Torture and America’s War on Terror

The practice of resorting to torture in order to elicit vital information goes back to ancient times. While human civilization has much progressed in many areas, this tendency has held humanity back. The practice of torture is not merely repulsive to the senses. Beyond the obvious pain and suffering inflicted on the victim, it poses several ethical questions to the practitioner. In the recent geo-political context, the fight against terrorism has reopened this debate. The United States’ military personnel, with permission/instructions from higher authorities (going as high up as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld), have tortured suspected terrorists since the beginning of its War on Terror operations. While some of the methods employed in eliciting important information from suspects is degrading and inhuman, one has to understand prevailing political contexts in which such actions become inevitable. For example,

“to counter an enemy who relies on stealth and surprise, the most valuable tool is information, and often the only source of that information is the enemy himself. Men like Sheikh Mohammed who have been taken alive in this war are classic candidates for the most cunning practices of this dark art. Intellectual, sophisticated, deeply religious, and well trained, they present a perfect challenge for the interrogator. Getting at the information they possess could allow us to thwart major attacks, unravel their organization, and save thousands of lives. They and their situation pose one of the strongest arguments in modern times for the use of torture.” (Bowden, 2003, p.52)

The rest of this essay will try and present more points in support of torture as a key interrogative tool, and show why its continued employment will save thousands of innocent lives in the future. Foremost among the rationales for usage of torture techniques is the current era of warfare we are living through. The September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and other targets within the United States had illustrated clearly the scope and magnitude of jihadist terrorism. (Bowden, 2003, p.52) This event showed to leaders of democratic nations that terrorism has indeed come of age. In this new era of warfare, battles are no longer waged between symmetrical power entities – one state upon another. Rather, in the asymmetrical military engagements of today, conventional states confront non-state enemies

“who are palpably post-modern: trans-national, decentralized, more closely resembling a fog or that mythic beast with multiple and multiplying heads, the hydra, than the traditional more or less well-defined and (at least potentially) containable national enemy. Moreover, this hydra is one given particularly to living amongst and preying upon civilians. In other words, as the smoldering ruins of Ground Zero reminded us, this is an enemy who does not respect the traditional moral parameters of warfare. Accompanying this recognition is the suspicion that these developments have finally rendered the just war tradition obsolete, irrelevant, impossible.” (Bell, 2006, p.34)

Hence, in these uncertain and insecure times, traditional criteria of measuring fairness and justice no longer apply. Waging the War on Terror successfully requires rejection of antiquarian views of “legitimate authority, last resort, and the possibility of distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant.” (Bell, 2006, p.34) Our leaders no longer have the luxury of “moral purity or clean hands” that the just war tradition requires. Moreover, one has to make a distinction between acting morally and acting foolishly. It would amount to acting foolishly if key protections of the Bill of Rights are extended to ruthless enemies who do not share America’s vision of war, justice and morality. The key question to ask is whether the imperative to destroy the evil called terrorism justifies some of the criteria of the just war theory. (Bell, 2006, p.34)

1 2