When Democracies Torture

21 April 2015

Philosophical discussions about torture tend to focus on two things: whether torture is ever morally justified, and, if so, whether this should be reflected in the law. Such discussion tend to focus on extreme cases: torture the terrorist or let the bomb go off and injure hundreds or thousands of innocents. Sam Harris, in his essay “In Defense of Torture,” called these “ticking bomb” cases. Imagine the bomber sitting in your custody, gloating about the imminent explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it'll cause. Harris thinks that torturing this unpleasant fellow would be justified.

The whole ticking bomb discussion presupposes that torture is basically thought to be an unjustifiable evil to be avoided in all circumstances. Given this assumption, it is an interesting philosophical, whether we can find circumstances in which it would actually be morally acceptable.

But if what people do is a guide to what they believe, torture is not thought to be an unjustifiable evil to be avoided in all circumstances. Torture is widespread; it's an everyday occurrence.

Not just in tyrannies like Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union. In democracies: the good old U S of A. Japan. India. France. Israel. And not just in the past. Now. And not just in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. In prisons, in police stations throughout the land, particularly in neighborhoods where high-priced lawyers don’t show up very often.

There is not much evidence of that torture is less frequent in democracies than in tyrannies. What's true is that democracies favor types of torture that are easier to hide and harder to prove, and are more likely to use euphemisms, like “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

This suggests that the philosophical consideration of torture should not start with ticking bomb cases. We need to start at the other end. In court, we use all sorts of inducements to get people to give evidence. We offer plea bargains, letting criminals off with comparatively light sentences in return for testimony against their confederates. We let people stew in jail, hoping to “break them down.” We offer monetary rewards for information. So we need to understand why torture is in a special category. Especially for systems that are committed to human rights and dignity. Only when we understand that, will we be in a position to consider its legitimacy in the ticking bomb case.

Comments (9)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, April 21, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Frontline once did a review

Frontline once did a review of cases of false convictions in which the issue of a coerced confession came up. After incontrovertible evidence of innocence came out the original prosecutor still insisted, repeatedly, that there is no such thing as a forced confession. In effect, he was saying that the innocent do not confess even under extreme duress, torture, dare we say. One thing needs to be explicit: water in the lungs is drowning. Having a medical crew on standby to revive the drowning victim does not render the drowning "simulated". When an apparently healthy man climbs into the paddy-wagon and a dying man comes out, it is not unreasonable to suppose a crime was committed along the way. The ticking time bomb case is a red herring. As I understand it it is a case that just doesn't come up. The experts explain that the way to get a suspect to talk is let him. You literally seduce it out of them. They want to talk, they're burning to talk, and if the interrogator is the only person they get to talk to they will talk, if you go at it a bit sideways, talking at great length about stuff the suspect has no notion could be pertinent to the investigation. Sooner or later facts emerge that can be used to wheedle more. But the suspect has to respect and, yes, even like the interrogator. The only excuse for the unrestrained torture techniques propagated by the Bush administration that amounts to being marginally better than pretext is that they had too many suspects to investigate for the available experts in interrogation. Or maybe they just wanted revenge. Less unrestrained coercion takes place wherever the police feel the public, especially certain prejudicially identified members of the public are the enemy, and wherever prosecutors, under pressure to bring in convictions, believe that there is no such thing as a bad confession. Remember the words of Horace Rumpole: "There is no more unreliable piece of evidence than a confession!"

Or's picture


Wednesday, April 22, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

As much as one would want to

As much as one would want to address and consider all inhuman and degrading treatments as being torture, it seems that certain legal considerations, both nationally and internationally, are present to get in the way of doing so. For example, in Ireland v. United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights considered the five interrogation techniques used on IRA suspects by the UK?s security forces. Despite the fact that they were found by the European Commission of Human Rights to constitute torture, the Court held that they were inhuman and degrading, but not torture. According to the Court, the notion of torture was characterized by ?a special stigma? attaching to ?deliberate inhuman treatment causing very serious and cruel suffering.? It seems that the relative intensity of pain or suffering inflicted must not only be severe, it must also be an aggravated form of already prohibited (though undefined) cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Then there is the element of purpose: is torture applied to obtain information or confession and so forth?  Another aspect linked is the status of the perpetrator, as it is accepted that in order for the act to be considered torture a public official must inflict or instigate the infliction of the pain or suffering. This may be compared with the definition of torture contained in article 7(2)(e) of the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC):7: ??Torture? means the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, upon a person in the custody or under the control of the accused; except that torture shall not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.? This leaves out of reach all who commit private acts for purely ?personal? reasons or ends.

Lani Logan's picture

Lani Logan

Sunday, November 26, 2017 -- 11:49 AM

What happened to "truth serum

What happened to "truth serum"

MJA's picture


Thursday, April 23, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

That people would even debate

That people would even debate the use of torture is torturous to me. =

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, April 25, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Whether we debate, discuss or

Whether we debate, discuss or moralize on the issue of torture, it has been around for several millennia at least. And whether we are comparing its application, based on tyrannical, democratic or other kinds of leadership, does not appear to to matter to those who are applying it. In matters of national security and maintenance of the status quo, leaders will employ torture and/or the threat thereof as a credible deterrent, a means of intimidating those who would, for any reason, threaten political, economic and cultural systems.
So, in the end-game, those who torture their perceived enemies are not necessarily thirsty for truth---they are, perhaps, more interested in securing their positions and covering collective ass. Even democracies recognize that torture is of limited value in uncovering plots and preventing acts of terrorism. But, the djinn of out of the bottle, and it is difficult, nay, impossible, the get the smoky little sucker back into his lair. Who would lead such an effort when the reality is that no one wants to follow? HGN

ffranco's picture


Sunday, April 26, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Locking people in cages

Locking people in cages against their will is torture. Justice is served by reintegrating a person to the community, especially if all they are guilty of is a victimless crime. Extended solitary confinement is torture. And we are making the prison guards into callous torturers. Our justice system needs a complete rewrite, everything should be questioned.And now the prisoners are victims as well.

Marc Bellario's picture

Marc Bellario

Saturday, May 2, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I could be imagining things

I could be imagining things but it seems like for the U.S. there is a sense of purpose intended to
prevent or reduce a dictatorial power from having power over the " weaker " or "oppressed' party -
In other words a kind of positive role in making the " ills " or bad stuff in the world reduced.  
In pursuing this "never ending" crusade/battle - it appears that we have become exactly
the thing we were trying to eliminate or reduce?   So, is that ironic or what? Sorry if this is
confusing because of attempt to separate "dictatorial" from "power", as well as excessive
over use of "" """ """""" """ , sorry, > being a grammatical or syntactic use of " ? torture ? "

MJA's picture


Tuesday, November 28, 2017 -- 8:51 PM

From the archives!

From the archives!

If we are looking for how or why torture is justified in todays democratic western societies, I think religion, or more specifically Christianity is the serious root of this evil. Throughout western and what we call civilization the symbol for Christianity is the cross, the crucifix, the torturous memorial of the death of God's only son, and its everywhere. For many Americans it was standard furnishings on the walls of our own homes. And what has Christianity taught its disciples, or a majority of western society to believe? We've been taught that God himself sent his own son to be tortured to death for the redemption of our souls, for the GOOD of us all. We've memorialized it, imagine that. We have been taught that torture can be just or good.

And here we are today fighting over the removal of civil war statues when all around us and them there are crosses or symbols of torture. There are even crosses hanging around peoples necks for God sakes, for the glory of Jesus Christ. Torture was the path of our redemption? We are what we have been taught are we not?

I don't think a just God would have anyone or anything tortured, would he?

Sorry if I offended anyone,

Just me,


Potiphar S Flagrum's picture

Potiphar S Flagrum

Thursday, March 29, 2018 -- 9:00 PM

Get them in there and get the

Get them in there and get the bull whips cracking they deserve nothing better.