Justifying Torture

From the June 6, 1997 Issue

For years now the Israeli security forces have been using torture as a method of interrogation and, thanks to the lack of space in Israeli jails, as an alternative to prison sentences. Last month, a United Nations committee condemned Israel for permitting such methods. According to human-rights groups, between 1988 and 1994 Israeli security forces detained over 100, 000 Palestinian suspects, one-third of whom were violently interrogated and often severely beaten. To put flesh on these statistics, one repentant Israeli officer reports going into a village, rounding up over a dozen Palestinian youths, taking them to a nearby field, and breaking their arms and legs (see James Ron's "Rabin's Two Legends," Index on Censorship, September-October 1996). Gilad Anat, a cog in the harrowing machine, recalls: 

When we were driving toward the field the said to make certain that you hit the Arabs on the kneecap, since that was the way to make sure the leg would break. When it was over the Palestinians were left lying in the field, and the soldiers drove off in silence. I was surprised that none of the soldiers protested… 

Security personnel report that when they are instructed o try and beat the truth or spirit out of someone, the only restrictions they are given is, "Don't kill them," or at least not their bodies, for as Elain Scarry showed in her minor classic, The Body in Pain, torture can kill the spirit. When people are brought to a pitch of pain where they are willing to do anything to be released, including turning their loved ones over to their torturers, the body may endure but henceforth, "all is but toys; renown and grace are dead." 

In a recent highly publicized case the Israelis did kill the body of a suspect, which prompted the Israeli High Court to place an injunction against the use of physical pressure as a method of interrogation. A day later the court acceded to a request from the legal council for the security forces to suspend the injunction, so that they could put the screws to someone whom they claimed to suspect of planning a terrorist action.

Whenever the issue of violent interrogation has come up in Israel, people of practical wisdom maintain that the use of force is necessary to extract information about terrorist activities that will in the end save the lives of many potential victims. In fact Andre Rosenthal, the lawyer who pressed for the suspension of the injunction, said: "No enlightened nation would agree that hundreds of people should lose their lives because of a rule saying torture is forbidden." Upon hearing that one of the High Court judges was playing Pilate and would not offer a ruling either for or against the use of physical force, Rosenthal fulminated, "That's the most immoral and extreme position I have heard in my life .... [A] thousand people are about to be killed and you propose that we don't do anything." In the view of Rosenthal and many other Israelis, when you have someone in custody who may be able to tell you the whereabouts of a bomb that is ticking toward the loss of many innocent lives, it is the moral obligation of the state to do anything necessary to make him speak. One would like to think that if citizens of a democracy really grasped what it was like to be beaten to the rim of death by servants of the state, they would rise up against such practices. Apparently not. Israelis know what is going on, and many of them either put their hands over their eyes or, like Rosenthal, have no qualms about the beatings. 

But it is one thing not to protest and it is another legally to tolerate breaking heads. Or is it? While many Israelis are appalled by the use of violence, others argue that they are just being honest about a practice that is common to every police force in the world. Still others maintain that when the use of physical force is acknowledged by the state, it can be monitored and limited, but that when the use of hoods, prongs, and electric prods is covert, there is no mechanism to rein in professional pain makers. 
 

But it is one thing not to protest and it is another legally to tolerate breaking heads. Or is it? While many Israelis are appalled by the use of violence, others argue that they are just being honest about a practice that is common to every police force in the world.

One of the most popular strategies in teaching ethics courses is to prepare slides of each of the major moral paradigms, for example, divine-command theory, virtue ethics, deontological ethics, feminist ethics, or utilitarianism. With this approach, one points out the appeal and liabilities of each paradigm. For example, utilitarianism is the view that we are obligated to do whatever promotes the greatest good for the greatest number of people. As with the other moral lenses, there are a number of cracks in the utilitarian position. The most commonplace objection to utilitarianism is that it would seem to commend and command acts which we would otherwise judge to be unjust. For instance, if by routinely torturing criminal suspects one could extract information which would promote national security, then, according to the utilitarian position, we ought to torture criminal suspects. However, most of us believe that individuals have rights which would be trammeled by a policy of torture first and ask questions later. Most of us would consider the utilitarian notion that it is permissible to torture individuals for the good of the community as an argument against utilitarianism. Indeed, we would consider anyone who floated a bill to sanction torture to be "morally challenged." Just such a bill has been drawn up by Israeli legislators, but has not yet been submitted to Parliament. 

The debate over sanctioning torture, or as some would prefer to euphemize it "the use of physical force," has been burbling for quite some time now in Israel. As the liberal Israeli magazine Challenge tells it, proponents of interrogation by ordeal invariably invoke the "ticking bomb scenario'--that is, the situation in which a terrorist action has been planned and a suspect is in custody who could provide the information that would stop the action. The suspect will not cooperate, and the hour and minute hands of the clock are circling, seemingly faster and faster. According to Roni Ben Efrat (Challenge, No. 41) and others, it does not take a ticking bomb to get either the Israeli or the even less-discriminating forces of the Palestinian Authority to start shaking people's heads (a common form of violent interrogation) to the brink of death and once in a while over the brink. Just the same, Efrat argues that even in the ticking bomb situation it is unlikely that torture will work: 

For it is a cardinal assumption of this scenario that the prisoner is one of the two or three people who know where the bomb is and when it will go off. He knows, therefore, exactly how long he has to hold out. Being dedicated he will mislead his interrogator until it's too late--- or until his colleagues have changed the plan. 

Thus, it could be argued that torture should be prohibited not because it is inherently evil but rather because it is not efficacious. After all, some are able to remain silent even while their very ability to communicate is being melted in pain. Others will spill misleading beans of information. And heaven only knows what someone will say who lacks the information that others are trying to torture out of him. Finally, one could viably argue that, while torturing suspects may save lives in the short run, adopting a policy of torture will imbrute the whole society and eventually produce more pain than it spares. From a utilitarian perspective, whether or not violent interrogation is anathema or obligatory is an empirical question. But is the utilitarian perspective the right one?

In the intellectual badminton that occurs in ethics courses one player will inevitably serve the idea that, even if it were possible to save five people by euthanizing and harvesting the organs of a reprobate one, it would still be wrong to kill the one to save the many. The riposte is usually, "But suppose it were a million against one." At this juncture, feminists such as Nel Noddings complain that only a man would think of testing a theory by flinging far-fetched examples against it. For Noddings and others, decontextualized thought experiments are unilluminating. And yet I think those of us who believe that murder and torture- are inherently wrong would have to concede that murder and torture would remain wrong even when the consequences of refraining from murder and torture are murderous. Socrates taught that, for our soul’s sake, it is better for the individual himself to suffer an injustice than it is to do an injustice, better for him to be killed by a terrorists than it is to kill innocent people in an attempt to prevent being killed by terrorists. And yet this begs the utilitarian claim that notions of justice were developed by humans to serve human ends and that any course of action that leads to the inhuman consequence of putting the interests of an individual above the community is necessarily unjust. 

Though the use of torture on prisoners of war is prohibited by the Geneva Convention, Israeli advocates of the use of physical force base their claim on what they take to be their extraordinary security situation. That is, they give the impression that if matters were otherwise, if there were no cloud of terrorism hanging over their heads, they would not sue for tolerance of torture.

I suspect that when the Israeli proponents of violent interrogation read that Americans find their practices morally repugnant, they will mutter words to the effect, "Americans would think differently if they had to worry about their children being killed by a bomb on the way to school!" No doubt that is true, which only goes to show that the horde of us are weak vessels who cannot help but feel and act as though the need to secure the safety of our own children trumps all other considerations--including the needs of other people to protect their children. During the first seventy years of this century, over four thousand African-Americans were lynched in the United States. When these killings took place there were, no doubt, white people who had the impulse to resist mob violence, only they resisted that impulse because they feared putting their own children in harm's way. 

Though the use of torture on prisoners of war is prohibited by the Geneva Convention, Israeli advocates of the use of physical force base their claim on what they take to be their extraordinary security situation. That is, they give the impression that if matters were otherwise, if there were no cloud of terrorism hanging over their heads, they would not sue for tolerance of torture. And yet, if situation ethics is good for the Israeli it must also be good for the Palestinian. If the notion that what is hideous in one circumstance is acceptable or even commendable in another holds for people on one side of the Jordan, it must also hold for people on the other. All Israelis condemn acts of terrorism. However, by the logic of their own implicit argument, those who want the state to bless instruments of torture would have to agree that, if the Palestinians can show good reason for believing that the only way to protect their own lives and the lives of their children is to engage in acts of terrorism, then the Israelis could not condemn, with moral consistency, the planting of bombs on buses. 

Indeed, so far as the Palestinians are concerned, the fact that the State of Israel is poised to give its legal blessing to acts which, if committed against a pet, would suffice to have the owner jailed, is very good reason for Palestinians to believe that in their relations with the Israelis no act should be morally proscribed. The very criterion that some Israelis invoke to sanction beating after beating after beating can also be invoked to sanctify the very acts which the beatings are intended to suppress.

Gordon Marino is professor of philosophy and director of the Hong/Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His most recent book is The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age (HarperOne).

Also by this author
The Pascal of the North

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Culture
Books