To Torture or not to Torture?

How far would you go to obtain information from a terrorist suspect? You are certain that the person knows the time and place a bomb is due to explode. You are sure it will be very soon and that there is the possibility of hundreds of casualties. Would you go as far to use the suspects’ child? For example, dangle the child over boiling water[1] and burn various parts of the child’s body until the suspect provided the required information? Or perhaps that’s going to far and merely crushing the child’s testicles[2] would suffice?

Ticking Time Bomb Senario

The situation above is commonly known as the Ticking Bomb Senario and is cited as an intellectual defence for the use of torture by governments and individuals who otherwise claim to be supporters of liberal democracy, individual freedom and human rights.

However, The Ticking Bomb Senario, though an interesting and valid excercise in ethics as well as containing the supposition that torture guarantees reliable results, is in reality just a hypothetical situation. In practise it is impossible to have the sort of certainty assumed by the ‘The Ticking Bomb Senario’.

The arguments in favour of torture are in effect based on variations of the ‘The Ticking Bomb Senario’ theme and are usually aimed at establishling the use of torture as an acceptable method.

Why is torture attractive to its supporters?

To its supporters torture can be an attractive options for several reasons:

  • Torture is a cheap system and quick to implement. A grunt working in Abu Ghraib is a lot cheaper to deploy than a professional interrogator.
  • Low level or no training required, the casual torturer can be instructed remotely in their work.
  • Satisfies an emotional urge for revenge and can have propaganda value in so far that authorities can demonstrate that they are ‘taking the fight’ to the enemy and hurting them.

Is torture reliable?

The two following examples are just a small illustration of the problems that can arise from ‘evidence’ obtained under torture.

The Vase of Soissons

Police in Caen, France, had a game in the 1980’s that they enjoyed playing with prisoners. Victims would be pressurised into signing a confession that they had either stolen or broken the ‘Vase of Soissons’[3]. The evidence of the beatings were masked by punching or kicking at telephone books that were positioned on the prisoners bodies, the thickness of the telephone books reduced the likelihood of bruising. One unfortunate victim confessing after a beating, pleaded mitigating circumstances by stating he hadn’t meant to break the vase!

The giant snowball

A Morroccan prisoner, Ahmed Errachidi (allegedly sold to the USA for $5000 by bounty hunters) while being held in Guantanamo Bay, including three years in solitary, confessed to being Osama bin Laden’s Commanding Officer and that al-Qaeda were about to summon a giant snowball to destroy the Earth[4].

It is not known if or for how long western intelligence agencies scanned the skies for the above mentioned snowball before it was realised that the prisoner had been driven to mental illnes by his torture and imprisonment and was suffering from psychotic delusions.

The cost of torture

Implicit with the use of torture is the assumption of guilty until proven innocent. The victim is assumed to posses the required evidence but are unwilling to give it up.

Torture as a method to gather evidence and intelligence is crude, unreliable, inefficient and counter productive. Torture is of little threat to the dedicated, the brave and the fanatic. Moreso, it carries the inherent danger of evolving into a weapon to intimidate and pacify populations, explaining why dictactors so readily embrace its use.

Torture quite often gains a life of its own and becomes the favoured method of interrogation causing its spread into the local populution. Torture can then result in the opposite of its intention – strengthening the enemy either by aiding recruitment from among the angry and resentful or causing the population to become acquiescent making it easier for the enemy move around and hide when required. The search for evidence inevitably becomes of secondary concern, turning torture into a weapon for population control.

Torture undermines any moral authority and legitamacy of those using it. The macabre irony of the policy of using torture in Iraq was that from the stand point of some of the local population the self-styled liberators morphed into something barely distinguishable from the previous horror of Saddam Hussein.

Torture is first and foremost a political issue. Torture cannot be viewed apart from and in isolation from its political consequences inspite of the efforts of its supporters to present torture as purely a technical question.

The inevitable conclusion is that those who support torture usually and unwittingly end up aiding the enemy they are trying to defeat.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Gary Hollands – July 2009.

Notes and references

1. A method used by interrogators working for Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

2. Doug Cassel, a law professor, in a debate December 1 2008 with John Yoo, a former Justice Department official under George Bush Jnr’s Presidency, challenged, “If the president deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?”. “No treaty”, John Yoo confirmed.

3. The Incident of the Vase at Soissons. After its loss at the battle of Soissons in 486 AD the bishop of Rheims pleaded with Clovis for the return of the Vase.
The Vase was to be part of a division of loot amongst the soldiers using a prize draw, the drawing of lots.
Clovis at the dividing of the loot asked for the vase in addition to his agreed share. All the soldiers agreed to his wish except one who, protesting that the King should receive no more than was due from the drawing of lots, crushed the vase with a battle axe. The remains of the vase were handed to the bishops’ messenger.

A year later at a parading of arms, Clovis recognised the soldier who had destroyed the vase. On the pretext that the soldier was tardily presented Clovis threw the soldiers’ axe to the ground, when the soldier bent to pick up the axe, Clovis crushed the soldiers’ head with his own axe and said “…this is what you did to the vase at Soissons”.

4. Source: