Can Gaining Information By Torture Ever Be Justified Philosophy Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Introduction - Can torture, the infliction of intolerable pain to extract potentially life-saving information from war criminals, ever be justified? Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, numerous reported incidents of torturing detainees by the United States have been covered in the media all over the world. The public first learned about the horrific actions of the United States when the truths of Abu Ghraib surfaced. Most Americans are shocked by those horrendous and disturbing photographs of the abuse of prisoners broadcasted. When the humiliation of Abu Ghraib surfaced, the US government argued that it was solely the work of a couple soldiers. However, the truth is that prisoner abuses have expanded with the soldiers knowing that it is possible for them to get away with such atrocious actions. Moreover, the use of torture by the United States is setting a bad example for the authoritarian regimes abroad, and sending out the wrong signal that torture is legitimate. It further damages United States' authority to act as international police to speak out against authoritarian regimes that are treating detainees in even less humane ways. Some government officials believe that life-saving torture is morally justified, because the lives of innocent people prevails the infliction of physical pains to criminals. Others reject torture as both unreliable and an insult to basic principles of human rights. This paper will argue that torture is the most excruciating human rights cruelty, and it should not be used under any exceptional circumstances.

This paper will begin with a historical analysis of the debate on torture. In particular, it discusses international humanitarian laws and treaties such as the Geneva Conventions, which outlaws inhumane treatments against prisoners of war, and thus protecting them from torture. Subsequently, it provides an overview of how the Bush Administration used the war on terror as an excuse to secretly legitimize the use of torture on detainees. Furthermore, it shows the how President Bush used the ambiguity in laws, which were originally made to restrict the use of torture, to secretly continue in participating in inhumane interrogation techniques. Next, the paper will provide the opposing views on the debate of torture, and how each side tries to justify its position. Some people have attempted to justify the use of torture with just war theory and the infamous ticking time-bomb scenario. For instance, Buchanan (2009) argues that "if it is moral to go to war and kill thousands to prevent potential acts of terror on U.S. soil, why cannot we inflict pain on one man, if that would stop imminent acts of terror on U.S. soil" (Para. 19)? In addition, the paper will mention the arguments made with the ticking time-bomb scenario by the supporters of the lesser evil theory. On the other hand, others reject torture as both counterproductive and an outrage to universal human rights. They argue that intelligence collection has to be confirmed reliable before it can be actionable. However, a person under severe stress from torture will say anything to stop the pain. Thus, the information obtained are oftentimes a mixture of truth and lies. Therefore, torture as an interrogation technique is counterproductive to the intelligence collection efforts. Furthermore, adversaries on the torture debate points out that the hypothetical ticking time-bomb scenario has a remote chance of happening; therefore, it is unrealistic follow such argument. Finally, the paper will conclude with the opponents of torture on the argument that torture is morally wrong under any circumstances. The United States needs to stop using torture to interrogate detainees, and restore its moral authority to speak out against authoritarian regimes.

Historical Analysis- After World War II, a series of international treaties were formed to outlaw the use of torture worldwide. However, the use of torture as an interrogation technique became a highly critical and controversial part of the Bush Administration's war on terror campaign after the terrorist attacks on American soil. Numerous newspaper articles and reports regarding hidden prisons in foreign countries, and the inhumane treatments of detainees brought about a hot dispute in the country of whether or not the U.S. should practice torture. Since World War II, the United States has been a key contributor in the founding of international humanitarian laws. Unfortunately, the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers made the Bush Administration change its position regarding these international laws. In the war against Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States government has violated the international humanitarian laws in its inhumane treatment of enemy soldiers. As a result of the policies enforced by the President Bush, the United States' image abroad has been changed forever, and the international supports of U.S. actions have been greatly weakened. In addition, the U.S. soldiers have been put into greater dangers if they are captured in the future.

Since the medieval time, social norms about punishment had greatly changed. People stopped participating in horrific public exhibitions. By the twentieth century, torture has become a secretive matter, which is only carried out in covert prison basements and detention camps. In addition, the Axis Powers in WWII disgusted the public with the terrible war crimes committed, and led to the beginning of a combination of humanitarian laws and agreements that prohibits all aspects of torture. The main foundation of the universal human rights laws is the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), "the Third Geneva Convention concerns prisoners-of-war [while] the Fourth Geneva Convention safeguards so-called 'protected persons,' most simply described as detained civilians" (HRW, 2004, sec. 1). Therefore, detainees must be treated humanely at all times, and torture of prisoners of war is prohibited as war crimes.

The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers were the turning point in the United States position on the international humanitarian laws. In the beginning, the U.S. government received supports from the public for its initial retaliation against to the terrorists. Soon, President Bush drew a lot of domestic and international criticisms for his choice of disregarding the Geneva Conventions provisions in the inhumane interrogation of detainees captured in Middle East. President Bush promised to protect Americans "against terror and lawless violence" (Jost, 2004, para. 88). Soon, Military Order of November 13, 2001 was signed by President Bush, which authorizes use of special military courts to try detainees in foreign countries. Even though the order promised prisoners would receive humane treatments, the Bush Administration said that Geneva Conventions was not applicable to them.

Since the terrorist attacks, a controversial legal debate has gone on to examine the different methods of interrogation techniques that the military and CIA could use on the detainees and how the United States should follow the international laws. With the Detainee Treatment Act in 2005, Congress wanted to limit the use of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatments by U.S. personals (Stern, 2007, para. 98). Senator John McCain sponsored the Detainee Treatment Act, which institutes the U.S. Army Field Manual as the standard in the interrogation of detainees. It stated that " no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider…an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by or on behalf of an alien detained by the Department of Defense at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba" (Logan, 2006, p. 1637). President Bush allowed the bill following a statement saying that he will interpret the bill " in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch, which will assist in achieving the shard objective of the Congress and the President of protecting the American people from future terrorist attacks"(Logan, 2006, p. 1639). Clearly, this statement would allow the President to ignore the law completely and legitimately use torture in extreme situations such as the hypothetical ticking time-bomb scenario. The Supreme Court ruled that all detainees captured by the United States were under the protection of Article 3 of Geneva Conventions in 2006. Later in 2006, the Military Commissions Act was passed, which forced military interrogators to follow the techniques approved under an updated version of the Army Field Manual. However, this act did not restrict CIA personnel to follow specific interrogation techniques. It was suspected to give flexibility to CIA interrogators at secret prisons abroad, where the extreme prisoners were being interrogated.

In 2007, the CIA secret prisons were reopened officially by President Bush's executive order. The order said that the CIA interrogation techniques satisfied the Geneva Conventions as long as the techniques used is legal and comprises of " willful and outrageous acts of personal abuse done for the purpose of humiliating the individual in a manner so serious that any reasonable person, considering the circumstances would deem the acts to be beyond the bounds of human decency" (Stern, 2007, para. 112). Once again, the language is not clear and has loopholes that would allow the use of inhumane interrogation methods as long as the intention is to collect information in order to stop future terrorist plans. If the United States keeps bypassing the international humanitarian laws, foreign countries are encouraged to continue using torture as an interrogation method.

Counterarguments - Torture has been used as long as humans have been recording war tactics. However, in the 20th century, particularly after World War II, the United Nations and other international legal bodies formed basic criteria that defined prisoner confinement and issues. Simply because one group chooses to use torture as a form of terrorism - after all, the idea of terrorism is to inflict fear on a greater population, does not make it morally or legally right for all sides to subscribe. At the very heart of the debate is, however, what constitutes aggressive questioning, and what constitutes torture - there is no hard and fast definition. However, beginning with the International Codes of Justice from the Nuremburg Trials, to the 1996 War Crimes Act, the Geneva Convention is explicit in banning torture, violence, cruet treatment, or humiliating and degrading behavior against a detainee (Greenberg, 2006). On the other side of the debate, though, is utiliatarianism again; if tortuing one prisoner will save 10,000 from a terrorist attack, which is more moral - however, can one always guarantee results?

Beginning in 2004, the American public became aware of a number of physical, psychological, and sexual abuses that had taken place at the Army's Baghdad Correctional Facility, also known as Abu Ghraib Prison. These acts of rape, sodomy, torture, and even homicide were undertaken by members of the 272nd Military Police Company. It was later revealed in the so-called Taguba Report, that a criminal investigation of activities at Abu Ghraib had been underway for over a year and that the authorities in Iraq were utilizing the Uniform Code of Military Justice to deal with the perpetrators (Hersh, 2007). However, an April 28, 2004 segment on CBS's 60 Minutes, combined with an April 30, 2004 article in The New Yorker so incensed the public, congress, and military leaders that for a few weeks, events at Abu Ghraib were top priority. One of the first to be publically punished, the former commander of Abu Ghraib, Janis Karpinski, demoted because of her lack of oversight, told officials that in actuality, she believed that about 90 percent of Abu Ghraib detainees were innocent. What is also interesting is that even though the Army released information about their own investigation, it was not until after the public outcry from the 60 Minutes and New Yorker pieces that anyone in Washington seemed to be interested in the events. In response to their investigations, the U.S. Department of Defense removed 17 officers and enlisted soldiers from duty, and 11 were charged with maltreatment, aggravated assault and battery, and dereliction of duty. The commanding office, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, was demoted to the rank of Colonel but continues to deny knowledge of the abuses; claiming that the interrogations were committed by subcontractors, likely authorized by her superiors, and that she was denied access into the interrogation areas (Reuters, 2006; Leung, 2004).

This is important for two major reasons: 1) it brought the subject of torture to the forefront of both American public opinion and medical/political attention; 2) it caused scholars and politicians alike to requestion the use and efficacy of torture as an effective policy within interrogation. Indeed, Abu Graib allows us to reconsider how we can even think about torture in a modern, developed world. What could make humans act in such a way?

The core of the argument against torture is that it is inhumane, uncivilized, and ineffective in the long run. The core of this anti-torture argument is that humans are not psychologically designed for this type of behavior, and that it damages both sides. In a seminal study from 1972, for instance, Professor Phillip Zimbardo published the Stanford Prison Study and follow-up work attempting to understand the pathology of torture in greater details (Haney, 1973).

The Prison Study itself was a result of an experiment in which 24 "typical" college students were randomly assigned to be either "prisoners" or "guards" in a mock simulation - a prison located in a basement area of Stanford. Almost immediately, the students began to act out their assigned roles, the guards becoming sadistic and controlling and the prisons showing passivity and depression. Even though all knew this was a mock scenario, the guards stepped beyond the boundaries of what Zimbardo had predicted and moved toward rather psychologically dangerous and sadistic tendencies. Over 30% of the guards, in fact, exhibited genuine, definable, sadism; while many of the prisoners were so emotionally traumatized that five of the mock prisoners had to be removed from the study prior to completion (Zimbardo, 1972).

What is most disconcerting is the level of baseness and utter disregard for humanity that the guards exhibited. The entire experiment quickly descended into a true show of just what the average person is capable of given the circumstances. It is important to note that all of the men were given a battery of psychological tests and none showed that they would become sadistic or breakdown, in fact that is the reason they were selected for the experiment. The guards were given no instruction on how to be guards, but were left to keep order the best they saw fit. However in short order some guards became tyrants and began harassing prisoners while others while not engaging in cruel activity, did nothing to stop it. "My guards repeatedly stripped their prisoners naked, hooded them, chained them, denied them food or bedding privileges, put them into solitary confinement, and made them clean toilet bowls with their bare hands"(Zimbardo, 2008). Yet, throughout this, the efficacy of the torture, the antithetical behavior, remained unestablished - thus unreasonable.

Further, the inhumane treatments expressed in Zimbardo's experiments are strikingly similar to the depravity documented at Abu Ghraib, in Nazi Concentration Camps, and in other extreme wartime situations. Soldiers are seen torturing and intimidating prisoners in every way imaginable. Prisoners were made to strip naked and pile into a human pyramid. In one instance a naked prisoner was led around on a leash by a female guard. Prisoners were made to masturbate or simulate fellatio in front of female guards who were pictured giving the thumbs-up approval. Another prisoner was seen perched on a box with arms stretched out and wires attached to his fingers. The album continues with soldiers tormenting, humiliating, and torturing their prisoners in ways that are at best indescribable (Hersh, 2007). "It is one thing to do evil deeds, quite another to document one's culpability in graphic, enduring photos." (Zimbardo, 2008, 324)

Besides the inhumanity though, the psychological questions remain important: were the guards harboring some latent idea of what a guard should do? Was the media responsible for "showing" archetypes of guard/prisoner simulations? Or, is there a deeper set of psychological traits or behaviors that exist within the human genotype, and that are expressed in certain situations in which the bounds of social morality do not exist? For instance, the literature abounds with rhetoric about wartime activities - the accountant who experiments with children; the farmer who, during blood-lust, bayonets non-combatants, and clearly the idea of how could a modern, organized society produce the number of monsters that Nazi Germany used to staff its Concentration Camps (Haslam,, 2003).

First, it is important to note that it is not just during prison simulations that these kinds of cognitive dissonance occur. During wartime it is typical for the political powers to attempt a dehumanization of the enemy, making it easier to stereotype and box individuals as "evil, hunnish, commies, etc." rather than see them as individuals. The "enemy" loses its human characteristics and with it the morality that would usually make someone reasonable towards their fellow humans. This is what makes it possible for normal people to kill other people in times of war. We call them "towel heads" or "hajjis" similar to during Vietnam when the enemy was known as "gooks" or "charlie," or in past conflicts "the evil Hun," "kraut," "Nazi Pig," "Commie," etc. It is unlikely, for instance, that Americans would have supported President Truman's decision regarding Hiroshima and Nagasaki without the years of propaganda and dehumanizing the Japanese - some have even gone as far as indicating that it is unlikely America would have used the bomb on Germany, the German people were too "alike," it was the Nazi's who were bad (Dower, 2006; Talerico, 2009).

Most recently, dehumanization took place in a world after 9/11 that made it perfectly acceptable to almost every American to slander and even harm anyone of Middle Eastern descent. We wanted justice and we wanted it now. Images of the enemy are created by national media propaganda (in complicity with governments) to prepare the minds of soldiers and citizens to "hate those who fit the new category your enemy" (Plath, 1986; Zimbardo, 2008, 312). Psychologically explanatory - yes - proven effective, as we have seen, throughout history, no. Legally, through the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the Geneva Convention and numerous other legal mechanisms, torture remains anathema.

Arguments in Favor of Torture as an Interrogation Method - No one academically condones torture for the sake of torture - of inflicting pain to innocent people. The debate about torture, though, may be construed as a utilitarian versus deontological argument - do the ends justify the means, or are the means all important? The pro-torture argumentation is not given in a vacuum; it has some strict rubrics, and structure. However, let us first review the philosophical issues behind utilitarianism.

Even prior to the formalization of the terms utilitarianism and deontology, the core ideas of each have been debated for centuries. The Ancient Greeks argued over the needs of the individual as opposed to the needs of the. Utilitarianism holds that the most ethical thing one can do is any action that will maximize the happiness within an organization or society. At the center of this debate is the notion that many remain dissatisfied with the definition of "good" or "appropriate" being at the whim of a particular social order, or ruling elite. This debate may be found in Aristotle, Socrates, and Aquinas, leading to more contemporary political notions from Lock, Kant, and even Martin Luther King, Jr. Forming the core modern argument, for instance, Aquinas argued that there were certain universal behaviors that were either right or wrong as ordained by the Divine. Hobbes and Locke differed, and put forth the notion that there were natural rights, or "states of nature," but disagreed on the controlling factors of those natural tendencies. Kant took this further, reacting, and argued that a state or society must be organized by the way laws and justice was universally true, available, and, most importantly, justified by humanity. Yet, for Kant, these innate principles should be mindful of the freedom and choice (autonomy) of the individual. In this way Kant, prescribed that basic rights were necessary for civil society, and becomes a rubric by which we may understand modern utilitarian principles and their interdependence with the concept of human rights (Haydn, 2001). Actions have quantitative outcomes and the ethical choices that lead to the "greatest good for the greatest number" are the appropriate decisions, even if that means subsuming the rights of certain individuals (Troyer, 2003, 256-52). It is considered to be a consequential outlook in the sense that while outcomes cannot be predicted the judgment of an action is based on the outcome - or, "the ends justify the means" (Robinson and Groves, 2003).

Deontology is a compatible, but alternative ethical system that has its roots in Ancient Greece, but is most often attributed to Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher writing about a century prior to Mill and Bentham. In utilitarianism, the focus is on outcomes, or the ends of an action; in deontology the actions themselves must be ethical and moral, or the outcome is moot. Deontology argues that there are norms and truths that are universal for all humans; actions then have a predisposition to right or wrong, moral or immoral. Kant believed that humans should act, at all times, as if their individual actions would have consequences for all of society. Morality, then, is based on rational thought and is the direction most humans innately want. Roughly, deontology is "the means justify the ends" (Kamm, 2007).

A classic illustration comparing the two ideas has you as a Police Captain managing a situation in which a sniper is shooting individuals who pass by a busy downtown square, apparently at random. The police have cornered the shooter and have their own sharpshooters ready for a kill shot. However, the shooter grabbed a child and is using her as a human shield. Do you authorize your own snipers to take a shot, knowing there is a chance of killing the child; or wait and risk the shooter killing more pedestrians? Certainly, the human shield did not "wish" to die, but then neither did the hundreds of potential victims on the street and in office buildings surrounding the shooter. If you take a utilitarian approach you give the order to shoot and hope the child is missed - if you take the deontological approach you hold that child's one life in the same reverence as the public's good. Obviously, neither answer is completely right nor wrong - but situationally dependent, which would be anathema to both Kant and Mill, who saw the world in much clearer terms. What if, for instance, the child will grow up to discover the cure for cancer and thus save millions of people? However, what if the person who might be the next President and develop a global peace accord is in the building across from the shooter giving a presentation and is randomly shot? In the case of torture as an interrogation technique, the utilitarian approach is often articulated in: "Is it not better to be harsh with one prisoner than allow 10,000 innocents to be bombed."

Also, one must ask - are all prisoners created equal? Logically, the answer is no; in fact there are three kinds of prisoners of war, all deserving different treatment and consideration.

Ordinary Soldiers - these are soldiers captured in the field of battle. International rights guarantee that this person's detention has but a single purpose - to prevent the prisoner from becoming an enemy combatant. Even experiments in the Civil War found that many soldiers who pledged not to retake up arms would, when released, do just that. Therefore, it seems best to simply keep prisoners of war in a safe environment so they may be repatriated once the conflict is over. Interrogation techniques should be light, polite, and respectful. The primary reason for this is, of course, that both sides wish their combatants to be treated well (Skerker, 2010, 117-19).

The Captured Terrorist - A terrorist by profession and most legal definitions is an illegal combatant, therefore since they do not follow the moral and ethical laws of conventions, conventions should not apply to them. This person is entitled to no protections at all - this is outside the purview of warfare. If we think about it from a utilitarian perspective, why should a society allow itself to be damaged, thousands of innocents killed or maimed, and then give the people responsible extra-legal rights when captured? (Skerker, 1-4).

In point of fact, if the data is clinically analyzed, the majority of the prisoners held in Guantanamo have been treated humanely; they receive clean clothes, sanitary conditions, medical care, 3 meals per day, and a provision to pray 5 times daily, even if we must provide them with their own Korans. The assertion that these terrorist are prisoners of war and deserve more are questionable since one might ask - what more do they deserve than what our own incarcerated population receives? (Krauthammer, 2005).

The Terrorist with Information - It is with this type of prisoner that the issues become cloudy. Suppose, for instance the United States receives intelligence that a terrorist has planted a bomb in the Super bowl Stadium. It will go off in 60 minutes and x million will die immediately, y later from the after effects. Somehow, the FBI captures the terrorist who planted the bomb; but he will say nothing. Does one use whatever means possible to save millions? Or, because this one individual will not talk, allow them no discomfort or incentive to help officials preclude the blast. In this case, torture is not impermissible from a utilitarian point of view - not because a single life is worth more than another, but because a single person can save millions with a simple utterance. Who might be in that stadium - the next Einstein, President, inventor of a miracle cure for cancer - or simply innocent people who paid to see a sporting event to which they enjoy? In fact, after giving the captured prisoner every reasonable opportunity to tell the truth, including injections of sodium pentothal, they still will not relent; some form of egregious discomfort must be tried; whether it is physical or mental (Krauthammer; Wisnewski and Emerick, 2009).

Conclusions - Using an ethical argument, torture can be justified under certain circumstances, but it can also be considered morally and spiritually wrong. However, is it the real of ethics that the subject matter should always take place? Is there an ethics advisor on every military and political situation made? Would World War II have ended with Allied victory without the use of fire bombs in Germany and atomic weapons in Japan? Would anyone, if pressed to answer truthfully, disagreed with using "water boarding" on a single person if 9/11 could have been prevented? Or, once society moves into the "it depends path," do ethics and morality fly out the door? How do we justify the ends when they may involve perversion of the means?(Conan, 2004).

A single act of waterboarding does not make a culture of torture. Certainly, the Western World has tried no to adopt a kiss and tell paradigm regarding this problem, but there remain enough enemy combatants at large in the United States to cause grave damage - both physical and emotional. We cannot know if the prospect of torture would deter - just as we cannot know if the idea of capital punishment actually deters violent crime. What we do know, however, is that we have a responsibility to society to protect it the best we can, through water means we can. Our first choices should always be legal, thoughtful, and with sound reasoning. All else should be tried, yes, and the most ethical and moral treatment of prisoners provided. However, we still remain constitutionally responsible to the greater good of the population; the protection of the American people, and the duty to ensure that those legal needs are met. The answer, though, is "it depends," each situation is unique, each situation has a different number of individuals hanging in the balance, and each situation has a differing degree of payoff (Schmitz, 2010). Was Abu Graib moral or necessarily - likely not; If torture had been used to prevent 9/11 would it have been appropriate; it is likely, through ethical reasoning, that attempts would have been made to first try a reasonable approach, resorting to torture only when necessary.