The Problem with Torture

Sunday I wrote a post, which agrees pretty much with Joe Carter’s post of last night. Mr Carter is, well, less confused than I and as well, critical of the Christian community, a feature on which I had not remarked. As you read the following, I want to make it clear, the above link is my position on the matter. I do not want this to be taken as a tacit or any other sort of support for the practice. But there are some problems with the anti-torture stance which typically are ignored or set aside.

  1. Torture can be effective for intelligence gathering. While it can be misused and misapplied, torture can actually be part of a functioning intelligence gathering operation. Granted, if one is using torture to extract, “did you do XYZ?”, that is ineffective because you’ll just get what you want to hear. If on the other hand, one is getting the person past his rational defenses and to just talk about “stuff”, that is to push the subject to freely associate and talk talk talk. What comes out can be correlated with intelligence fragments from other sources. Contact names, operational words and codes and the like may be repeated which can be compared with data gathered from other sources.
  2. The consequentialist argument against torture can be very weak, especially in the light of the above, in the case wherein the victim is under death sentence. For example, it very well might be a capital crime to be an illegal combatant, i.e., out of uniform fighting using illegal methods such as using civilians as shield and so on. If one is going to be killed anyhow and intelligence might be gained, where is the argument against torture in that case? What is the consequentialist argument against torture of a man who will be executed shortly especially in the light of the notion that some good (intelligence) may come of it.
  3. The subject’s religious beliefs may actually make him, in some sense, thankful to be tortured. Christians and likely Muslims gather “rewards in the hereafter” if tortured for the sake of their faith.
  4. Given that one might restrict torture to only those under capital sentence, what remains it seems as really the only (secular) argument against torture of those individuals it seems is the problem of absorbing and admitting back into your own society those who have practiced this. The re-admittance back into the fold of those who have inflicted pain as part of their job description (and for a game, i.e., not on the football field). That may be a good argument, but the problem there remains that there are extra-national actors, i.e., non-citizens, who are willing to contract this “work”. These individuals then may never be admitted into ones internal society, and thereby again the consequence for one’s own society is therefore limited or nil.

The subject’s religion and beliefs in general may be strengthened as well. History will prove out, and it may be too soon to tell, but in this past century the torture for the sake of their faith that the Orthodox of the Soviet bloc were subjected exceeds almost any parallel scope. At first blush, it very well may be that the faith in general and religious devotion of the region may in fact have been strengthened, not the reverse, by the torture and deprivation to which it subjected. Monastic communities for example are a booming growth industry in Eastern Europe. Compare that to the West. This particular point is an argument against torturing Islamic fundamentalists unless one happens to be an Islamic westerner. But this sort of torture as a matter of fact, is very different from the intelligence gathering variety. Torture as a part of oppression and fear is not the sort of practice under examination currently. That sort of practice very often redounds to the detriment of the practicioner more than the subject for a variety of reasons. This is admittedly a very good consequentialist argument against the practice. However, it is as mentioned above, not actually the method under examination (being instead of torture to change culture, torture to gain intelligence).

One other interesting observation might be made. Mr Carter points out the regretable silence of the faithful on the right in not decrying torture. The left, in this case is leading the charge against torture. A half century and somewhat less ago, the roles were reversed, with the right decrying the Terror and the Soviet regime and the left cozying itself up to the notion of torture and the defense of the regime of the gulag. What this points out, more than anything else,  is the corrosive nature of our political divisions and the accomodations we make in order to associate with a particular “side”.

This more than anything emphasizes the necessity of remaining a “resident alien” in your own land if one is to be Christian.

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  1. Anne says:


    So can bribery. So can decent treatment so that a person willingly turns sides. Doesn’t the Art of War say that subverting an enemy is far better than killing him, just tactically and logistically? If you’re going to argue pure utilitarianism — (are you arguing pure utilitarianism?) — then shouldn’t there be some comparative study on other incentives?

    Then again, from a Christian viewpoint, how can we argue pure utilitarianism about torturing someone?

  2. Anne says:

    Argh, messed up my quote, sorry about that. The part of yours I was replying to was:

    Mark: Torture can be effective for intelligence gathering. While it can be misused and misapplied, torture can actually be part of a functioning intelligence gathering operation.

  3. Mark says:

    I’m not arguing “for torture”, as I pointed out this argument is not my viewpoint. I’m arguing that consequentialism has no argument against it and perhaps showing how the inroads of the same and partisan politics lead to Mr Carter’s valid complaint.

  4. Left Behind Roundup…

    As usual, I’m too far behind to ever catch up with all the posts I wished to blog on. It’s for exciting reasons, however: I’m giving a presentation summarizing my summer research before the Carleton community — defined in this case as my immediate …

  5. Anne says:

    Glad to hear it. I was getting worried … 😉

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