In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: June 2009


Is Torture Ever Justifiable?

blindfoldedEarlier this year, President Barack Obama released memoranda written by lawyers for the Bush administration that authorized interrogation techniques such as waterboarding and slamming detainees against walls. The release of the memos has reignited a debate surrounding torture, with some calling for absolute prohibition and others contending that in a post-9/11 world, the practice was necessary to save lives. In a Gallup poll conducted after the release of the memos, a majority of people responded that “harsh interrogation techniques” were justified for terrorism suspects, though a majority also wanted the government to investigate these techniques.

On the legal side, advocates like Center board member Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, are calling for prosecutions of Bush administration officials complicit in authorizing torture, noting that the practice violates the Third Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (torture is referred to in articles 3, 17, 87, and 130) and the UN Convention Against Torture (President Ronald Reagan in 1988 signed the convention, issuing this statement). Others like Senator Patrick Leahy are recommending a commission of inquiry to unearth all relevant details.

In addition to the legal questions are the ethical issues surrounding torture. Does the practice demonstrate that the nation lost its “moral bearings” in the Bush years, as Obama said? Or should torture be employed in limited circumstances to achieve a greater good? A range of opinion follows on the question “Is Torture Ever Justifiable?”

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torturedebate The issue is examined in a comprehensive fashion in the book The Torture Debate in America, which features contributions from people in different disciplines and on all sides of the argument. Another book, Torture: Does It Make Us Safer? Is It Ever OK?, presents essays that offer global and historical perspectives on the topic. In the book Torture: When the Unthinkable is Morally Permissible, authors Mirko Bagaric and Julie Clarke of Deakin University in Australia argue that there are moral grounds to use torture where the lives of the innocent are at stake.

In response to Obama invoking morality as an argument against torture, Michael Scheuer, the chief of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999, contends that with such a stance, “Americans and their country’s security will be the losers,” he writes in the Washington Post.

But a professor of political science argues in Real Clear Politics that even if it works, the U.S. shouldn’t torture. “Knowing to what extent waterboarding or other controversial techniques actually worked might be useful to the empirical debate over the utility of torture,” writes Pierre Atlas of Marian College. “But it adds little to the moral debate.” Gary Kamiya of Salon magazine acknowledges that torture can work. But it’s always wrong, he asserts.

Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., who was director of the office of strategic initiatives in the Bush White House, writes in Commentary magazine on the morality of enhanced interrogation techniques. He contends that in very limited circumstance – such as those that occurred during the Bush administration – these techniques are morally acceptable.

The New York Review of Books, which published the International Committee of the Red Cross Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody, has an assessment of what the report means. “We are having, in a ragged way, the debate about ethics and morality in our national security policies that we never had in the days after September 11, when decisions were made in secret by a handful of officials,” writes Mark Danner.

David Rivkin and Lee Casey, former officials in the Justice Department under George H.W. Bush who served as U.S. delegates to the U.N. Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, write in the Wall Street Journal that the interrogation techniques were “fully consistent with American values.”

Alan Dershowitz
Some commentators have pointed to the “ticking time bomb” scenario — that is, what if torturing a suspect appeared to be the only recourse for preventing an imminent attack? Torture is morally permissible under that scenario, writes Charles Krauthammer. Dan Froomkin, a colleague at the Washington Post, rebuts him. Krauthammer responded to his critics, noting that “changes in circumstances (threat, knowledge, imminence) alter the moral calculus attached to any interrogation technique.” Under the ticking time bomb scenario, Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School has called for warrants to allow torture, as he writes in the San Francisco Chronicle.

As part of its program The Torture Question, PBS’s Frontline convened a forum of prominent academics and practitioners to discuss the ticking time bomb scenario and other issues surrounding torture, including how other countries have grappled with the practice.

A country that has reckoned with terrorism, Israel, rejected the use of torture. The Israelis determined that “abusing prisoners was morally and legally wrong,” contends Serge Schmemann in a New York Times article.

From a religious perspective, more than 250 religious groups have joined the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to advocate on the issue. Religious leaders praised Obama’s executive order that ended the practice of torture. Rabbis for Human Rights published essays on Jewish Values and Torture. The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life surveyed viewpoints by religious affiliation on torture.

Why is torture scrutinized far more than warfare? This article in the New York Times delves into the question.

Academia has examined the subject, including in a University of Chicago Law School Conference on Torture, Law, and War, which examined the moral and legal boundaries on the use of coercion in interrogation. The University of California invited humanities scholars to give their perspectives in a conference on Torture and the Future. In a famous academic study, the Stanford Prison Experiment showed how people can be convinced to practice abusive behavior.

Brandeis Professor
James Mandrell

Finally, from Brandeis, Professor James Mandrell recounts the history of torture. “Taking history into account,” he writes in the Los Angeles Times, “could have protected the United States from engaging in practices that jeopardized our values, our democracy and even our lives.”

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