The supposed dilemma over torture doesn’t exist

People who justify torture – or who like setting philosophical conundrums – often posi a scenario where you have in your hands a terrorist who knows the location of a bomb that’s about to go off and blow up your family. Would torturing them in such circumstances be wrong?

As a starting point for an abstract debate about absolute or relative rights, it’s not a bad one. But as a guide to practical policy, it’s awful – because it misses the main point.

Quite simply, time and again the evidence shows that torture is an extremely ineffective way of getting accurate information out of people . Not only are the answers extracted by torture often false, but by deciding to put the time and effort into torture you are discarding other, more effective, ways of trying to get the answer.

Or in other words, torture is the choice of either sadistic people or, more kindly, on occasion of inexperienced people who panic and fail to consult the evidence.

ence the recent findings from the US, where the hugely detailed report into post-9/11 torture has found, once again, that it wasn’t effective.

As Michael Bond wrote in the New Scientist:

Former vice-president Dick Cheney and other members of President George W. Bush’s administration have long maintained that enhanced interrogation methods are necessary to prise information from hardened terrorists and to avert “ticking time bomb” threats. The Senate committee found the opposite. Not once between late 2001 and early 2009 did the CIA’s use of torture result in intelligence that helped to foil a terrorist plot. All of the most useful information came from standard, non-violent interrogation approaches. Furthermore, tortured detainees frequently made up things in an attempt to get their torturers to stop.

This mirrors what decades of studies into the effects of torture have found. Because a victim’s priority is to make the pain stop, false confessions are highly likely, which makes pain (both physical and psychological) an ineffective tool for extracting accurate information. Darius Rejali, who studies these issues at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, has found that contrary to popular belief, the notoriously brutal methods of Hitler’s Gestapo produced “pathetic” results, particularly when compared with their use of informants and public cooperation.

Two important conclusions result from this. The first, and most obvious, is that it strengthens the argument against torture by providing pragmatic grounds to go alongside the principled reasons for opposing it.

The second, and more subtle, is that it shows how important independent supervision is of those who might decide to torture. People can go bad, get carried away or make mistakes. Proper supervision is crucial in ensuring that doesn’t then lead them to choosing anti-terrorist techniques which are not only morally objectionable but also ineffective, especially when they are also dressed up in claims that terrorism is a big problem than it really is.

After all, being tough on terrorism means taking effective action, not using techniques regularly proven to fail.

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