Torture: Unnecessary Evil?

By Andrew Field
The practice of torture and rendition are on the menu, again. It’s a subject which arouses strong emotion in democratic society. Just today, we have read or heard the matter discussed in the news. British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, speak of United Kingdom intelligence apparatus making ‘difficult judgments’ and ‘hard choices’ in the context of torture and rendition.

Let’s get to the basics. Torture of one human being by another is an abhorrent act. Your disgust at such treatment needs little justification. Torture, or rendition to conduct torture by ‘surrogate states’, is the product of conflict, political oppression, and, in any social society, crime. In situations of warfare, torture occurs on both sides of the conflict. It’s a fact of life that potential intelligence required by one side of any conflict will be bravely refused by the captive from the other. Until, of course, more persuasion is applied.

The question on my mind is when does persuasion convert to torture and just where does one draw the line between legitimate extraction of intelligence and torture? It is not as simple as that. One needs to throw into this equation the concept of potential life and death consequences to your own forces or population, by one’s failure to extract relevant intelligence. Call this justification, or as Mr Miliband puts it, making ‘hard choices’.

It goes a step further though, as we have all experienced through the news over the years. When not properly controlled or overseen, and left in the hands of badly selected, often ignorant, inexperienced or poorly trained interrogators, torture is the outcome of warped mindsets and frequently, if not always, the source of sadistic satisfaction and domination by the individual. You only have to look to the Iraq war and the Abu Ghraid abuses by the United States military. Little wonder the emotions of the democratic world are aroused. My own Zimbabwe has had is fair share of the innocents being tortured by the regime’s political commissars.

Torture is often ‘justified’ by those with blood on their hands, with the not surprising claim that ‘the other side’ does it without sanction, often perpetrates far worse treatment upon its victims, and nobody makes much noise about it. It is probable that any NATO serviceman, captured by insurgents in Afghanistan, will likely receive brutal, sustained, ultimately fatal, torture during his captivity. This is the nature of terrorism, those warped minds and sadistic satisfaction, this time in the hands of religious zealots. It is no reasonable motive for democratic nations to do likewise.

So just where do we draw the line between saving lives and exerting a little more persuasion than that which is acceptable to our democratic principals? It’s a tall order for any intelligence organisation. Governments thrust their ‘spooks’ into the role of gathering information in ‘Defense of the Realm’ and yet cannot be seen to justify the acts of those who forced to make these ‘hard choices’. Those who make ‘difficult judgments’ and get caught doing so, it seems, suffer the consequences of being ostracized and prosecuted by the very institutions that ask them to make the ‘hard choices’ in the first place.

Are we not conditioning, too negatively, those who have to make ‘difficult judgments’, which are so inevitable in conflict? Are we not, by our ivory tower sagacity about these profound methods, asking our intelligence communities to slide down the slippery slope of inactivity to our very own detriment? There will be little use in rattling the cages of the intelligence services the next time bombs start going off in your capitals, if we are.


5 thoughts on “Torture: Unnecessary Evil?

  1. It’s a good article although I probably stand to the right of the author. The torturer is often conflicted as to what he perceives to be “saving a life” albeit at some pain to the victim or the alternative being the policy of “Take no prisoners….”

    Aluta continua

  2. I think the question that should really be raised is, is torture effective? There are many interview/interrogation techniques that will produce reliable results without resorting to torture methods.

    Whether torture produces un-reliable information or not is something that has to be determined and decided by the security forces.

    Taking it a bit further, is it something that the public needs to know? Is it in the public interest? The line from A Few Good Men springs to mind “You can’t handle the truth!”

    Difficult questions certainly.


  3. Very difficult question, Andrew.
    I think torture per se is not effective. I can swear I am an alien if you make me do it. So, No. Brutality is not the answer. And regarding the question of drawing the line…. see it like this…
    Why does evil nature exist? So we can recognize the difference of the opposite. Sounds so simplistic…
    Does evil need and should be punished? Yes. Why? to protect the goodness and the balance of the world.
    I believe there should exist effective methods which help get the job done without falling on the criminal category…


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