March 23, 2006


If torture works…: The debate over torture is not as simple as it seems. Those of us who oppose torture under any circumstances should admit that ours is an unpopular policy that may make us more vulnerable to terrorism (Michael Ignatieff, April 2006, Prospect)

It is difficult to think about torture honestly. In a recent article on the interrogation techniques employed by the US, the writer Mark Bowden observed that few "moral imperatives make such sense on a large scale, but break down so dramatically in the particular." The moral imperative—do not torture, any time, anywhere, in any circumstances—is mandated by the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency," says the convention, can "be invoked as a justification of torture." That terrorists themselves torture does not change these imperatives. Our compliance does not depend on reciprocity.

As long as we stay on this high ground of unconditional prohibition, we seem to know where we are. Problems begin when we descend into the particular, when we ask what exactly counts as torture. [...]

Clear thinking about torture is not served by collapsing the distinction between coercive interrogation and torture. Both may be repugnant, but repugnance does not make them into the same thing. If coercion and torture are on a moral continuum, at what point on the continuum, to use Posner's words, does queasiness turn to revulsion? Vigorous interrogation might mean lengthy, exhausting, harassing exchanges with interrogators. Provided that there was no physical contact between interrogator and subject, no deprivation of food or water harmful to health, this might qualify as lawful interrogation. But at every ratchet of coercion, moral problems arise. Sleep deprivation will not leave physical or permanent psychological scars, but as Menachem Begin, who was interrogated in Soviet Russia, remembered, "anyone who has experienced this desire [for sleep] knows that not even hunger or thirst are comparable with it."

It might be lawful to deceive a subject under interrogation, by stating that all of his associates are already in detention when they are still at large. But other forms of deception can inflict excruciating psychological anguish. Threatening a subject with the imminent death or torture of those dearest to him may not leave any physical marks, but it rightly can constitute torture, not just coercion, in even the US Senate's definition. Both Elshtain and Posner have argued against the moral perfectionism that elides the distinction between coercion and torture, and have stressed the cruel, if regrettable, necessity of using coercive methods on a small category of terrorists who may have information vital to saving the lives of innocent people. Posner justifies coercive interrogation on utilitarian grounds: saving the lives of many counts more, in moral terms, than abusing the body and dignity of a single individual. Elshtain justifies coercive interrogation using a complex moral calculus of "dirty hands": good consequences cannot justify bad acts, but bad acts are sometimes tragically necessary. The acts remain bad, and the person must accept the moral opprobrium and not seek to excuse the inexcusable with the justifications of necessity.

My own work on "lesser evils" brings me close to the Elshtain position. I agree with her that necessity may require the commission of bad acts, which necessity, nevertheless, cannot absolve of their morally problematic character—but I still have a problem. If one enumerates the forms of coercive interrogation that have been judged to be inhuman and degrading by the Israeli and the European courts—hooding, holding subjects in painful positions, exposing them to cold or heat or ear-splitting noise—these techniques also seem unacceptable, though at a lower threshold of awfulness, than torture. Like Elshtain, I am willing to get my hands dirty, but unlike her, I have practical difficulty enumerating a list of coercive techniques that I would be willing to have a democratic society inflict in my name. I accept, for example, that a slap is not the same thing as a beating, but I still don't want interrogators to slap detainees because I cannot see how to prevent the occasional slap deteriorating into a regular practice of beating. The issue is not, as Elshtain implies, that I care overmuch about my own moral purity but rather that I cannot see any clear way to manage coercive interrogation institutionally so that it does not degenerate into torture.

On the issue of regulation, there are those—Alan Dershowitz, for example—who believe that banning torture and coercion outright is unrealistic. Instead, the practice should be regulated by court warrants. But judicialisation of torture, and of coercive interrogation techniques involving stress and duress, physical abuse, sleep deprivation and so on, could lead to torture and coercion becoming routine rather than an exception.

Unfortunately Mr. Ignatieff never deals adequately with the threshold question: why should interrogation methods be made such a fetish that we treat them so morally differently than every other means of war-making?

Consider, for example, a means of warfare for which there is near universal support: UN sanctions against regimes. What, at the end of the day, are sanctions if not coercive measures imposed by the community of democracies whose specific purpose is to inflict sufficient pain and sufferng on an entire society that its leadership is forced to yield? Is there any moral coherence to an argument that says we may not treat a captured Saddam Hussein brusquely in order to determine where his WMD went but we were perfectly justified in killing 500,000 Iraqis to try and get him to tell us where the WMD were?

Mr. Ignatieff's slippery slope does not lead to too much torture but to complete tolerance of evil.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 23, 2006 12:10 PM

Exactly. By dressing up "who we are" and avoiding the difficult questions about war and terrorism, he not only pretends that our nobility has some force against the enemy (which it does, but not the way he thinks), he runs smack into the iron law of unitended consequences. In this case, it means only doing the easy things to oppose evil. The smooth things. The 'democratic' things. But that typically means only the innocent will suffer and die.

Because it takes guts to make the guilty pay. It takes guts to know how to interrogate someone. It takes guts to know the difference between war and crime, and it takes guts to respond accordingly.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 23, 2006 1:02 PM

Two points, not really related to each other:

1. What, at the end of the day, are sanctions if not coercive measures imposed by the community of democracies whose specific purpose is to inflict sufficient pain and sufferng on an entire society that its leadership is forced to yield? As Jim alludes, the pain of UN sanctions falls on the subjects of a tyrant, and not on the tyrant himself. How can that possibly be moral?

2. What's the moral argument against reciprocity? It's long established that if one state in a war violates the laws of war (e.g. use of non-uniformed combatants; executing POWs; false flags and other perfidity) its opponent is thereafter privileged to conduct reprisals. Why not, then, permit reprisals against non-state combatants?

Posted by: Mike Morley at March 23, 2006 1:30 PM

It ain't pretty, but ends really do justify the means. Like the old joke says, we've established what you are, now we're just haggling about the price.

Torture to find our where the money is buried? Nah. Torture to find out where my granddaughter is buried alive? Whatever it takes, get Jack Bauer in here.

Posted by: erp at March 23, 2006 2:24 PM

Ends don't justify means, but they may require them regardless.

Posted by: Timothy at March 23, 2006 2:32 PM

Mr. Ignatieff and his ilk should be comforted by the fact that they are highly unlikely to ever face the results of their navel-gazing in practice. These people won't ever be in the military or security-related fields.

Posted by: Rick T. at March 23, 2006 2:38 PM

Every once in awhile I remember poor Allan West and I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 23, 2006 3:49 PM


How can a just end not justify most means?

Posted by: oj at March 23, 2006 3:50 PM

The lesser of two evils is still evil. Just less so.

Posted by: Timothy at March 23, 2006 4:36 PM


Why is a normally undesirable action that stops a great evil an evil itself? Is shooting Hitler evil?

Posted by: oj at March 23, 2006 4:40 PM

The real problem is that Ignatieff seems to be the kind of person who believes that the means justify the ends, and any tainted means, no matter how minor, has the effect of making the entire enterprise illegitimate. And conversely, pure means will make any ends, no matter how gruesome, legitimate. Take, for example, his kind's infatuation with sanctions, which are little more that long-distance siege warfare, as a substitute for direct action which may have a much smaller, although more spectacularly visible, body count.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at March 23, 2006 4:40 PM

We're either arguing semantics or theology, neither of which have much bearing on the fact that we agree about the required actions.

Posted by: Timothy at March 23, 2006 4:59 PM

How can a required action be evil?

Posted by: oj at March 23, 2006 5:06 PM

Well, what else could justify any action, other than accurate assessment of the consequences?

Let us get on with the torture, er.. but just don't enjoy it.

Posted by: h-man at March 23, 2006 5:15 PM

Enjoy it? Sometimes I don't understand male humor.

If that's an allusion to Abu Gharib, it's not funny. The murderous prisoners only had their feelings hurt while our soldiers are in jail for what were basically fraternity pranks. Panties on their heads? Dogs growling at them? Women saw their scrawny bodies? Next morning, their heads were still attached.

Real torture is horrible, only it's just a lot less horrible than the consequences of not learning what we need to know to make our loved ones safe.

Posted by: erp at March 23, 2006 6:31 PM

The 500K dead is a canard--that is not what the UN organization said, as it now posts on its own website.

Posted by: ken at March 23, 2006 8:15 PM


It's what those who supported Saddam said. It seems only fair to accept their case for the sake of argument.

Posted by: oj at March 23, 2006 8:20 PM


My apologies for the male humor

Posted by: h-man at March 24, 2006 7:06 AM