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Torture is a Problem, Not a Solution

January 27, 2005
By Mary Shaw

On 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 could happen."

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 attacks."

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 brothers?

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 more hideous."

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 mary@maryshawonline.com.

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