My take on the torture argument

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In 2011 I worked with Felice Gaer, the Special Rapporteur for the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture. I traveled to Geneva, Switzerland with Special Rapporteur Gaer after writing a 200 page report on every torture infraction that the Sri Lankan government had been accused of. When we got there, we sat down with different tortured victims and eventually cut down my report into a presentation. A few days later we presented our findings to the government of Sri Lanka in order to hold them accountable for their infractions. The experience was incredibly satisfying but also incredibly awkward. The Sri Lankan government had been at the helm of torturing thousands of Tamil Tigers and thousands of innocents. It included vile acts of inhumanity that ranged from starvation to beating to kidnapping and forcible and permanent relocation to unknown torture camps.

In the summer of 2011, I was imprisoned in Lebanon for having done research in Israel. I was detained as a traitor because I hold Lebanese citizenship. While I was never tortured, the looming possibility weighed on me for two and a half days. I was blindfolded, strip searched, and put in a steel trunk of an armored vehicle which was pitch black while cuffed. The inability to control my arms meant that I smashed into walls for at least 20 minutes. In fact, the only reason I didn’t endure an already prepared beating from a specific general was because my “connections” had phoned in just in time. Literally. The general that was throwing me around was stopped by another general when he raised his hand to hit me. With all of my experience on this subject, I hold fast to the idea that torture is a practice that yields more harm than good. The point, however, is to challenge yourself to think about the subject of torture and where you think you lie in the argument.

The New York Times just highlighted significant parts of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s review on the harsh interrogation of prisoners during the George W. Bush administration. In November 2002, a CIA secret prison in an unidentified country was holding Abu Zubaydah, a major Al-Qaeda operative captured after September 11, 2001. The report releases that one newspaper knew about his whereabouts, but that the Bush administration urged them not to publish the information. While the newspaper agreed, the CIA still decided to close the prison.

The newspaper was actually The New York Times and the unidentified country was Thailand. By December 2003, the Times disclosed the prison in Thailand where Abu Zubaydah had been held but that he and another prisoner, Ramzi bin al-Shibh had been moved somewhere else. This information came from James Risen. Senator Dianne Feinstein is the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee. She made a push to release the new information because she thought it was necessary to “restoring [our] values and showing the world that [we] are a just society.” The fact of the matter is that the United States and the CIA use torture as a tactic for information when dealing with alleged terrorists. However, it is important that we think about how we feel, as a society, about torture. The argument can be broken down into a legal framework. This is possible, so let me do this for you by giving you the pros versus cons of using torture as a method:

Pros of using torture on terrorists:

1) The Geneva Conventions only apply to prisoners of war. They do not apply to terrorists. The Convention Against Torture only applies on a country’s own soil, which is why torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay is a legal loophole.

2) The “ticking time bomb” scenario is scary and the person who knows where the ticking bomb is should be tortured in order to give up the information that could potentially save many lives. Time pressure to knowledge is the substance of the cost/benefit analysis. Also, in utilitarian terms, the cost of torturing one person is outweighed by the benefit of saving more than one person. The idea is weighing temporary pain versus permanent damage. Torture is temporary, terrorist damage is permanent. In the framework that makes up Humanitarian Law, collateral damage must be identified against the backdrop of the importance of the mission i.e. torturing a person is worth it in the right circumstances.

3) One can assume that intelligence agencies have modern technology. That assumption leads to the idea that their gathering of intelligence is efficient and correct, which ultimately leads to the conclusion that a person being tortured is likely not innocent.

4) It is the purpose of the State to protect its own citizens and no longer owes its duty to a person who is trying to damage the State.

5) If one is a terrorist than they moralistically believe they are above the law and will consequently be uncooperative. Torture empirically leads to information that is at least partly true.

6) Torture is a deterrent to other terrorists in a world where terrorism is faster, easier and more ideologically attractive than it has ever been before

7) If torture is legalized than it can be regulated.

Cons of using torture on terrorists:

1) The Geneva Conventions ban the use of “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture” (Article 3:1(a)).

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not approve torture. Article 5: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The United Nations Convention Against Torture bans torture of all civilians, combatants, prisoners of war and terrorists alike. This is an unambiguous piece of international law, which forbids the use of torture in all circumstances; this includes the ‘exceptional ticking time-bomb’ scenario. Although the Geneva Conventions don’t explicitly ban the torture of terrorists because they are not parties to a state, the Convention Against Torture does protect terrorists.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court classes torture as a “crime against humanity”, for which a suspect can be tried at The Hague.

2) A ticking time bomb situation is entirely hypothetical and it has never been reported before. This is because intelligence agencies collect information over time. Most intelligence is not verifiable which leads to many false arrests. This means that interrogating and torturing the wrong person amounts to “Cruel and Unusual” punishment which is against the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

3) Autonomy is a human right. A major part of the American way is acknowledging that a person is in control of their own life. Torture impinges on the freedom that is the foundation of our country’s moralistic fiber.

4) If the victim survives, they are very likely stripped of the ability to function in society. They are psychologically damaged and this has the potential of making their identity in terrorism stronger.

5) There is no determined end to torture. There is no way to know how much information there is, and in the backdrop of questionable guilt then there is a potential for the slippery slope scenario which can lead to murder or irreversible damage.

6) Terrorism is not universally unacceptable. For instance, Nelson Mandela was famously considered a terrorist by the elite in apartheid South Africa. To us now, he is a freedom fighter who was jailed unjustly. We are all constrained by our understanding of the rules as society constructs them but the fact remains that those rules are ever changing. Torture is a poor precedent when framed this way.

7) The suspect will probably lie. They are moralistically inclined to oppose the torturer, they see themselves above the law and torture only strengthens their distrust of the system torturing them. They will lie to stop pain. Finally, the tortured terrorist knows that he will be ostracized by his own community if he does not lie. Abu Zubaydah lied to the FBI and when he was subject to torture techniques by the CIA, his information proved to be useless.

8) Allowing abuse in our society will affect how we tolerate and engage with concepts of innocence and habeas corpus (prevents state from imprisoning someone without a charge for a crime and a trial). These things should never be negotiable in our society. Torture, if allowed, will eventually be used in less extreme situations.

9) Torture and immorality are the propagandistic narrative of terrorist groups. They claim to be better people that are amenable to a higher moral standard. Torturing them makes them feel right and these stories recruit more people into political terrorism.

10) Under no circumstances should the treatment of a terrorist and a citizen be viewed differently. This leads to intelligence forces viewing terrorists as less than human. Distinguishing between human and sub-human leads to an indeterminate line. No checks and balances will exist for interrogators and more instances of torture will lead to a culture of torture. Israel allowed torture from 1987 to 1999, but the Supreme Court overruled this in 1999. However, those years of regulated torture led to reports from NGOs and released prisoners that the use of physical abuse in interrogations is still prevalent despite the illegality.

Matt Apuzzo explains that at least 26 people were wrongly detained by the CIA and a footnote in the report acknowledged that the CIA took from three to six months to release these prisoners. Alan Rappeport explains that Obama’s statement on the Senate Intelligence Committee report reveals that not only was America’s standing, internationally, jeopardized because of the methods of interrogation, but they did not serve the broader counterterrorism efforts. While George W. Bush unequivocally promised to end torture in July 2003, the CIA was running secret prisons and brutally interrogating prisoners. Torture is a practice that should be discontinued. It quite simply does more for terrorism than it does for counter-terrorism.

These are 20 key findings by the Washington Post click on the link to see the substance of each quote.

1 “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence”
2 “rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness”
3 “brutal and far worse than the CIA represented”
4 “conditions of confinement for CIA detainees were harsher”
5 “repeatedly provided inaccurate information”
6“actively avoided or impeded congressional oversight”
7 “impeded effective White House oversight”
8 “complicated, and in some cases impeded, the national security missions”
9 “impeded oversight by the CIA’s Office of Inspector General”
10 “coordinated the release of classified information to the media”
11 “unprepared as it began operating”
12 “deeply flawed throughout the program’s duration”
13 “overwhelmingly outsourced operations”
14 “coercive interrogation techniques that had not been approved”
15 “did not conduct a comprehensive or accurate accounting of the number of individuals it detained”
16 “failed to adequately evaluate the effectiveness”
17 “rarely reprimanded or held personnel accountable”
18 “ignored numerous internal critiques, criticisms, and objections”
19 “inherently unsustainable”
20 “damaged the United States’ standing in the world”



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