There is a growing debate about whether the use of torture played a critical role in allowing America to obtain information about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. Stories in the New York Times, Time, Haaretz, AP and elsewhere have suggested that it may have. And this in turn has emboldened those who see the use of what is euphemistically called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ as an essential tool in the war against terror. According to the AP report:

The revelation that intelligence gleaned from the CIA’s so-called black sites helped kill bin Laden was seen as vindication for many intelligence officials who have been repeatedly investigated and criticized for their involvement in a program that involved the harshest interrogation methods in U.S. history. ‘We got beat up for it, but those efforts led to this great day,’ said Marty Martin, a retired CIA officer who for years led the hunt for bin Laden.

Or, as Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for George W Bush, has put it,

the crowning achievement of Obama’s presidency came as a direct result of the CIA interrogation program he has denigrated and shut down.

The claims about the importance of torture in the hunt for bin Laden have been challenged by, among others,  Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side, a seminal book on the CIA’s use of torture and rendition, the reporter Brian Beutler and the writer and blogger Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan points to this paragraph from the New York Times report:

Prisoners in American custody told stories of a trusted courier. When the Americans ran the man’s pseudonym past two top-level detainees — the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed; and Al Qaeda’s operational chief, Abu Faraj al-Libi — the men claimed never to have heard his name. That raised suspicions among interrogators that the two detainees were lying and that the courier probably was an important figure.

And he observes that ‘in torturing these two men, interrogators got nothing of substance. In fact, it was only by assuming that these men were lying under torture that the investigation continued.’ As the AP report notes, it was only  subsequently, during normal interrogations that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gave up vital information:

Mohammed did not reveal the names while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic.

But suppose torture had provided vital information about bin Laden’s hiding place. Would that have made ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ acceptable? The answer depends on why one is opposed to torture in the first place. If you dislike torture for pragmatic reasons – because you go through all that trouble and blood and mess and still you don’t have good intelligence – then any evidence that torture has provided important information clearly should make you change your mind. But if you are opposed to torture for more fundamental moral reasons then it would make no difference at all.

The moral case depends not upon whether  torture is or is not an effective means of gleaning information but upon whether treating another human being as a piece of meat, whatever the circumstances, is or is not morally acceptable. The pragmatist – or, more properly, the consequentialist – thinks it acceptable to treat humans as a piece of meat so long as the benefits of doing so are clear. The moral opponent of torture disagrees.

It is easy to oppose torture when it produces no practical results. Virtually everybody does so. After all, only a psychopath would think it worthwhile to inflict pain simply for the sake of it. It is precisely in those cases in which torture appears to bring practical benefits that it is important to take a stand against it. ‘The true test of being anti-torture’, as Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center, put it in a tweet, ‘is opposing it even when it works.’

It is not just in relation to torture that this distinction between pragmatic and moral arguments is important. Many of the practices and procedures underlying the war on terror – extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, control orders, unfettered surveillance, etc – could plausibly be justified on pragmatic grounds. Even if they could, I would still oppose them on moral grounds.  There are certain moral and political principles on which we should not compromise. Defending those principles is one of the reasons for fighting the likes of bin Laden. Betraying such principles by using torture or interning people without any possibility of due process in Guantanamo Bay is to betray the fight against  terrorism.

But what about the ‘ticking bomb scenario’? Suppose a terrorist has planted a bomb that is about to go off and only through torture could we get him to reveal the location. Should we not torture him? This is, of course, an extreme, exceptional scenario and as such not very useful for deriving general principles about ethical attitudes to torture. In any case, as I recently suggested in criticising Sam Harris’ consequentialist defence of torture, all moral codes possess a certain flexibility, and it is quite possible to marry an implacable opposition to torture with an acceptance that in exceptional cases rules may be bent, even broken:

Most people would accept that murder is a moral wrong.  But if a woman in a violent and abusive relationship murders her husband, most would understand her actions, perhaps even accept them as having been necessary, while still deeming murder, and maybe even her specific response, to be morally unacceptable.

This can be as true of torture as of murder. Even though I reject the comparison between torture and collateral damage [a comparison that Harris makes], and even though I regard torture as treating a human being as a piece of meat, I also accept that there may be circumstances – the famous ‘ticking bomb’ scenario, for instance  – in which I would understand why an individual had been treated as a piece of meat.  This does not make torture ethically right, or collapse the moral chasm between torture and collateral damage. Rather it reveals the distinction between ethical norms and pragmatic needs. Those who murder and torture should always have to answer, morally and legally, for their actions. How we judge those actions depends, however, upon the context – the particular circumstances, the intentions of the perpetrator, and so on. Such judgment is as much a matter of wisdom – admittedly, an unfashionable word these days – as of science.

The importance of this distinction between a moral opposition to torture, an opposition that nevertheless allows exceptions in extreme circumstances, and the pragmatic view that one’s attitude to torture should depend upon the results, has been expressed well by Cathy Young in a previous debate about the ethics of torture:

Yes, a ‘no torture’ stance is likely to be qualified with tacit acknowledgment that, under narrow and extreme circumstances, the rules may be bent. That seems vastly preferable to open endorsement of torture. If we start with a ‘thou shalt not torture’ absolute, we are likely to be vigilant about lapses from this commandment, limiting them only to absolute necessity. If we start with the premise that torture is sometimes acceptable, there’s no telling how low we’re going to go on that slippery slope.

And slipping and sliding down the slope is, as Conor Friedersdorf points out, exactly what has been happening in the current debate about bin Laden and torture:

The return of the torture debate is striking because its apologists no longer feel the need to advocate for a narrow exception to prevent an American city from being nuked or a busload of children from dying. In the jubilation over getting bin Laden, they’re instead employing this frightening standard: torture of multiple detainees is justified if it might produce a single useful nugget that, combined with lots of other intelligence, helps lead us to the secret location of the highest value terrorist leader many years later. It’s suddenly our new baseline in our renewed national argument.

The consequence of a pragmatic opposition to torture is not simply that the argument falls if ever torture can be shown as providing useful intelligence. It is also that it can so easily lead to what Friedersdorf has aptly called ‘torture creep’. Torture all too easily becomes ordinary, acceptable, simply another measure on our rational calculus. And a society that allows that to happen is not a society that can call itself civilized.


  1. Karen Deutsch

    Dear Mr. Malik, Your article did deal with the “if your family is being held by terrorists and torture will save them what will you do?” argument. That’s the exceptional case you wrote about. But, if torture is prohibited morally and legally what happens to those folks who decide a situation is ‘exceptional’ and proceed accordingly. Do you imagine that like your abused woman example (and I do believe abused women have been prosecuted for and convicted of murder in spite of circumstances) society will recognize the ‘exception’ and not prosecute?

    • An individual should in most circumstances be prosecuted. That’s the whole point of having a moral and legal opposition to torture. How we judge a particular act depends, though, upon the context. Hence the analogy with the moral and legal injunction against murder.

  2. Charles Vejgman

    I appreciated the current in this piece which was ready to consider torture when its use could close the loop of the terror’s narrative.

    Did getting bin Laden dampen the terror narrative between the US and al Qaeda? No, in fact, fuel has been added to the fire.

    Would using torture on a lone terrorist in the ticking bomb scenario close the loop of violence and retribution? Yes, as long as no other terror associates were waiting in the wings.

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  4. Dan Piercey

    I’d be fascinated to see an episode of Star Trek that deals with this issue. A captured Klingon warrior possesses crucial information of the whereabouts of a Klingon chief who has masterminded a plot to wipe out a planet bound human colony. Captain Jean Luke Picard has to rack his conscience about how to proceed. Does he go ahead and subject the captor to an advanced torture technique until he spills the beans? I think it is far more likely that an eminently more creative solution would be arrived at and the moral high ground of the fleet would be preserved.
    Within the ethos of Star Trek, torturing a captive would be considered barbarous behaviour – why is this not so for the US government?

  5. lunchstealer

    In the ticking timebomb scenario, if torture is illegal but a CIA agent does it, presumably he could go ahead and do what it takes to save a thousand or a million lives, then give himself up for prosecution, admitting to what he did, and the reason he did it. Then let either a jury refuse to convict, or if they do convict, let him be pardoned. That’s how the rule of law works. It makes exceptions on a case-by-case basis after the fact, with previously prescribed methods for doing so.

    That’s a big part of the reason the pardon system and the jury system exist – to provide a relief valve when the strictly blind-and-impartial law provides unjust outcomes in special cases (not to denigrate the other reasons for having checks-and-balances on these things).

    So we don’t have to make torture legal before the fact for very low-probability situations, because if they do happen, we can handle them afterwards as needed.

  6. deselinto

    This issue puts us between the horns of a dilemma. On the one side being the law and on the other being morality. On the moral side, I believe that Kant would categorically rule that torture is immoral just on the basis it treats man as a means to an end. Mills on the other hand may look at the utility of such action and considering all of the consequences (and I mean all) and would come to the same conclusion as Kant but for a different reason, that being more pain and suffering would occur as a consequence of such action. The legal side of torture can have mitigating circumstances as others have stated above. However, making something legal does not make it morally right. We shouldn’t confuse legality for morality.

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