Can torture be justified?
Imagine your family is being held hostage. They are hidden in a secret location inside a chamber slowly filling with water, and you have somehow managed to capture one of the men responsible for their disappearance. You do know time is of the essence, and you have very few options. In this scenario, would you resort to torture to get your information? If you did, would you feel morally justified in your actions?
We’ve all been presented with the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario as a way of rationalizing torture. Sure, if the stakes are this high, and information is vital, any human being under duress would not hesitate to extract information from someone, even if this meant torture. However, these scenarios take many factors for granted that, once examined, question the assumptions we make in this circumstance; what kind of information are we going to extract?
Let’s use the same scenario above, but let’s add more complexity. Yes, you’ve managed to capture one of the kidnappers, but how can you know what level of involvement this person has? In the perfect scenario, you know for a fact the person in your custody knows with 100% certainty where your family is located, but how often is this true in real life? The act of torturing someone is designed to try and obtain information from a person, but there’s no indication information told under duress is accurate, given the fact you have no way of determining lies from truth. Let’s put this another way; if you were to torture a person who may or may not know where your family was located, how could you determine if the information you were given was true?
If that’s not entirely clear to you, imagine a much more different scenario. One of your friends asks to borrow your car, and help him run a few errands. You take him to the hardware store, and lend him a bit of money for supplies. He drops you home and says he’ll bring the car back in a few days. Later that night, someone breaks into your house, kidnaps you, and brings you into a small and dark chamber. They claim you are a conspirator in the kidnapping and torture of a mother and her two children. The interrogators are convinced you know the whereabouts of their location. Because they are pressed for time, they have decided to extract as much information as possible from you. They have been told they are to torture you until you crack.
You might think your kidnappers would be willing to believe you you have no idea where they are being held, but they are convinced you know something. No amount of pleading or begging makes them stop, and each hour that goes by, the interrogators get increasingly desperate. The pain is so great, you would be willing to say anything to make it go away, but what can you tell them they do not already know? In that case, you would tell them anything you thought they would want to hear. Since they already have made up their mind, all you need to do is tell them what they want to hear. It’s the only way to make them stop. Of course, during this entire time, all you can give them is false leads.
During the Inquisition, women suspected of being witches were regularly tortured. They were made to confess they had been practicing black magic, and there was nothing these women could say to make these men change their minds. In the end, many of these women actually began believing they were indeed witches. Their only option was to tell the priests exactly what they had already concluded, if only to end their misery.
Now, before you try and tell me there is still a good chance that torture can garner information out of people, consider the idea all of this is actually a smokescreen for the true purpose of torture. The act of torture is not primarily to gain information. It is used as psychological warfare. It is, in a sense, a deterrent against activities the powers that be consider seditious. It is used all over the world to ensure the population does not revolt. This is the use that most suits torture. Information is only the secondary benefit, usually done as a way of locating and torturing other subversives.
Although the scenario I mentioned might sound as though torture is morally justifiable, in truth it represents the last in a long series of events. Was there a way of preventing this situation from evolving? Proper law enforcement and good investigative methods prevent the ‘doomsday’ scenario from even being a possibility. The truth is most of the time, in most circumstances, there is no moral authority to conduct such a violation of a person’s basic human rights.