On Pain of Torture

Vic Mackey
Bald, stocky, irascible, morally conflicted, anger management issues...I can relate to why women found him irresistibly sexy and charismatic.

Well, it’s what everyone is talking about, so what the Heck.

Did we get bin Laden’s location as a direct or indirect result of torture? Would you support torture if you “knew” it would lead to bin Laden’s capture or demise? Is torture justifiable in certain circumstances, even if your own moral code supposedly goes against it?

It’s a question that’s permeating our entire culture currently, as we engage in a War on Terror that features a nationless enemy – or, at least one without an official home – a global threat and a zealotry that is hard to understand for secularized cultures. People who have been raised in a tradition of “Do Unto Others” find themselves suddenly justifying acts they found ethically distasteful at a minimum, due to extreme circumstances.

In the wake of statements that the death of Osama bin Laden was fruit born of a first seed of information spilled from “enhanced interrogation” techniques, the conversation has heated again. Guantanamo Bay remains open, even though it was sworn to be shuttered by the President while he was campaigning.

Everyone is forced to consider, is torture at least “sometimes” justifiable?

An awful lot of our entertainment has this question in there. LOST had an episode where they tortured Sawyer because they thought he had information, which of course he didn’t. The Shield featured at least one torture scene per season, with Vic Mackey clearly supporting the idea that the ends justified the means. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight very much examined the question of what’s a reasonable limit, and is it ever acceptable to abandon it?

For the Record

I oppose torture. My moral upbringing, my religious faith and my own sense of ethics prohibit me from supporting it. But I think that the question, “Do you support torture?”, is at best a misleading question in the current times.

The better question is, “How do you define torture?”

There have been reports that the US has employed sleep deprivation techniques and playing I Love You (the Barney® theme song) repeatedly as a way to “break” prisoners. The only reaction I can have to that tactic is, “SFW?” Have a kid or two, not only will this happen but you’ll come to enjoy Barney® in some small way, even if the thought threatens you and you have to jump on the popular meme that you can’t like Barney. At least you don’t have to worry about your kids when they’re watching, and he keeps his lessons concise.

But to be honest, I’m also OK with psychological games. It’s like poker. I might not have a winning hand, but if I can I’ll bluff my way through and convince you that I do. I don’t consider it torture to disorient someone and trick them into spilling something, or pushing them to a mental limit that cracks their resistance.

Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon
He will tear out your endochrine system.

But what limits do you place on it? Obviously mind games won’t work on the fanatical or the brainwashed.

So is it even possible to have a “restrained” torture guidebook, where in Situation X, it’s okay for Gary Busey to break out the car battery and Al Leong?

Slippery Slope

Everyone’s hypothetical is, “What if someone kidnapped your kids?” That’s an unfair argument, because emotionally you can justify anything. If someone touches my kids, I could wind up justifying a nuclear attack on their grandparents. The challenge is that, as was once said by someone wiser than I, we are a nation of laws, not men. The laws are in place to keep me from going after someone who has personally wronged me in a vengeful manner. I acknowledge that if someone had my kids, I’d bring the Wrath of God upon them and they’d better pray that someone stood between me and them.

And you become a monster/So the monster will not break you.
Peace on Earth, U2

A scene from Taken
I not only related to the movie, I chuckled.

Seriously, there’s a reason that every father (especially one with daughters) loved the movie Taken. Because we can completely relate to popping those safeties off to save our little princess. (Of course, my daughter isn’t going to be stupid enough to get into that mess. Sharing a cab with a stranger in a foreign country with no resources? Daddy’s going to have a smarter girl than that, or I’ve failed.)

You can also use “results” to justify a whole lot of sins, or to reason out a lot of actions to “redress” sins against you. I don’t think that the torture discussion is even really about torture, but about allowing ourselves to relax our standards. That requires a dedication to moral relativism and as I’ve established in previous blogs, I’m no fan of it. As a believer in the Slippery Slope of ethics and morals, taking even a tentative step is a huge risk.


When things result in the end of an evil man, when the world arguably becomes a better place as a result of questionable actions, it’s hard not to excuse a lapse from an emotional perspective. The challenge is to be able to look at emotional situations in a detached, logical fashion.

Is it possible to do that? When the threat is so terrible and ever-present?

I think we can, but the rules must be very clear and we have to be willing to tolerate extreme measures within a reasonable definition.

But what’s that definition, and who gets to set it?


11 thoughts on “On Pain of Torture

  1. The conversation only seems to be “heating up” with Fox News and other like-minded folks. This serves to justify their past support for torture and move the conversation away from the fact that Obama killed OBL whereas Bush/Cheney did not. It reveals a real insecurity on their part. Strange, because Bush got KSM which is as important as OBL. They should just move on.

    1. All due respect, but Panetta sort of kicked the ball off in his interview with Brian Williams (NBC), there were posts on HuffingtonPost about it as recently dated as May 6 – and HuffPo is not exactly a conservative mouthpiece, and in a piece that aired on MSNBC (‘Lean Leftward’) last night where they interviewed Eric O’Neill, they asked him if he thought torture worked. So to try to box it in as a discussion being held only by people who disagree with you politically, is an absurd reduction.

  2. I’m agreed with you: I can’t quite reconcile how I feel about this. But I will tell you one thing….anyone that harbors a distrust towards the government should think long and hard before suspending that fear for the sake of this issue. The “slippery slope” argument we’ve had in the past is – in theory – very, very applicable here.

  3. The reality is that torture does work. The subject can lie the first time and the interrogator can always come back for more to get the correct information. Yes, in some instances, the subject may not have the information we are looking for at all, but not doing anything certainly isn’t going to extract any information from anyone.

    That said, it all depends on how we are defining “torture,” but I also agree that it is unnecessary to use “torture” methods that would permanently maim or kill a subject. There are plenty of methods, like water boarding or playing the Barney music at all hours of the day, that can be used without being lethal.

  4. John, you may be right. It’s hard to categorize all those discussing the issue. As for whether torture works, I don’t know. Would KSM have given up that info without torture?, I don’t know. When they asked him about that courier, he said something like, “Oh that guy is a nobody. Don’t bother with him.” Doesn’t seem like something extracted by torture. But again, I don’t know if it works or not. Regardless of whether it works or not, the torture doesn’t fit well with the values of a democratic society.

  5. Ok, I was totally wrong saying it’s a Fox News et al thing. A google news search on “torture’ yields results from everywhere. *Damon Fodge FAIL*.

  6. The problem isn’t the question of torture, but, as you note, what defines torture. Ultimately, to get information that you’re confident in, it will require some measure of assurance of cooperation. You don’t get that by beating the crap out of somebody or threatening them with death. If somebody is disciplined and resistant, instead of cooperation, you’ll get increased resolve.

    To get cooperation from such persons, you need to break them down so that they either don’t realize that they are cooperating or don’t care anymore. Ultimately it is psychological, but the means to get there are varied.

    All interrogation is based on this: getting an unwilling subject to cooperate. What makes it torture? What crosses the line? Is that line ever not arbitrary? And if it is arbitrary, then isn’t it ultimately just a matter of convenience?

    I don’t think it is, but I think you make the determination based upon the circumstances and disposition of the person from whom you interrogate as opposed to the quality of information you want to get. The ends don’t justify the means. The means are employed as necessary depending upon the actions and disposition of the subject.

    In other words, how willful has the subject been in inflicting harm on others? And to what extent was there harm done? The higher the answer these questions, the more aggressive tactics are reasonable and allowable.

    This is not moral relativism. It is taking action in proportion to actions committed in order to prevent further catastrophe.

    1. I think that’s really insightful but my concerns always raise here:

      “Is that line ever not arbitrary?”

      This is why I think things need to be well-codified with regards to torture. Because societal standards change. And if we keep the line arbitrary, then it’s going to move to a very bad place – quicker than it otherwise would. I think it’s inevitable that we get there (I say this with sadness) but if we’re “too arbitrary” we just get there quicker.

  7. I, too, have that concern, but I feel like just because the standard shifts from case to case doesn’t mean that it is arbitrary. I would support some sort of regulations that guide this mindset.

    I also feel that it is reasonable to treat terrorists differently from criminals. Bin Laden did not commit crimes so much as he waged a war. But it was not a war between states. Neither the US Constitution nor Geneva Conventions apply directly to terrorist detainees as they are neither foreign soldiers nor US citizens. Principles of integrity and humanity demand a certain standard to be applied, but that standard is not the same as criminal protections and prisoners of war.

    1. I agree that terrorists should be treated differently from ‘ordinary’ criminals, especially in the case where the terrorists are not US citizens. But how then, to treat Anwar al-alauqi? He is a US citizen, but a terrorist. Unless he does something to lose his citizenship, then he gets treated like McVeigh, while KSM gets treated differently. Again, I agree that it’s a case-by-case basis, but there are certainly some interesting situations that can come up if/when the terrorists originate more from within than without.

      The relaxing of standards I was envisioning had more to do with year-by-year, standards as a whole in our culture. Basically, once we go to point X, the next step is Y, etc., and then we hit that sweet spot where we don’t even recognize anything about ourselves anymore because we can justify a whole host of things as lines start to get more and more blurred.

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