Torturing Others Does Most Harm to Us

Defenders of torture are fond of the ticking bomb scenario. It describes a terrorist who has planted bombs around a city that are set to blow, but who refuses to tell authorities where they are. The implicit claim of the scenario is clear. That in some cases, in particular where lives are at stake and time is running short, torture may be justified.

Opponents of torture disagree. They say that real-world crimes, not artificial and oversimplified academic thought experiments designed to get students thinking, should form the basis of our moral and policy approach to torture. They say actual cases possessed of all the features of the ticking bomb scenario-the features that justify torture-are very, very rare.

There are many other arguments against torture, ones based on reason and evidence rather than, as is the case with the ticking bomb scenario, manipulative emotion. These include the fact that no less than the Centre for Strategic Intelligence Research at the Washington-based National Defense Intelligence College says there is no evidence that torture works. They also include the fact that torture violates the UN Convention Against Torture and, consequently, the moral authority of countries like Australia that have signed it (including our capacity to protest when our citizens are tortured by other nations).

And the hits keep coming. As a radio documentary just aired on ABC radio makes clear, when the moral prohibition on torture is transgressed, it can be the torturer-as well as the tortured-who suffers.

The program follows the life and tragic death of American Adam Gray. Gray served in Iraq and returned home with acute post-traumatic stress disorder caused, according to his mother and the mates that served with him in 68th Armor unit, by his inability to come to terms with what he had done to the prisoners in his charge while he was there. While training for his next deployment, Gray attempted suicide and, three weeks later, was found dead in his barracks from what the military describes as an accidental drug overdose.

Those who served with Gray have little doubt about what really killed their friend and what will be the death of them too, if they fail to take necessary measures to tend their own psychological scars. Scars caused by their inability to forgive themselves for the wrongs they did while on tour and the disconnect between their self-image as moral men and their knowledge of what they did and said in times of war. \ Said one soldier, “You don’t just forget what you’re capable of doing.” Admitted another, “I went to confession, went to counseling, I still can’t forgive myself.”

What did Gray and his fellow soldiers do? They blasted music in the ears of detainees to keep them awake and poured water over their mouths and noses to simulate drowning. They put them in stress positions and left them there for days without sleep, water or food.

Not all the soldiers did these things, or would have done them-even under duress. But as the “Obedience to Authority” and “Stanford Prison” experiments have shown, many more people will degrade and cause pain to others than would be the case if the conditions conducive to such abuse were not present. Indeed, as the story of Adam Gray suggests, many more will do these things than can live with themselves after.

We need to forbid torture for many reasons. These include the terrible price paid by both the tortured and the torturer.

Publication history

Torturing Others Does Most Harm to Us  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)