It is hard to disagree with the overarching idea of Anna’s comment piece last week. As it argued, the world is an increasingly complicated place, and we need nuanced rather than simple solutions, no matter how electorally successful the latter may be. It’s just a shame that the example chosen to illustrate the argument was torture, as there’s nothing complicated or nuanced about torture. It is wholly, unequivocally wrong.
I think it’s important to clarify what exactly torture involves. In her efforts to chart the changing meaning of torture throughout history, Anna succeeded too in obfuscating what the reality of torture is today. It is waterboarding. It is simulated drowning, feeling like your lungs are about to burst until you lose consciousness or start violently throwing up water. If it’s not that, it’s your genitalia being electrocuted, or being hung upside down for hours on end. We should remember that when people, whether that be Donald Trump or anyone else, are talking about torture in 2017, this is what they’re talking about.
For some people though, that doesn’t matter. One of the most common arguments is that torture, for all its horrors, is a necessary evil. People like to envision Homeland-style interrogation scenes, where there’s a ticking time-bomb in the middle of London, and only if the good guys can extract the information in time will everyone be saved. Torture might be terrible for that one person, but if it going to save the lives of so many more, then surely it’s justified?
Yet for all the number of times that kind of scene it appears in fiction, it doesn’t quite work like that in reality. In her piece, Anna says that we don’t know how effective torture is. Leaving aside the fact that a policy of ‘not really knowing if it works but choosing to err on the side of torture’ is a bizarre one, that simply isn’t true. Despite what President Trump might claim (and he does say believe him, folks), torture does not work.
There is absolutely no precedent for torture having produced information which then saved lives. It’s not hard to understand why that’s the case: when people are being put through such intense pain, they will say anything and everything to stop being tortured, regardless of how true it is. Moreover, scientific studies have noted that torture is actually less likely to produce correct information. Such is the stress that an individual is put through, their ability to remember things and think clearly is severely compromised.
Shane O’Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin, in his book ‘Why Torture Doesn’t Work’, provides the example of a Cambodian torture survivor who confessed to being, among other things, a hermaphrodite, CIA spy, Catholic bishop, and the King of Cambodia’s son.
“We should see it as our responsibility to set the tone for the kind of world we want”
So torture just makes people say whatever they think will make it stop, and in fact makes it less likely that they will able to remember the truth. But even in some parallel universe where torture did produce accurate intelligence, there would still be a problem. In the U.K., evidence gained under torture is not permissible in a court. Therefore, in order to prosecute, authorities would be reliant only on whatever they had been able to gather without torture, rendering the actual torture somewhat pointless.
Furthermore, the comparison made in the piece between torture and animal testing is a completely false one. For one, humans are not animals to be abused. One would have thought that this is pretty obvious, but the fact that the comparison was made is indicative of the contempt that potential torture victims are held in. Dodgy similes aside, it is wrong to think that we even have the option of saving hundreds of people if only we torture just this one.
But we shouldn’t condemn torture just because it is ineffective. We should condemn it because it is morally wrong. What kind of society would we be living in if we were to sanction such barbaric behaviour, if we were to justify inflicting such agony on other human beings? We could hardly expect to call ourselves a civilised society, and to preach values such as compassion and decency (as I’m sure most people would want us to), if we were also giving official approval to such cruelty.
We should see it as our responsibility to set the tone for the kind of world we want. This is true both at home and internationally. We should be striving for that moral high ground. If we were to practice torture, it would become much harder to condemn other countries that committed human rights abuses. Purely practically, it sets a dangerous precedent: if a U.S. citizen were to be tortured by another government, America wouldn’t have much ground to stand on. Within the country, it would be a deeply troubling message if the government were to say that such abhorrent behaviour is sometimes justifiable. At some point, a line must be drawn.
These are confusing times we live in, but that does not mean that everything has to be so. Indeed, one of the worst things we could do in response would be to complicate things that should be clear-cut. It’s not good enough to sit on the fence: by refusing to condemn something like torture, we are implicitly endorsing it. We should look for the values we know to be worth protecting, and for what can provide us with moral clarity. To that end, we should stand firm in saying that torture is absolutely wrong.
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