Is torture always wrong?

(For the interview with Professor Marshall go to STOP PRESS)

Science and Faith, July 18

In Pope John Paul II’s impressive encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993) he
teaches that there are acts which are always wrong in themselves,
“independently of circumstances”. And among the examples he quotes from
Vatican II is “whatever violates the integrity of the human
person… such as physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the
Discussing this with friends recently I was not surprised to be met by the
“ticking bomb” example. Imagine a situation in which your family are locked
in a cellar with a ticking bomb, which is due to detonate in a quarter of an
hour. You have captured the villain who has arranged this, but he refuses to
give you the combination of the lock which will allow you to open the door.
Assuming there is no other way in the time available, would you be justified
in torturing him to get the information, or would you pass the quarter hour
reading Veritatis Splendor? And there is a third answer: you might agree
that torture was wrong but be prepared to carry it out.
Everyone has to answer those questions for themselves. But my friends argued
this way: this villain is an aggressor and you would be perfectly entitled
to kill him in your family’s defence if that would do any good (for
instance if he were guarding the door with a lethal weapon). But to torture
him is less grave than killing him and it is the only option left with a
hope of success. So ample justification is there.
This, of course, is an extreme example for debating purposes but it does
appear to clash with the Council’s “independently of circumstances”. In real
life we are more likely to be thinking of people whom we are morally certain
are terrorists (threatening our families) and who hold information about
other terrorists which they are not prepared to divulge.
There are important real-life issues. It may that the victim has not himself
been guilty of colluding in terrorism; he may not have the required
information; the information he is forced to give may be inaccurate. The
authorities who authorise the torture, or turn a blind eye to it, may do
more harm to their claim to democratic freedom and the rule of law than any
benefit which results. Many argue against torture for such practical
But I think that the late Pope is digging deeper. What he is saying is that
torture dehumanises the victim. In effect it has to break down the victim¹s
personhood, by removing his human freedom to choose, and reducing him to
forced action through pain and fear of pain. The phrases “violate the human
person” and “coerce the spirit” indicate this.
Now let’s look at history. The British Medical Journal of June 28 reported
on a study conducted by Physicians for Human Rights. They studied 11
detainees held in American facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo
Bay. None had been charged with any crime.
The methods used to bring about “excruciating pain, terror, humiliation, and
shame for months on end” were various. “Suspension, stress positions,
routine isolation, sleep deprivation with sense bombardment and extreme
temperatures, sexual humiliation and forced nakedness, electric shock,
beatings, threats to life and families” are among the methods reported,
either as authorised or countenanced. It provides a general idea.
Major General Taguma, who led the investigation of the scandal at Abu
Ghraib, commented on the indiscriminate flouting of the UN Convention
against Torture, and said: “There is no longer any doubt as to whether the
current administration has committed war crimes. The only question is
whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
There were only 11 detainees in the study, each of whose cases had to be
investigated over two days, and the medical records provided by the
interrogators examined. But other generalised evidence suggests that some or
all of these practices were routinely used.
In this report there was no suggestion that so-called truth drugs were
employed. There are a variety of substances which are alleged to have the
capacity to ensure that all is revealed. Here there need be no external
symptoms; indeed the victim might not even recall what had happened. At
present they have a reputation for unreliability. One would imagine that if
they did the intended job there would have been no need for the physical
abuse of alleged terrorists.
But science advances, and effective drugs may well be developed in the
future. It would be interesting to know if secret research work is being
done in this country, or any other. And, as we learn more and more about the
brain, it is quite possible that ways will be discovered to exercise direct
control over brain functions, which might have the same effect. All these
would dehumanise, and so fall under the Council’s stricture.
Meanwhile we are left with the question: how far would we personally go to
extract information which we are confident will save the lives of innocent
people? Remember the villain who locked up your loved ones with a ticking
bomb. If you are a newcomer to this blog, there’s plenty of interest here if you follow down through the posts, or have a look at the STOP PRESS page. You don’t have to make a comment to register for the blog, but registration enables me to let you know about interesting new material


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

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