Should Torture be Justified in any Case?


The word torture comes from a Latin root meaning twisted, and first appeared in Rome in 530 AD. 600 years later, Italian and French courts changed from an accusatory system to a judiciary system, as opposed to the Roman courts, where torture was used to extract information (Green). However, the idea of torture in the courtroom was not rested until the 18th century during the Enlightenment period. Voltaire condemned torture profusely in many of his essays, and from the end of the 18th century into the start of the 19th century, nearly every European country had abolished torture in their statutory law (Green). After the adoption of the Geneva Conventions, torture became condemned completely.

Recently, the debate of torture has been reestablished with the controversy of waterboarding, brought forth by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2004. It was provoked because the definition of torture has allowed interrogators and lawmakers to interpret it in different ways. The set definition is “the infliction of intense physical pain to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure” (Torture). As the definition only mentions physical pain, one could assert that psychological pain, as some argue waterboarding is, does not fall under the restrictions on torture.

The debate of whether torture can be defended in any situation is reliant upon whether the life of an innocent takes precedent over the physical and psychological state of a criminal. The argument that torture is able to be justified revolves around utilitarianism, or the idea that an action is for the greater good. Only within recent centuries have attitudes changed against the use of torture. According to a poll done by the Washington Post, 82% of conservatives in the United States believe that torture can be justified in most cases involving national security. However, with the addition of Article 3 in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the social stigma against torture had been solidified. The UN’s standards show that torture can never be justified, and that the interrogator who committed the act should be fully prepared to face the consequences of doing so in court. Non-Governmental Organizations such as Amnesty International and the World Organization Against Torture, are strong advocates of this viewpoint. Both press for political action against torture. In the United Kingdom, almost 70% are clearly against torture in all cases (Amnesty). Opinions of respected political analysts, as well as studies of each side, will allow the two arguments in regards of torture to be evaluated and assessed suitably.

The perception of temporary pain of a criminal over the perpetual death of an innocent is one found in many arguments of this perspective. It is the thought that the criminal, who has or will do much worse, has a way out of the torture being inflicted upon them in the form of giving up of information that the interrogator needs (Spero). Spero claims that, “Certainly, pain is not the equivalent of life itself, so that even saving one life takes precedence over the pain of the terrorist.” He supports this statement by arguing that a moral person could not stand by under these circumstances, and that most would put the state of their countrymen above that of the terrorist that threatens their lives. Spero asserts that the happenings at Guantanamo Bay are “not torture, but coercion.” He doesn’t defend the uses of interrogation themselves, but rather compares the enhanced interrogation techniques that the United States uses on terrorists to the permanent defacement used in the Muslim world, as well as the point that the purpose behind the former is for information and the latter’s is sadism (Spero). However, Spero has a paragraph that shows his bias in this controversy, calling American liberals “anti-western” and “anti-American.” He also calls those at the New York Times “mentally abnormal.” This bias, as well as the fact that he holds no qualifications to defend the use of torture serves to detract from his argument that torture can be justified.

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In his editorial, Charles Krauthammer cites the possibility of jury nullification in cases where torture occurred, which is usually applied when extenuating circumstances the defendant was under cause the jury to return a verdict that contradicts the facts of the case. The idea that there are specific cases in which jury nullification should be called for is supported by Charles Krauthammer, a known defender of the concept of the ‘ticking time bomb.’ He asserts that there are two cases in which torture can be justified, those being the aforementioned ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario, and a situation in which there is a near guarantee that many innocents will be killed. The ‘ticking time bomb’ is a hypothetical thought experiment that involves the ethics of torture. The experiment first appeared in the 1960’s, and poses the question if someone with knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack should be tortured into giving up that information (). Krauthammer falls on the consequentialist side of the argument, believing that the torture of the person can be justified, especially if innocent lives are at stake. In his opinion editorial in 2009, he states his viewpoint on torture, and attempts to defend it. However, he fails to discern the difference between interrogation and torture, severely discrediting his argument, starting to defend interrogation instead of torture, causing him to fail in proving his point. Krauthammer also calls his second exception to his no-torture rule an example of Catch-22. As the defenders do not know the information they need to be able to stop an act of terrorism from happening, and can’t find that out in time, an interrogator should resort to extremities to deal with the terrorist that acts in extremes (Krauthammer). Krauthammer’s credibility as the previous Chief Resident in Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and his Masters Degree in Psychology does help his credibility on the subject of torture, and thus his argument as a whole.

At this time, there is no one arguing for the removal of laws against torture. John McCain, a prisoner of war in the Vietnamese War and a current Senator of Arizona, believes, “I don’t believe this scenario requires us to write into law an exception to our treaty and moral obligations that would permit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. To carve out legal exemptions to this basic principle of human rights risks opening the door to abuse as a matter of course, rather than a standard violated truly in extremis.” This is another example of a case where jury nullification would be a viable solution. Rather, there are those that believe that torture is inescapable, though still morally unjust. One such is Bruce Anderson, a British political columnist and an advocate of torture. He wrote an editorial for The Independent in 2010, arguing that Britain has a duty to torture terrorists. Anderson says that “men cannot be angels” in the case of torture, and explains that, “However repugnant we may find torture, there are worse horrors, such as the nuclear devastation of central London, killing hundreds of thousands of people and inflicting irreparable damage on mankind’s cultural heritage.” He defends this statement by painting torture as the lesser of two evils, and claims that Britain is ensuring their own destruction by not gathering the information needed to prevent a terrorist attack. He also asserts that the best way to garner this information is through torture (Anderson). Anderson continues, floundering for an answer from when he was asked about a hypothetical situation by British liberal Sydney Kentridge about what Anderson would do when a hardened terrorist would not divulge the information needed. His answer was, “Torture the wife and children.” This answer on how he would break a terrorist shows to be hypocritical of his previous statement. This, and also that he has no specific qualifications on this subject severely discredits his argument.

The perception that torture does not work as a means of extracting accurate information is an old principle dating back to the 18th century. It is the idea that if one were to torture for information, at some point the person would say anything for the pain to stop. Rupert Stone asserts that torture is at best ineffective to gather information. To support this, he cites Shane O’Mara, the author of Why Torture Doesn’t Work, saying”torture can produce false information by harming those areas of the brain associated with memory.” An experiment conducted by Charles Morgan in 2006 had soldiers undergo stressful, but typical, means of coercion. At the end of the trial, “they exhibited a remarkable deterioration in memory” (Stone).  One of his interviewees, Glenn Carle, an interrogator with the CIA comments on the subject, “Information obtained under duress is suspect and polluted from the start and harder to verify.” He speaks about his experience in interrogating terrorists, and how those who were under stress previously before he tried to interrogate them were more likely to give false information. However, he admitted that he was not sure if it was because of memory impairment or to stop the stressful conditions, which has the potential to weaken his argument. Regardless, he asserts that torture can lead to false confessions (Stone). A letter to Frontline PBS from Michael Nowacki, a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army also agrees with the idea of false information. He argues that using false information gathered from previous torturees can cause innocent people to be tortured for information they do not know about. As an interrogator, he found that 95% of the people being put under these conditions were innocent, and that “most of these cases came from false statements by informants” put under torture (Nowacki).

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The thought that torture can create propaganda for terrorist groups has recently been spurred by the American Air Force Major under the pseudonym Matthew Alexander. He was one of the lead interrogators tasked with finding the location of the Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was the head of Al-Qaeda at the time. In 2008, he wrote How to Break a Terrorist, which detailed his accounts of how he managed to garner the information needed. He commented on his belief that highly coercive interrogation techniques have not helped the United States in the past, and how interrogating the informant with “confidence-building approaches” led him to the location of Zarqawi (Alexander). Alexander claims that by stooping to torture, America would be pushing more people to Al Qaeda, thus being counterproductive. He supports this by explaining that the people he had fought against “state that the number one reason they had decided to pick up arms and join Al Qaeda was the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the authorized torture and abuse at Guantánamo Bay.” He asserts that the short term gains of torture would be overshadowed by the long term losses (Alexander). He quotes Alberto Mora in his interview, a General Counsel of the U.S. Navy. Mora comments that main causes of “U.S. combat deaths in Iraq” due to the “recruiting insurgent fighters into combat” are “Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.”

This idea is also supported by John Hutson, a retired Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy, who asserts in a debate about torture run by  that there was a reason the Nazis surrendered to the Americans, the ones they knew would treat them somewhat fairly, versus the Russians, who unashamedly tortured their people for information in World War 2. He also tries to support the argument by also citing the first Iraqi War: “In the first Iraq war, tens of thousands of Iraqis surrendered to us because they knew that they would be treated decently. My friends, they’re not surrendering to us anymore” (Hutson). There are large amounts of bias here, not only because he is stating his opinion but also that he is trying to convince the audience of the debate the torture is not necessary to gain information.

After assessing the arguments for both positions on the controversy of torture, I could only morally agree with the idea that torture is unable to be justified. It is a practice that is hard to condone, as most enhanced interrogation techniques are close or could be considered torture. Henry Porter, attempting to combat the aforementioned Anderson summarizes the idea, “It is preposterous for him to suggest that Elizabethan society has anything to tell societies that come after the enlightenment and the birth of the age of universal rights. It’s as stupid as citing the Vikings or Visigoths to excuse behaviour in the 21st century.” There are many constrictions on interrogation as well as governments in general to prevent the use of torture; the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Geneva Conventions,  as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example. However, I would like to think myself not naive enough to think that torture will not happen, no matter the rarity of the cases, as the research of my paper concludes. I maintain the idea that torture is a horrible application, though I have to find myself agreeing with Senator John McCain; that torture should not be a permanent exception to the law, but one “violated in extraordinary circumstances,” and as Krauthammer said, that a torturer should be fully prepared to face the consequences, no matter the circumstances. However, it is necessary for this topic to be researched much more for the sanctions of under what cases should torture be justified. Overall, the justification of torture is an idea that cannot be applied to all cases. Each detail needs to be thoroughly investigated, and even then, every case has different circumstances that could allow torture to be or prevent torture from being justified. Thus, it is impossible to fully say that torture can or cannot be justified.

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Works Cited

Alexander, Matthew. “”The American Public has a Right to Know That They Do Not couldillHave to Choose Between Torture and Terror”: Six questions for Matthew coulillllAlexander, author of How to Break a Terrorist.” Harper’s Magazine. 18 December coulillll2008.

“Amnesty poll finds 29% say torture can be justified.” British Broadcasting Channel. 13 couldillMay 2014,

Anderson, Bruce. “Bruce Anderson: We not only have a right to use torture. We have a couilllllduty.” The Independent. 15 February 2010,

Goldman, Adam. “New poll finds majority of Americans think torture was justified after couldil9/11 attacks.” Washington Post. 16 December 2014,

Green, Camilla. “History of Torture.” The Justice Campaign,

Krauthammer, Charles. “The Use of Torture and What Nancy Pelosi Knew.” Washington couldillPost. 1 May 2009,

, Jean. “Les Centurions.” Penguin Classics, December 1960. ****

Nowacki, Michael. “Join the Discussion: The Torture Question.” Frontline PBS.

Spero, Aryeh. “It’s Not Torture and It Is Necessary.” Human Events, 16 January 2007,

Roth, Kenneth. “Torture: Does it make us safer? Is it ever OK?” Human Rights Watch, couldill2005,

Stone, Rupert. “Science Shows that Torture Doesn’t Work and is Counterproductive.” couldillNewsweek. 8 May 2016,

“Torture: The Definition of Torture.” Merriam-Webster,

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This is not to say that interrogators that have used torture for information are allowed to be forgiven automatically. There is a general consensus between both perspectives that the inflictor must go to court and be prepared to be punished for his actions, as torture is still against the law. However, the distinction is found in the idea of jury nullification. It occurs when a jury returns a verdict of Not Guilty despite concrete proof or the accepted belief that the defendant has committed the crime they are on trial for. When applied to torture, jury nullification occurs when the extenuating circumstances that the interrogator was placed under allow the act to be justified, and therein lies the controversy.

Maybe combine these two paragraphs? Hutson doesn’t matter as much as Alexander, and you could do bias for each of them then

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