Painful consequences of sanctioning torture

December 16, 2005

What do political scientists and psychologists think about the use of torture by modern states?

Torture is unjustifiable in any circumstances according to the overwhelming majority of political scientists and psychologists who took part in a Times Higher straw poll. For both practical and ethical reasons, 39 academics rejected any suggestion that physical coercion might ever be acceptable.

Simon Dorman, a lecturer in psychology at Roehampton University, argued: "The use of torture is abhorrent in a modern, civilised and democratic society." One professor of politics said: "The ends cannot justify the means. People will say anything just to stop the torture - and so it doesn't work." A handful - three political scientists and a psychologist - argued that in extreme circumstances, such as locating an atomic bomb planted by terrorists in a major city, torture could be justified by a modern state, though one added: "What remains far from clear is how exactly those circumstances might be specified."

One professor of politics said that the return from torture was worthless and that it corrupted those who practised it and created irreconcilable enemies and a vicious circle. A psychology lecturer noted: "What is acceptable as an appropriate justification is always dependent on societal and political opinion and fears, and this is why I think there must be other ways than behaving in a most barbaric manner."

An anonymous professor of political philosophy said: "There may be instances in which torture is justified in principle, but given the propensity of governments to use torture on other occasions, it is best if torture is treated as never justified.

"It is possible to imagine circumstances in which thousands of people will suffer death and injury unless information is extracted from someone, and that information may be forthcoming only if torture is used. However, the problem is that, if you give governments the power to use torture, they will use it in cases in which it is not justified rather than only in exceptional cases."

* "The view that torture had disappeared until relatively recently is a misconception. It was merely refined and redefined, as indicated, for example, by the European Court's ruling in relation to its use in the North of Ireland that found not torture but 'inhumane and degrading treatment'. In the same way, practices have been used that are oppressive but are legal in interrogations, the purpose of which has been defined as to 'Ibuild up an atmosphere in which the initial desire to remain silent is replaced by an urge to confide in the questioner'.

"How such a desire was achieved was never made clear. But few people seem concerned that people may be pressured into 'confessing'. Rather, it appears to be the extent of that pressure that is contested.

"Our recent history reveals a willingness to accept the draconian invasive growth of authoritarianism with limited objection, if not orchestrated popular demand for such. The propaganda of the need for 'war' - on drugs, on crime and now on terror - has won the 'high ground'. This is evidenced best in the arrogant swagger of a state prepared to admit and condone practices that any reasonable person would see as torture, their savagery obfuscated by alleged necessity in the 'new reality' wherein Tony Blair protests 'the rules have changed'.

"Sorry, but the rules have not changed, just the probability of being held to account either to law or to the electorate. We surrender principles of justice too easily when they were difficult to win and clearly never secured."

Liam McCann, senior lecturer in policy studies, Lincoln University

* "In general, there should be an a priori assumption that when torture occurs it is unjustified. But the liberal assertion that there can never be circumstances in which it is justified is untenable. Such a categorical position leads you into logical difficulties. Sooner or later, one comes up against situations in which torture is less of a transgression of human rights than not torturing.

"If I had in front of me a person who had kidnapped a member of my family and left them to die somewhere unless they could be found in time, I would be sentencing my child or spouse to death if I did not use whatever force was necessary to find out where they were imprisoned. In such a case, torturing a vile person who has subjected someone else to the most terrible cruelty so that I can save an innocent one seems to me to be a fairly trivial transgression of human rights.

"I do not think that sadists, killers and torturers have the same human rights as others; indeed, their actions disqualify them in some extreme cases. That raises the question of which circumstances make it permissible and which do not, which individuals do not matter and which do. I do not have an answer to that and do not know how we can draw a line.

It is also clear that to allow that there are circumstances in which it is permissible opens the door to abuse by states and corporations.

Nevertheless, the idea of an absolute objection is a charter for murderers and torturers. That is the irony and contradiction inherent in the problem.

It is the painful nature of our times."

An anonymous senior lecturer in politics

* "The current failure of moral reasoning on this topic in the UK media is very disturbing. It is clear that nobody worries very much anymore about how to keep the safeguards that were so hard won in the process of becoming a democracy. We are drifting into a situation where an unscrupulous government will have all the means it needs to oppress its own people."

An anonymous senior lecturer in psychology

* "I can't see any justification for the use of torture by a modern state that claims to be a liberal one. It goes hand in hand with the other erosions of basic rights such as the proposed changes in the Terrorism Bill. In both cases, the assumption that the security forces are so professional that their judgment should trump all other considerations is contradicted almost daily by evidence of their fallibility."

An anonymous politics lecturer

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