Let’s assume that torture is the only way to extract vital homeland security information that you know one in a hundred prisoners has. Let’s further assume that we know with 25% certainty that the person has time sensitive information that if revealed would save thousands of lives and 75% chance the prisoner doesn’t. If you had to make the torture decision what would you do?
Unless you believe that there are no circumstance when inflicting great pain on someone to get them to reveal secrets you are a moral relativist on this subject. In the case of torture that means there are some circumstance under which you might condone torture.
Condoning it isn’t the same as being the final authority authorizing it. That being said, I think we have to engage in something like the actuarial analyses the insurance companies do when we ask ourselves this question.
Consider this description of what actuaries do:
Actuaries evaluate the likelihood of events and quantify the contingent outcomes in order to minimize losses, both emotional and financial, associated with uncertain undesirable events. Since many events, such as death, cannot be totally avoided, it is helpful to take measures to minimize their financial impact when they occur. These risks can affect both sides of the balance sheet, and require asset management, liability management, and valuation skills. Analytical skills, business knowledge and understanding of human behavior and the vagaries of information systems are required to design and manage programs that control risk.
The design of effective torture is complex but you don’t need a top security clearance to expound on it.
We already know that the CIA used the religious convictions of prisoners and any phobias they could discover to terrify, shame and humiliated them. It’s hard to believe this could persuade a hardcore Muslim terrorist to impart accurate information to help his sworn enemies.
The ultimate threat of death can only be used successfully under two circumstance. One is that the torture victim believes you will actually kill him, and of course the other is that he cares. You can try to change the former by killing another prisoner in front of him, something that has been done throughout history. But you can’t change the later.
I think everyone agrees that torture is the inflicting of extraordinary suffering, pain and anxiety and that in most cases of dealing with those held in captivity the people tortured are only suspected of having vital information.
In order to obtain the information we want we have to torture a lot of innocent people. This isn’t like taking foolproof DNA samples where you can rule out suspects with certainty since the person with the information can beat the "torture test".
When do you torture?
If your answer is "never" then there’s no decision to make. If your answer is any time you feel like it, there isn’t any decision either.
If your answer is sometimes, then when?
Like it or not it comes down to the numbers.
(Read the discussion below as the comments are, as often happens, more illuminating than the column.)