Torture is a Problem, Not a Solution
January 27, 2005
By Mary Shaw
January 15, the BBC quoted outgoing U.S. Homeland Security Secretary
Tom Ridge as saying that the U.S. did not condone the use of torture
to extract information from terrorists, but that under an "extreme
set" of hypothetical circumstances, such as a nuclear threat, "it
Heaven help us.
Ridge's nuclear threat scenario borrows from the age-old "ticking
bomb" hypothesis, which attempts to justify torture in situations
in which extracting information from one terrorist might save hundreds
of people. However, not only can torture never be justified, but
the ticking bomb scenario is unrealistic at best.
In an October 2001 survey, 45 percent of Americans who reported
that they approved of torture were approving of the "torture of
known terrorists if the terrorists know details about future terrorist
So how do we know for sure who actually has the information that
we seek? How do we know who will tell the truth under torture, who
will say anything just to make the pain stop, or who will simply
endure it as a religious discipline? And how can we possibly justify
the risk of torturing innocent suspects, as we've seen happen at
Abu Ghraib and elsewhere?
In this post-9/11 world, gaining information from prisoners is
certainly of critical importance. But torture, aside from being
unethical, is also unreliable and counterproductive. Many experts
on interrogation believe that torture is actually one of the least
effective ways to gain accurate information. And is there any more
effective method of fostering resentment amongst real terrorists
who may seek revenge on America for the mistreatment of their imprisoned
Furthermore, by using torture in the interrogation of terror suspects
and thereby violating a universal human right, the U.S. risks alienating
its international allies - allies whose support in the "war on terror"
is now more critical than ever.
The use of torture violates countless international agreements
that the U.S. has signed and ratified, including the Geneva Conventions,
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the
Convention Against Torture. The pre-eminent human rights document,
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states that "no one shall
be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment
or punishment." There are no exceptions.
Torture is, in other words, one of those nonderogable rights that
are prohibited absolutely under all circumstances. That is one reason
why, under international law, all countries have jurisdiction to
prosecute torturers, regardless of where the torture took place.
Those who advocate torture tend to use mental tricks to dehumanize
their victims, presumably so they can then rest assured that those
persons are not entitled to human rights. Some borrow a term from
Dick Cheney and label them "barbarians" in order to justify their
mistreatment. But is it any better to be labeled a "torturer?"
Barbarian. Torturer. Is this our future?
Dr. William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International
USA, summed it up well: "Torture never makes the world safer, only
Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist. She
currently serves as Philadelphia Area Coordinator for Amnesty International,
and her views on politics, human rights, and social justice issues
have appeared in numerous online forums and in newspapers and magazines
worldwide. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.