Tag Archives: Žižek

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.

The ‘ticking bomb scenario’ and its tortured logic

Despite the fact that for more than half a century the argument of the ‘ticking bomb scenario’ has been shown to be ridiculous and utterly contrary to reality, it seems that the very neatness of its twisted logic ensures its perpetuation by those sympathetic to the use of torture. Such neatness, embroiled with a crass yet effective emotive sting, likewise ensures that those who oppose torture are regularly cast as favouring the “rights” of one murderous terrorist over the lives of millions of innocent citizens.

We all know the argument so no need to repeat it here. If not known, the tenets of the scenario are detailed in the document Defusing the Ticking Bomb Scenario. Why we must say No to torture, always, published by the Association for the Prevention of Torture

Opponents of the scenario invariably highlight the immense number of assumptions that need to be made regarding the particular ‘exceptional’ circumstance. Indeed, the sheer quantity of these outlandish predicates are sufficient to destroy the probability of the event ever arising. However, before even attacking its hollow argument, one must first understand that by simply proposing the scenario, the proposer has already opposed a repeatedly endorsed consensual prohibition, has therefore opted out of a moral absolute. Could we, therefore, expect an exceptional circumstance wherein genocide is permissible, wherein slavery is permissible? Or, as Žižek suggests, could we expect an exceptional circumstance wherein rape is permissible?

As for the actual assumptions of the argument, the Association for the Prevention of Torture, in the document cited above, outlines their monstrously unrealistic nature:

The ticking bomb is based on a number of assumptions, some of which may be hidden or only implied when it is first presented. These hidden assumptions should be exposed. For instance, the ticking bomb scenario typically supposes certainty, or near certainty, as to all of the following:

  1. A specific planned attack is known to exist.
  2. The attack will happen within a very short time (it is “imminent”).
  3. The attack will kill a large number of people.
  4. The person in custody is a perpetrator of the attack.
  5. The person has information that will prevent the attack.
  6. Torturing the person will obtain the information in time to prevent the attack.
  7. No other means exist that might get the information in time.
  8. No other action could be taken to avoid the harm.

The scenario also assumes:

  1. The motive of the torturer is to get information, with the genuine intention of saving lives, and nothing more.
  2. It is an isolated situation, not often to be repeated.

The document continues to expose the dangerous fallacies and improbability in each one of the assumptions.

The problem, as I see it, is that this argument works extremely well in a chat-show, rapid interview, scaremongering, media environment where people are firstly not given time or space to work through their arguments, and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, are cowed into not being labelled a terrorist-sympathiser, a liberal pansy, a traitor to the nation, etc.

Furthermore, the scenario is presented as a two-path predicament akin to the philosophical ‘trolley problem’ – i.e. you’ve two alternatives and you must make choose one: do you a) torture the captive or b) not torture and allow hundreds/thousands/millions to die.

Such a predicament can arise in reality. About ten years ago I read Nicholas Montserrat’s harrowing novel set in the 2nd World War about the Atlantic convoys, The Cruel Sea. The skipper of a Royal Navy corvette, attempting to manoeuvre his ship towards survivors from a torpedoed convoy vessel, is compelled to drop a depth charge into the oily waters right amidst the swimmers, because he believes the U-boat is still present and its destruction would obviously save other vessels of the fleet. Although the account is fictional, it does not seem too far-fetched.

It is similarly alleged that Churchill’s government had cracked the German code and knew of the imminent bombing of Coventry but did not alert the city so as not to reveal to the Germans that they had cracked the code. Again, I believe this allegation is contested, but it shows a probable, if not genuine, predicament.

The ‘ticking bomb scenario’ is unlike this split-path argument, as so many wholly improbable predicates need to be satisfied before the final two choices are presented. Furthermore, owing to moral opposition of the concept of torture, the putative subject would have chosen other paths even if certain of those prerequisites had obtained, and thus the final decision point would never have been reached.

Lastly, let’s not overlook the fact that even were the improbable event to arise, one would have to ask ‘who does the torture?’ Obviously one wouldn’t want an amateur doing the job, nor would one want some testosterone-filled policeman handpicked for his excellent treatment of the G20 protestors. One would want a competent, calm and experienced torturer who is best qualified to get the results and save the multitude. How would such a person gain his knowledge? Would he (or she) have to attend the CIA School of the Americas? Would it be theory-based training only, or could they gain some practise in the field?

And so on…

From whatever way you look at it, it is a logically bankrupt argument in addition to its moral and ethical bankruptcy.

Yet for its covert, aggressive and distorted logic, it will continue to be wheeled out before a docile audience in the service of any system that has been caught adding a turn to the thumbscrews…


Just in case anyone was in any doubt:

Torture has been prohibited for many, many years. The key document today that prohibits torture is the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and international treaty that almost every country in the world, including the United States, has ratified. The Convention Against Torture says that under no circumstance can torture be used: it is an international crime, and every country in the world must pass legislation to make it a crime. […] Torture is also prohibited by customary international law – that is law that has arisen by the practices of nations. It is an absolute prohibition: under no circumstance can you torture anybody, ever. […] Nor does the Convention Against Torture permit any excuses for torture. Article 2 says that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever” – whether a state of war or a threat of war, political instability, or any other public emergency – may be evoked as a justification of torture. It goes on to say that an order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification for torture. That is an illegal order, and you can be punished as a criminal for carrying it out.

The convention is crystal clear: under no circumstance can you torture people, whatever you call them, whether illegal combatants, enemy combatants, murderers, killers. You cannot torture anybody ever; it’s an absolute prohibition. 

Michael Ratner, Guantánamo: what the world should know (Arris Books, 2004) 31-32


More directly, it must involve continuously reaffirming why torture is never acceptable under any circumstances, even as a limited warrant for exceptional situations. There are a great many powerful arguments to make in support of an absolute prohibition on torture, including: by nature torture is a unique kind of wrong – a form of rape that perverts human relationships and agency – that cannot therefore be morally justified under any circumstances; torture violates the principle of non-combatant immunity, which is the same reason why terrorism is morally wrong; torture leaves permanent damage to both the tortured and the torturer, and thus, is morally indefensible; the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario is a highly flawed thought experiment with virtually no real-world relevance; torture is a very poor tool of intelligence-gathering and can even be counter-productive; sociologically and historically, exceptions to the prohibition on torture have always led to its widespread use in non-exceptional cases and have undermined the moral community and the respect for human rights more generally; and its formal legal adoption by a democratic society, as advocated by Alan Dershowitz for example, would entail moral practices that are incompatible with liberal norms and rights, such as torture-training for interrogators and doctors, medical support for torture sessions, research and development in non-lethal torture and the manufacture of torture equipment and torture facilities, among others. (370)

Richard Jackson, Language, policy and the construction of a torture culture in the war on terrorism Review of International Studies (2007), 33, 353–371


This concept of homo sacer allows us to understand the numerous calls to rethink the basic elements of contemporary notions of human dignity and freedom that have been put out since 11 September. Exemplary here is Jonathan Alter’s Newsweek article ‘Time to Think about Torture’ (5 November 2001), with the ominous subheading: ‘It’s a new world, and survival may well require old techniques that seemed out of the question.’ After flirting with the Israeli idea of legitimising physical and psychological torture in cases of extreme urgency (when we know a terrorist prisoner possesses information which may save hundreds of lives), and ‘neutral’ statements like ‘Some torture clearly works,’ it concludes:

“We can’t legalise torture; it’s contrary to American values. But even as we continue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we’ll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that’s hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty.”

The obscenity of such statements is blatant. First, why single out the WTC attack as justification? Have there not been more horrible crimes in other parts of the world in recent years? Secondly, what is new about this idea? The CIA has been instructing its Latin American and Third World military allies in the practice of torture for decades. Even the ‘liberal’ argument cited by Alan Dershowitz is suspect: ‘I’m not in favour of torture, but if you’re going to have it, it should damn well have court approval.’ When, taking this line a step further, Dershowitz suggests that torture in the ‘ticking clock’ situation is not directed at the prisoner’s rights as an accused person (the information obtained will not be used in the trial against him, and the torture itself would not formally count as punishment), the underlying premise is even more disturbing, implying as it does that one should be allowed to torture people not as part of a deserved punishment, but simply because they know something. Why not go further still and legalise the torture of prisoners of war who may have information which could save the lives of hundreds of our soldiers? If the choice is between Dershowitz’s liberal ‘honesty’ and old-fashioned ‘hypocrisy’, we’d be better off sticking with ‘hypocrisy’. I can well imagine that, in a particular situation, confronted with the proverbial ‘prisoner who knows’, whose words can save thousands, I might decide in favour of torture; however, even (or, rather, precisely) in a case such as this, it is absolutely crucial that one does not elevate this desperate choice into a universal principle: given the unavoidable and brutal urgency of the moment, one should simply do it. Only in this way, in the very prohibition against elevating what we have done into a universal principle, do we retain a sense of guilt, an awareness of the inadmissibility of what we have done. (Slavoj Žižek On torture and terrorism)


Moreover, I am again tempted to conduct a simple mental experiment: let us imagine an Arab newspaper making the case for the torture of an American prisoner – and the explosion of comments about fundamentalist barbarism and disrespect for human rights this would provoke! (Slavoj Žižek Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 104)


It is as if not only the terrorists themselves, but also the fight against them, now has to proceed in a gray zone of legality. We thus have de facto “legal” and “illegal” criminals: those who are to be treated with legal procedures (using lawyers and the like), and those who are outside legality, subject to military tribunals or seemingly endless incarceration.

Mr. Mohammed has become what the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “homo sacer”: a creature legally dead while biologically still alive. And he’s not the only one living in an in-between world. The American authorities who deal with detainees have become a sort of counterpart to homo sacer: acting as a legal power, they operate in an empty space that is sustained by the law and yet not regulated by the rule of law. […]

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.

 (Slavoj Žižek, Knights of the Living Dead, NYTimes.com March 24, 2007 – also available here)