formats back

Proud recipient of the following awards:

Living    |   #terrorism

Can the Use of Torture Be Justified?

By Kira Goldring
 Getty Images: John Moore
*Updated 2023
Officially a thing of the dark ages, torture is still used today. Many prisoners of war are tortured for information, as are suspects in malicious crimes. Yet, according to the Geneva Conventions, “torture, cruel or inhuman treatment and outrages upon personal dignity” is legally prohibited. Although this has been ratified by 194 countries, torture still occurs behind closed doors for a variety of security reasons.
Here are three reasons this strategy is purely abhorrent, and three reasons why there is a justifiable basis for torture.


Torture is abominable, no matter the circumstances


Pointless pain

Torture may be effective at getting people to talk, but it doesn’t mean they’re telling the truth. Take Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a terrorist involved in the 9/11 attacks, who was tortured by the CIA after his capture; his mid-torture “confessions” led to the arrest of many suspected terrorists – all whom were found to be innocent. According to two psychological surveys, people suffering from torture produce unreliable information, and the most effective way to get them to tell the truth is through building rapport. In fact, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence published a report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. After more than five years analyzing 6.3 million pages of documents, they found that the CIA’s enhanced use of interrogation techniques were ineffective in obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.


Slippery slope

The minute the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” is allowed on a prisoner, it’s nearly impossible to draw the line on what constitutes “too much” torture – and there’s no telling how far it will go. The psychological damage that excessive torture can cause a victim is even worse than the physical damage; for example, Amir, a salesman who was brought to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, was forced to remain naked in his cell for days, lay down in human excrement, and howl like a dog while being pulled on a leash. He was eventually let go without being charged, and now suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. No authority figure is equipped to decide what kinds of torture are acceptable without causing irreparable damage.


Entering the animal kingdom

When respectable law enforcement institutions use torture, they risk damaging their hard-earned reputations and moral upstanding. The use of torture is a rejection of a democracy’s loyalty to abiding by societal rules and values. For example, torture directly contradicts the legal right to remain silent, which suspects are afforded when questioned. Citizens in Western countries trust that they’re living in a society where fair treatment and basic respect for human rights are a given. Therefore, when these ideals are compromised by organized government, the “good guys” sink to the level of those who threaten the very principles they are fighting to protect.


Torture is a justifiable last resort


The ends justify the means

Torture is acceptable if it can save the lives of fellow citizens in “ticking-bomb” scenarios.  Whether it’s an issue of national security or the potential death of kidnapped babies and toddlers, torture might be the only means of eliciting crucial information fast enough to rescue the people at risk. Although torture may not be legal, 60-70% of Americans think that torturing suspected terrorists can be a justifiable way of extracting information from them. Imagine if someone with information on the 9/11 attacks were to be captured, and torturing information out of him would have saved the lives of every Twin Tower victim; should his captors refrain from torturing him? The answer seems like a no-brainer.


All’s fair in love and war

In times of war, armies may do whatever is necessary in order to save their country. By the very act of enlisting in military combat, a soldier has agreed to put his life on the line and die for his people if that’s what’s required of him — and suffering from torture can be a facet of that. Basic military training alone, specifically in elite units, can often involve some form of psychological or physical torture by the hands of a soldier’s own army to help strengthen soldiers’ immunity for worst-case scenarios. Such prisoner-of-war training exercises are par for the course when countries are preparing for war. During actual war, all bets are off, and torture is often an unavoidable consequence.


It matters who you’re up against

When facing enemies that don’t subscribe to the rules of democracy and Western morals, governments may have to speak the language of their opponents to get results. Terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda don’t think twice about torturing their captives, and even have a manual to show members exactly what to do. During the Vietnam war, the North Vietnamese government re-purposed the Hoa Lo Prison in order to torture American POWs for information. If suspects (terrorists or otherwise) pose a threat to a nation and play by a different set of rules – rules that include the use of torture – the opposing government may have no choice but to do so as well. In fact, in some cases, torture may even be a deterrent to war, thus saving lives.


The Bottom Line: While a morally defunct and potentially inefficient way of gathering information, there may be good reason to use torture if it means saving lives. What do you think? Are there any scenarios in which using torture can be justifiable?


Write a response...
See what else you’re missing