When the Senate report into the use of torture by the CIA was released earlier this month, various apologists were ready and waiting with justifications. Their arguments relied on neatly defined – and thus usually hypothetical – scenarios. For instance, the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario, in which a detainee knows the location of a device that is set to kill thousands of people. If the only way of obtaining this information is through physical coercion, then isn’t torture justifiable?

Good question, isn’t it?

In truth, it’s an bad question, inviting evil answers. If it’s OK to torture a detainee, then why not his children – if that is what it takes to ‘break’ him and save all those lives? And what if one detains a number of suspects, most of which may be innocent, but some of which are probably guilty and in possession of lifesaving information – is it OK to torture them all?

Some ethical philosophies were built on firm foundations, others on sand. The architects of utilitarianism, however, marked out their territory on a slippery slope – as utilitarian justifications for torture clearly demonstrate.

As Ryan Cooper argues in a deeply insightful article for The Week, torture tends to undermine the limits that democratic governments try to place on it – and also the organisations given the permission to use torture within those limits.

For one thing, pain is a complex phenomenon – different people have different pain thresholds and the body in pain adapts, desensitising itself to repeated stimuli:

“Torturers understand this, and so are drawn to two blunt techniques: (1) apply maximum allowable pain, so as to push past all limits and (2) vary the torture methods widely to exploit as many phobias and specific weaknesses as possible. One perverse result of this is that there will be constant pressure to ignore limits set by the law in favor of a maximum diversity of pain.”

By its very nature, torture escalates – not just in its variety and intensity, but in the number of people drawn into its embrace:

“Detainees with a score to settle may falsely rat out old enemies, hoping they will be tortured instead. Detainees with no information will sometimes try to appease their torturers with lies, making interrogators waste time and effort chasing false leads. The CIA did just this, in fact. The Senate report documents at least one instance in which the CIA tortured a detainee, who gave them bad information, which led to more innocent people being detained.”

This is a phenomenon understood and feared even in regimes that have no regard for human rights:

“…in the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe, working relationships were critical to keeping the secret police informed. Torture of sources, by contrast, destroys trust and makes normal interrogation dramatically more difficult, which is why those dictatorships kept their torture confined to political dissidents.”

Ultimately, torture doesn’t ‘enhance’ conventional intelligence gathering, it displaces it:

“…torture badly corrodes organizations that practice it. One of the most striking aspects revealed by the Senate report is the incompetence of the CIA, the kind of stuff that would bankrupt a lemonade stand, like losing track of who it had in custody

“In addition to a temptation to break the rules, torture regimes encourage competition between interrogators to break prisoners first. All of this rots traditional investigative skills, as interrogators turn to torture as a quick and easy road to success. Why do complicated forensics if you’ve got a cattle prod?”

Torture takes place in the real world, not on the pages of a philosophy 101 text book. For all the practical reasons set out in Ryan Cooper’s article, torture cannot be confined to the ticking time bomb scenarios beloved by the torture-apologists – and in bursting beyond these limits, the practice of torture compromises the defence of democracy.

Of course, this could itself be interpreted as a utilitarian argument. But the reason why torture doesn’t work is answered in a purely moral argument: which is that torture is evil.

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