To Torture or Not to Torture?

Jonathan Rick

A Journal for Western Man-- Issue XXIX-- December 24, 2004

We know that a large-scale terrorist attack is imminent. We probably know the general location, we probably know that it will happen in the next twenty-four or forty-eight hours, and we are eighty or ninety percent certain that the person we have apprehended knows what, where and when.[1] To torture or not to torture?

We should first remember that this hypothetical represents an emergency, and since emergencies terrifically distort context, they make it tortuously difficult to retain a fully rational resolution. Moreover, emergencies are emergencies—people do not live in lifeboats—and an emergency context should not form the basis for formulating official government policy.

Now, torture advocates argue that the end justifies the means, which amounts to an often precarious but often obvious utility calculus,[2] or they argue that once we determine that the suspect knows something, he thereby becomes a threat and forfeits his rights. Playing Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men (1992), Jack Nicholson summarizes the general view. “[W]e live in a world that has walls, and those walls need to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You?. . . . I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the marines; you have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.”

Thus, torture is a “necessary evil,”[3] and the post-9/11 world necessitates special measures to prevent another 9/11—and now another 3/11. Al Qaeda represents a new kind of enemy, the argument goes: terrorist networks, which have no fixed address, which do not constitute a nation-state, which are dispersed throughout the world, and which have access to weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, as social theorist Arthur Silber observes, “Governments have always used the excuse of an ‘emergency’ to significantly broaden their powers.” Referring to the French Revolution, Robespierre declared that one cannot “expect to make an omelet without breaking eggs.” The Soviets alleged that their purges were “temporary.” The Nazis said extraordinary times necessitated extraordinary measures. And, in the same way, six weeks after 9/11, in government’s characteristic distortion of words, America adopted the so-called Patriot Act (which in the typical heat of the moment many of the lawmakers voting for it did not even read, either in whole or in part). Then, thirteen months later, the government floated a second Patriot Act. Such is the pattern of and path toward dictatorship.

Yet torture advocates are hardly dictators; Alan Dershowitz, the renowned civil libertarian, is perhaps the most famous advocate. Dershowitz favors restricting torture to “imminent” and “large-scale” circumstances. But, again, although this step may be seemingly negligible, by such steps we creep further toward an Orwellian society. Any additional power we grant to government “has never, and will never, stay limited for long.”

Specifically, once we legitimate torture in principle to save the New York City area from nuclear holocaust, it becomes much easier to legitimate its use to save “just” Manhattan, and then “just” Times Square, and then “just” the World Trade Center. Before we let a judge issue what Deroshowitz calls “torture warrants” on a case-by-case basis, we need to define our criteria precisely. Are they to save a million people? A thousand? A hundred? The President? Members of the Cabinet? Senators? Only in cases involving nuclear weapons?

Indeed, judging from this difficulty to define a threshold, torture seems to be the point of no return. For example, if torture makes terrorists sing, as it often does in foreign countries, why shouldn’t we use it against potential terrorists? And then to break child pornography rings and catch rapists? And then against drug dealers and prostitutes? In short, the potential for—and actuality of—corruption is widespread. As Silber notes, after reading of endless abuses by government officials using forfeiture and I.R.S. audits against political opponents, of graft, payoffs, kickbacks, and the like in every area of business regulation—and, now, of the treatment by Americans of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison—it is naïve to believe once we sanction the government’s use of torture to elicit life-saving information, that torture would somehow be exempt from the corrupting nature of nonobjective power.

Finally, we must decide whether our government should conceal or inform us of its torture policies. Whether one opposes torture, I agree with Deroshowitz that “[d]emocracy requires accountability and transparency”; “painful truth,” as Michael Ignatieff, author of The Lesser Evil (2004), puts it, “is far better than lies and illusions.” As such, the U.S. government should clarify what tactics it is using and which are still off limits, so the American people can vote our views, via our representatives, into action.

[1] This is the “ticking-bomb” hypothetical, which Michael Walzer described in “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 2, 1973, 166–67, and Alan Dershowitz popularized in Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat Responding to the Challenge (2002). But as Arthur Silber notes, and I have incorporated his recommendations, we should modify this Hollywood fantasy. Another distinction lost in the debate is whether the suspect has confessed to knowing the wanted information and refuses to cough it up, or whether he professes not to know anything when we believe he does.

[2] Consequentalism typically subordinates what’s “moral” to what’s “practical,” thus sacrificing the minority to the majority in typically vicious ways. For instance, consequentalism would sanction the performance of medical experiments on a prisoner, a la Josef Mengele, in order to discover, say, a cure for cancer. On the other hand, had we captured on 9/12 Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called twentieth hijacker of 9/11, and had he knowledge regarding a 9/13, many would have doubtless approved his torture to elicit the information.

[3] The term “necessary evil” is contradictory. Explains psychotherapist Michael Hurd: “[T]here are no necessary evils. If something is truly evil, there’s no way it can be necessary, and if it is truly necessary to the well-being of a rational man’s life, it’s not evil, but good.” In Barry Goldwater’s crystallization: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” See also Irfan Khawaja, “Do We Have to Get Our Hands Dirty to Win the War on Terrorism? And What Does That Mean, Exactly?” History News Network, May 17, 2004.

Jonathan Rick is the founder and the president of the Hamilton College Objectivist Club. He also writes a weekly column, "No Straw Men," for the school newspaper, the Spectator. View his Web site at

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