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Torture – If your loved one was kidnapped? November 8, 2006

Posted by cmac in Uncategorized.
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Michael Levin’s piece “The Case for Torture” explores the aspect of a practice almost always rejected by modern society. He advocates torture not as punishment, but a method of saving innocent lives. Levin provides several scenarios where lives could be saved by torture: the terrorist who planted a time-detonating atomic bomb in Manhattan is apprehended. The bomb will go off in two hours; should the terrorist be tortured to reveal the location of the bomb and thus save thousands of innocent lives. Levin thinks so. He states that the terrorist has already lost any right to humane treatment by setting this bomb; if his guilt is obvious, he should be tortured for information.

Logically, I can follow Levin’s argument; sacrificing one individual’s life or dignity to save thousands of others is moral. If it will really save thousands of other lives. But what guarantee do we have that torture will produce accurate information? Historically, torture has often been abandoned as an information gathering technique, not for its inhumane nature, but for its unreliability. The possibility that the torture would not result in saving any lives is too great. Levin states that we should only use torture if guilt is “obvious.” But what does “obvious” mean? And on a more practical level, who determines what “obvious” means? In our government, our president would likely be assigned this executive function. Multiple presidents have been willing to abuse their power for political gain; torture could become a political tool. At that point, what prevents torture from becoming an elite tool to control political enemies? Without political dissent, our democracy becomes useless. Indeed, torture could lead to the end of American dissent and democracy. All principled arguments aside, torture as a tactic has practical problems.
None of the arguments above directly address the “ticking bomb” situation. And they can’t. If it was my loved one who was kidnapped, my opinions would not be nearly as clear. One of the best ways to address the “ticking bomb” situation is to prevent it from happening. Although I’m rather liberal, I support apprehending terrorists before they endanger innocent lives (it’s very clear this is not being done in Iraq). People who express their religious or political views with violence have no place in this world. If the “ticking bomb” scenario were ever to occur, I wonder whether the decision about torture would really be made at an official, national level or at a personal, police department level. Do you think that a police officer whose partner died on 9/11 would hesitate from using force, even pain, to interrogate a the “ticking bomb” terrorist? This use of torture could never be encouraged or condoned among the ranks of our police officers. Any official structure for torture would lead to abuse. And any use of torture should be investigated and punished. But neither of these factors would likely inhibit the use of torture in the “ticking bomb” situation.

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