Torture is always an evil option 1

June 18, 2004

Alan Dershowitz's advocacy of "non-lethal torture warrants in extraordinary cases" ("When torture is the least evil of terrible options", June 11) ignores a whole range of crucial considerations. Most important are those to do with its impact on the moral climate of a society that institutionalised torture.

First, the range of "extraordinary cases" would rapidly expand.

If torturing one person to "prevent mass casualties" is acceptable, why not torture one to save, say, three kidnapped civilians?

Second, if a society accepts the employment of professional torturers (even if, at first, solely for "special cases"), torture becomes more, not less, acceptable. Consider the introduction in Northern Ireland of detention without trial in the 1970s in response to those "special circumstances" - subsequently, it was built into the structure of our justice system.

Third, and more fundamentally, precisely those values - centrally, respect for human beings - that should preclude the use of torture for national defence would become even more corrupted than they already are. If some people, however vicious, in effect lose their personhood on that account, then we are all diminished - both directly, because we have condoned it, and indirectly, because then more and more of us are under threat.

The path from torture for information to torture as punishment is as short as it is direct.

The defences of torture emanating from (largely American) academics in the past two or three years itself illustrates all too well what would happen.

The foundations of Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay are rooted in the advocacy of this "realism".

The experiments Dershowitz variously reports and speculates about - relating to how people do or might react to various dilemmas - miss the point. The individual responses to such moral dilemmas are one thing, the required professionalisation of torture quite another.

In the individual case, one might expect the hard choice quite properly to result in guilt, remorse or at least troubled doubt. But where torture is your job, all that is out of place.

Consider, for example, the difference between how a doctor might feel about having to decide whom to try to save in some disaster and having to "assist" a torturer to ensure the torture is "non-lethal".

Doubtless that is how the hypocrisy Dershowitz rightly describes operates: not wanting to get our own hands dirty, we leave it to others and pretend that it doesn't happen. But such hypocrisy is not countered by institutionalising evil.

Bob Brecher
Reader in moral philosophy
Brighton University

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