The Use of Torture

The use of torture cannot be classified as necessary violence; it is of limited practical utility, and it undermines government legitimacy.

The proponents of torture argue that it can help to uncover the truth, either to foil an opponent’s intentions or to find out who is guilty of a crime. The American Prospect reported that America was Embracing the Legacy of Torture, when it appointed John Brennan to be the head of the CIA – since he had advocated its use in the context of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the government was sub-contracting torture to other countries by ‘rendition’:

“I think it’s an absolutely vital tool. I have been intimately familiar now over the past decade with the cases of rendition that the U.S. Government has been involved in. And I can say without a doubt that it has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives.”

The practice of secret rendition, in order to avoid breaking its own laws, added hypocrisy to the moral arguments against torture – which include breaching the victim’s most basic rights, the dehumanisation of the torturer and the degrading of the moral authority of the society which indulged in the practice.

In the eyes of most people, torture is so abhorrent that any suggestion of it happening is a very powerful force in recruiting support for the victim’s cause.  A Foreign Affairs article, The Strategic Costs of Torture, highlighted America’s loss of moral authority among its allies and that:

“the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay was “the single most important motivating factor” in persuading foreign jihadists to join the war.”

It is easy to see that anyone whose friend or relative has been tortured is likely to feel a visceral hatred towards the country responsible and to want to take action against it.

There is also reason to doubt whether torture is effective, because victims can be persuaded to say anything – so their answers merely reflect the torturer’s agenda.  A National Defense Intelligence College report, Educing Information: Interrogation: Science and Art, included a study on the reliability of evidence obtained under torture; it compared some deprivation techniques which were used on prisoners during the Iraq conflict to those used in the mediaeval Catholic Inquisition, and commented that:

“The results of interrogations conducted under these conditions were just as unreliable as those in the 13th century.

…..In essence, this is why Educing Information: Interrogation: Science and Art in is so important and timely.  Its conclusions demonstrate that the entire field of educing information needs critical reexamination; there are no easy answers or generic solutions when it comes to understanding these highly complex behaviors.” (p. 26)

The use of torture undermines a government’s legitimacy, as measured by its support for human rights (6.3.7).



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/7241.htm.