Torture prohibition as moral absolute

Žižek drives a hard bargain:

In a way, those who refuse to advocate torture outright but still accept it as a legitimate topic of debate are more dangerous than those who explicitly endorse it. Morality is never just a matter of individual conscience. It thrives only if it is sustained by what Hegel called “objective spirit,” the set of unwritten rules that form the background of every individual’s activity, telling us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

For example, a clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is “dogmatically” clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.

Knight of the Living Dead, NYTimes March 24, 2007

 So we need dogma. That’s all well and good, but where does that position one in relation to the torture advocate who is attempting to propose rational arguments for the use of torture?

‘Sorry – we don’t discuss this.’

‘You’re wrong. End of story.’

‘I’m not listening – LALALALALALALA – I can’t hear you.’

 If torture is a moral absolute, then surely this position would have been arrived at through a process of examination and assessment of the argument, not an a priori conclusion? As such, unless the arguments themselves were flimsy (they’re not), one should still be perfectly able to take on the torture advocate in debate and, without rhetoric or overtly emotive tactics, justify why the moral absolute is indeed a moral absolute.

 Ruth Blakeley, of the University of Kent, in her powerful article ‘Why torture?’, outlines 3 assumptions behind the application of torture by both liberal and authoritarian states: security, stability and legitimacy.

The security model reflects the dominant claims made about torture by authoritarian and liberal states alike – that its function is to obtain intelligence to defeat security threats. The stability model accounts for torture when it is used in authoritarian states, but often sponsored by external liberal elites, as a method to instil fear, to deter potential and actual political opposition among the population. This is intended to help protect the interests of elite groups. The legitimacy model accounts for the ways in which state officials, usually from liberal states, seek, on the one hand, to secure the right to use torture, based on the assignment of specific identities of themselves – as legitimate – and of those against whom they wish to use torture – as illegitimate. On the other hand, claiming the right to use torture is intended to secure those specific identities, which are never fixed. (Blakeley: 374)

 Can there be any justification for any of these assumptions?


In conversation the other day with a retired British Army officer who had served in intelligence operations during the Cold War and in Northern Ireland, I asked whether, in to his knowledge, torture has ever been effective in gaining reliable intelligence. ‘Well’, was his response, ‘the Soviets employed psychoactive drugs in order to discombobulate the prisoner, who would often start to babble and would thus betray himself. The British in Northern Ireland [and I’m not sure if he was referring to the army, the police, or secret services] tended to break down a prisoner through sleep deprivation. An interrogation would commence, and when the interrogator tired he would be replaced by another, and so on. Many IRA suspects betrayed the whereabouts of their comrades through this tactic.’

So – is it effective – well, undeniably, intel is gained.
And reliable – well, some of it, I suppose is reliable.

The problems with this, though, are manifold.

If you have the wrong man, then no amount of interrogation (harsh or otherwise) is going to produce valuable intel.

If the man babbles because his brain is fried (either through pain, psychoactive compounds or sleep deprivation), then reliable information is surely going to be shot through with incoherence and thoroughly unreliable info. As such, only years of enquiry or inspired divination will be able to sort the wheat from the chaff.

He’ll also, as is well documented, say whatever he believes the interrogator wants him to say in order to stop the pain. ‘Give me a water board, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders’ (Jesse Ventura). This, shockingly, was the case of the intel gained from the enhanced interrogation of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, whose admissions were only discredited by the CIA after Bush et. al. cited him in their allegations of the ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in their justification for invasion.

Furthermore, what are the guarantees that the alleged ‘reliable intel’ gained through torture could not have been gained through more empathetic, less brutal, techniques? The ex army officer explained that, despite evidence to the contrary, the British are still the world’s most accomplished practitioners of the cross-examination style interrogation. He cited a British interrogator during the Cold War, upon whom John le Carré based some of his interrogation sequences, who was the absolute master at examining the suspect, questioning the story, leading the suspect, through brilliant Rumpole-of-the-Bailey-style eloquence and logic, to betray himself.

Without even going into depth about the horrific physical and emotional chronic pain that the torture victim (and the torturer) suffer as a result of torture, and without discussing the wider implications with regard the victim’s family and society at large, it needs to be reinforced that the justification for the use of torture as a means of gaining reliable intelligence is inherently flawed, as no positive case could be taken in isolation of numerous negative cases.

That’s to say – let’s imagine the extreme case in which a suspect gives up information that leads to the annulment of a security risk or the revelation of a terror cell (or some other ‘positive’ outcome). It is impossible to consider this situation in isolation of scores of occasions in which torture was employed with the same aims in which a) the suspect was innocent, b) he gave misleading information such as naming innocents, c) he simply gave information that he believed the interrogators wished for, d) he became unconscious or died, e) as such a steely-nerved evildoer he continued to remain silent, f) and so on and so on…

It would be impossible to assert that torture was used only for the acquisition of reliable intel without also admitting the collateral damage produced from torture where, for the reasons stated, reliable intel was not acquired. Therefore, even in the ‘reliable intel’ argument, we’re dealing with a set of prerequisites almost as improbable as in the ticking-bomb scenario, which I argue against in another post. Furthermore, once you’re using the ‘reliable intel’ as a justification, the outcome invariably will be in order to defuse a potential catastrophe. Therefore, the argument rapidly morphs into the ticking-bomb scenario anyway. Again, so improbable as to be impossible.

Last of all – at this present moment the only people claiming that the techniques have been effective are either right-wing radio nuts like Glen Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, or are the war architects themselves, like Cheney. Following the stratospheric levels of duplicity, secrecy, cover-ups, document shreddings, legal jiggerypokery, crafty memos and sly policies – who in their right mind would believe such a man?

And if you then compare Cheney’s claim that reliable intel was gained, with, for instance, any of the reports by Stafford-Smith, Erik Saar, Philippe Sands, Mahvish Khan, or any of the testimonies by detainees, FBI agents, marines, military guards, military police, translators, interrogators, chaplains, etc. all held at the The Guantánamo Testimonials Project – WHO ARE YOU GOING TO BELIEVE?



‘Well,’ said the ex army officer, ‘surely some nations have gained a form of stability through the use and the threat of imprisonment, torture and disappearance. Pinochet remained in power for nearly two decades, Chairman Mao for far longer. But is it a type of stability you want?’

Of course, and this now enters the old philosophical question of law: if the penalty for parking on a double-yellow line were death, would people park on a double-yellow line? If the answer is no, then is it an effective law? If stability (for what it’s worth) is achieved through such brutal measures, does it really constitute stability? I believe not.



This is the most absurd of all of these assumptions, and is akin to the Orwellian double-speak (and double-think) endemic in the War of Terror. Bombing to bring peace through Operation Enduring Freedom, killing in order to save, destroying in order to preserve, incarcerating without trial, abusing and even killing detainees in order to ‘Defend Freedom, Sir!’


To conclude.

At the beginning of my musings on torture, I felt that perhaps if there had been a situation in which reliable intelligence had been gained through torture then there would be a chink in the armour of the torture opponents. We would have to say that ‘ok, so you have shown me a situation in which torture was used as an absolute one-off, and, in this case it proved successful in achieving intel that led to the dismantling of a terror network. However, despite this, I am not prepared to accept the legitimacy of such means, and I still oppose the gathering of intelligence through these means. I am, therefore, prepared to sacrifice that intel so as not to condone torture’.

I now believe that statement to be false, as, simply, such an isolated situation seems to me utterly improbable.

 I believe, therefore, that we don’t need to retreat into dogmatic silence in the defence of a moral absolute. Indeed I would go so far as to suggest that such absence of reasonable and intellectual argument would serve only to allow the proponents of torture to believe they have a valid point. They don’t. Each one of the arguments, I believe, can be successfully and convincingly dismantled.

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