No Torture. No Exceptions.


The above sketch by Thomas V. Curtis, a former Reserve M.P. sergeant, is of an Afghan detainee, Dilawar, who was taken into U.S. custody on December 5, 2002, and died five days later. Dilawar was deprived of sleep and chained to the ceiling of his cell—techniques that the Bush administration has refused
to outlaw for use by the CIA. Further, his legs were, according to a coroner, “pulpified” by repeated blows. Later evidence showed that Dilawar had no connection to the rocket attack for which he’d been apprehended.

One of the most important tenets of my teaching philosophy is to make the classroom a safe forum for diverse and competing points of view. In order to facilitate this, I believe that it is necessary, as much as is humanly possible, to refrain from promoting my own views and importing my personal biases into what I teach. I will temporarily put that tenet aside in order to address the topic of torture.

The United States government tortures. That’s a difficult sentence for me to write. The human rights organization for which I worked in Croatia during the 1990s–the Croatian Helsinki Committee–was at the forefront of the effort in that country to stop human rights abuses, such as torture, that the Tudjman-led regime was committing during those years. I would often find myself in debate with individuals–soldiers, police officers, government officials, religious leaders, and average citizens–about the human rights abuses the government was committing. My argument was basically, “we (in Croatia) are being hypocritical if, on the one hand, we claim that we are superior–in some civilizational sense (this is argument that was made, though I don’t adhere to it)–to the Serbs because we are more “Western” and more democratic, yet we allow our government (with our support) to commit absolutely horrific human rights abuses. We should try to mimic the behavior, then, of Western democracies such as Canada and the United States rather than the abhorrent policies of the Milosevic regime.”

My interlocutors would usually reply, “but, Canada’s, and America’s government would be doing the same thing if 1/3 of their territory was under foreign occupation.” I replied that they would not. I have to apologize to every single one of those people, because they were right and I was wrong. And it didn’t even take foreign occupation for the US government to begin to undermine the fundamental tenets upon which democracy and the respect for human dignity are based. My attitude towards torture is nicely captured by the title of a recent series on torture put out by the magazine Washington Monthly–“No Torture. No Exceptions.”

We’ll take a look at the debate on torture near the end of the semester (in intro to IR) and we’ll see that the strongest moral claim for torture comes from a consequentialist (or utilitarian) perspective; this is why the “ticking bomb scenario” is customarily trotted out to refute deontological arguments. I will argue (and I encourage you to try to prove me wrong) that there are consequentialist reasons for not torturing. I encourage you to read the essays in “No Torture. No Exceptions.” (In fact, if you’re in intro to IR, you’ll have to.)

6 thoughts on “No Torture. No Exceptions.”

  1. Nice response. The only moral argument that is even slightly tenable is the argument from consequentialism. As you have argued, and many others in the Washington Monthly also argue, (and even Alan Dershowitz acknowledges) the only remotely plausible consequentialist argument comes in the form of the “ticking bomb scenario.” Even here, there are strong arguments to suggest that torture is not an effective means to get the job done.

  2. There are two ways that I would respond to the statement made by Michael Goldfarb.
    The first answer is that America should hold itself to higher standards than that of terrorists. As my mother also says and I’m sure many other mothers say as well, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” This old maxim, rings truth when it comes to the issue of international morality. Torturing and “slapping” around terrorists are not methods that America, the land of liberty, should endorse. Simply, if America wants to maintain a morsel of moral high ground against terrorists who hate us, then torture only hurts our cause.
    The second answer I would give Michael Goldfarb would address the question of torture purely on the idea of effectiveness. The question that addresses the moral component of terrorism, has always been; is it worth risking the lives of several innocent men, in order to protect a larger number of people from harm. People like Michael Goldfarb would say that it is. However, the same question can be turned on its head to say; how many innocent lives must be hurt before it is considered not worth the protection that we are seeking. To illustrate the situtation of post-911, the ACLU believes, based off the number of personal testimonies, that the number of detentions are between three and five thousand.(1) This statistic does not necessarily mean that torture was used, but the point is that innocent lives are being harmed because of the mentality of people like Goldfarb. Supreme Court cases like Rasul et al v. Bush, Hamdi v. Rumsfield, and Rumsfield v. Padilla all illustrate the injust way that the current administration has delt with terrorism. I might be digressing now, but the point that I would attempt to make to Goldfarb is that tortures means do not outweigh the gains. If more lives are hurt in the process of trying to save lives, then that just means more destruction not security.

    1.ACLU. “Safe and Free Restore our Civil Liberties.” ACLU, 125 Broad Street, 18th Floor New York, NY 10004

  3. Interesting comment. How would you respond to those like Michael Goldfarb who argue that “compared to the horrific scenes of 9/11, ‘slapping around some terrorists’ is nothing.”

  4. In addressing the issue of torture, I think that government officials and the public often separate themselves from the actual cruelty of torture. If you were to ask the average post-911 America whether they think Guantanamo Bay interrogations is the right course of action in order to prevent another terrorist attack, I believe that most of them would say yes. Similarly, government officials are too caught up with trying to create a “Fortress America” and promote 100% national security that they forget fundamental human values. No matter who you are, hearing testimonies of torture makes you feel utterly disgusted. After watching the story of the German man in class, it is infuriating to see the levels of injustice. Personally, the worst and most scary thing about hearing the stories of those who were tortured, is the knowledge that countless of unknown stories have taken place. It is a frightful truth. There are many ways that toture is ineffective, one way that has only been briefly address in class, is how it affects America’s national image and in result deteriorates America’s diplomatic power. An example of this is the incident of Abu Gharaib. In this situation American soldiers took pictures of toturing Iraqi citizens. This destroyed and debased all moral high ground for America’s intiatives in Iraq. Many analysts argue that Abu Gharaib was a major instigator in the creation of the insurgency. The same insurgency that America has no answer to deal with and has prolonged America’s engagement in Iraq. This is just one example from a Rule-consequentialist perspective of how torture can’t do anything but harm.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Dana. This is not, and should not be, a partisan issue.

  6. The series of articles etc. that we had to read was really compelling. After reading it I am even more disgusted with the present attitude of the US government which I didn’t think was possible ha. I now have the urge to stage a late 1960s-1970s-esque demonstration to show that we will not stand for torture….but the apathy on this campus brings me back to reality…

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