a host of information that I’ll never know existed.

    I feel the same way about you or I and especially a liberal educator making decisions about torture. The fact is that there are numerous situations and times when this was likely done and we don’t/won’t know. You said that there have never been any last minute saving of people because of torture. I challenge that thought because Zarberg…we don’t know that and I’m comfortable with that.

    I know in your life you find torture reprehensible. You would never condone or advocate it’s use.
    I know I my personal life I find torture to be a tool that our trained agents need available to them.
    You find that any information gathered by way of torture is not worth it and is not reliable.
    I find that any information gathered by way of torture is worth it and should be scrutinized.

    You probably even find me reprehensible after my post last week and today; I’m fine with that. I have no problem with your opinion although I believe it’s naive. I hear opinions like this (minus the golden rule) from liberals a lot so your posting doesn’t surprise me. I also learned that Kosmo, Martin and Evan are all likely true moderates. I knew that Kosmo was because we’ve discussed many subjects and he leans both conservative and liberal depending on the topic. I don’t know Evan very well but have noticed his opinions seem blended. Martin I always had pegged more conservative, but I think he may be social liberal and fiscal conservative…just my hunch. Zarberg, you’re a flaming liberal from all perspectives. I’m a hard core asshole conservative from all perspectives.

    The topic surprised but I’m glad you put it out there. You’re right, we’ll never convince each other anything on this topic. Probably of any topic, but that too is a good lesson. As for Jack Bauer and 24. The show is/was one of my favorites. I find that Keifer Sutherland playing Jack Bauer ironic considering his political stance, but he was a great actor and played the part well.

    Happy Monday BOYZZZZZZZ…


  12. zarberg
    Feb 13, 2012 @ 11:53:46

    More interesting than you completely discounting all the examples I provided from former intelligence agents is the fact that in order to protect the values of America, you’re willing to break the values of America to do it.

    Just remember that Jack Bauer was such a tough guy he cried after he tortured and shot up heroin to cope.


  13. zarberg
    Feb 13, 2012 @ 11:58:16

    In order to try and understand your point, I did a google search on “intelligence experts say torture works” and it came up with this:


  14. Squeaky
    Feb 13, 2012 @ 12:40:37

    I didn’t read any of your follow up citations. The historian from a university was enough to make me puke and not want to read any more of it.


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