Terrorism and Torture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

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Based on these legal documents, to which the US and most other democratic nations are signatory, torture is banned under all circumstances and its use disobeys the rule of international law and severely violates human rights standards. Within the framework of international law, no legal loopholes can be found to justify torture in the fight against terrorist threats Buffacchi and Arrigo, The question if torture can be morally justified can be addressed from two different ethical perspectives: a deontological and a consequentialist one.

Because each person has the fundamental right to be treated respectfully by others, torture cannot be morally justified Sussman, ; Bufacchi and Arrigo, Some scholars, like Uwe Steinhoff, challenge this argument by raising the point that other forms of violence, which are equally cruel and degrading, are justified and legitimised under certain circumstances. If killing is justified in a combat and for the purpose of self-defence then torture needs to be justified under similar conditions too Steinhoff, Although this argument may sound legitimate, the comparison of torture with self-defence killing is simply misleading for the following reasons.

First, the justification of one form of violence is not a strong argument for the justification of other violent treatments. Second, the justification of killing in combat and self-defence is based on the ground that another person poses a threat to our own survival, and we have the right to defend ourselves. Torture of a detained terrorist, on the contrary, is an act of violence against a defenceless victim, who does not pose an immediate threat Shue, , The act of torture always implies an asymmetric power-relation between the torturer and the victim, in which the torturer is in absolute control of the situation and exerts dominance and force on a defenceless victim Sussman, 7.

The justification of self-defence can not account as an argument for the justification of torture, as the latter is an act of violence against a defenceless victim, which increases the moral damnability even more Shue, , Additionally, torture includes another element, which clearly distinguishes it from other degrading forms of violence. Two examples of commonly used torture techniques can be given to illustrate this process of self-betrayal.

From Islamic State victim to terrorist hunter - Masoud's list - DW Documentary

Stress positions for instance force the victim to remain for hours or days in distorted positions. Another form of torture, water boarding, provides a similar example. Water boarding pours water over the face of the tortured person and creates the experience of drowning ICRC, 8. Here the tortured victim fights against its need to breathe in order to stop the water pouring into his lungs and thereby experiences himself as being complicit in his own violation and degradation Sussman, Many forms of torture currently used in the war on terror include this element of self-betrayal Sussman, It is this element of forced self-betrayal that distinguishes torture from other forms of violence.

Instead of just violating the dignity of a victim, torture perverts it in a way that cannot be morally justified form any perspective that essentially values it Sussman, Although most scholars agree that from a deontologist perspective torture cannot be morally justified, the debate around justifying torture on consequentialist grounds is less straightforward.

Can the Use of Torture in the War on Terror be Justified?

Scholars who dismiss any justification of torture on deontological grounds, argue that the use of torture in exceptional situations is justifiable from a consequentialist perspective, as long as the positive consequences of its use outweigh the negative ones. This argument is based on a simple cost-benefits analysis that concludes that torture can be morally justified if it is the lesser of two evils and is used to avoid the greater one Bufacchi and Arrigo, f.

To develop and strengthen this argument, moral defenders of torture, rely heavily on the hypothetical scenario of a ticking bomb, which was originally created by Bentham Bellamy, The ticking bomb scenario describes an emergency situation in which torture is used to obtain information from a terrorist about the location of a ticking bomb. In this case, the use of torture can be considered as the lesser evil in order to prevent a greater evil — namely, the killing or injury of an unspecified number of innocent civilians if the bomb is not found in time Steinhoff, The conclusion that is drawn from this scenario is that if a danger can just be avoided through the use of torture, and the protected interests outbalance the violated interests, the act of torture is justifiable Steinhoff, Gardner goes further and states that in such a situation, torture is not merely justifiable, but even morally required.

Judging Political Violence: Histories, Norms and Contestations

Nevertheless, the ticking bomb scenario provides a rather weak foundation to build these arguments upon. The scenario of a ticking bomb is a pure hypothetical scenario, and even if it could be considered valid in theory, its application in reality remains questionable. This is due to the fact that the moral conclusion drawn from the scenario is based on a set of rather unlikely and misleading assumptions Bellamy, f.

The ticking bomb scenario is based on the assumptions that torture is the only means to abstract life-saving information from a terrorist, and that torture actually works. Empirical evidence, on the contrary, shows that. Torture is therefore not more efficient in gathering intelligence than other interrogation techniques Bufacchi and Arrigo, Additionally torture is a rather unreliable form of extracting information and often leads to false confessions in order to stop the violent treatment.

This is a common problem reported by several interrogation officers Bellamy, British terrorist suspects, for instance, confessed under torture that they were trained in Afghanistan by the terror network Al- Qaeda, during a period of time when they were actually in the UK Rose, The validity of the additional information gathered through torture is therefore highly questionable Bellamy, Furthermore, only early confessions are considered useful in the fight against terrorism. Once the terrorist organisation finds out that one of their members has been captured, its plans are likely to change and the information provided by the detained terrorist becomes useless Bellamy, A prominent example that underlines this is the case of Al Qaeda Member Mohamed al Kahtani, who resisted torture for months before he released information Bufacchi and Arrigo, This follows that the initial purpose of torture, to gather valuable information which otherwise could not have been collected, is not met in reality.

Consequently, if torture as an interrogation technique lacks utility and does not lead to the expected positive results in most cases, it cannot be morally justified on consequentialist grounds Bufacchi and Arrigo, Apart from the fact that torture mostly does not lead to the expected positive results, a series of negative long-term consequences weaken the consequentialist argument further.

First, the social and psychological consequences of torture on the victims and their relatives are evident years or decades after the incidents occurred Sussman, Examples are the inability of victims to reintegrate into their social environment and a tendency to severe forms of self-destruction. These effects are especially devastating for innocent victims of torture and the destruction of their lives cannot easily be justified Bufacchi and Arrigo Secondly, the violation of human rights norms through torture and illegitimate ill- treatments of prisoners widens the gap between the Muslim community and the US even more Ramsay, Al-Qaeda may find it easier to recruit new members among the ones whose rights have been breached, among their relatives and friends, and especially among the innocent victims of torture.

By violating the very same rights they are claiming to protect, the US and its allies risk loosing legitimacy in this war and may contribute to increased radicalisation Hoffmann, Thirdly, negative political consequences are triggered as well.


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By justifying torture, one runs the risk that its use may become the rule rather than the exception Sussman, None of the cases in which torture was used as an interrogation technique resembled an emergency scenario as serious as that of the ticking bomb. These developments suggest that the use of torture has already become normal practice, rather than the exception Bellamy, In sum, the negative consequences of justifying torture and its illegitimate use are affecting society as a whole.

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It may dissolve moral concerns against its general use and undermines the validity of human right norms and the rule of international law Bellamy, ; Sussman, In other words, a justification of torture will question some of the key foundations upon which democratic societies rest Ramsay, Any negative long- term consequences of this kind need to be weighted against the assumed positive effects. Arguably, such a cost-benefit analysis can only lead to the strict refusal of a justification of torture on consequentialist grounds Bufacchi and Arrigo, As outlined in this essay the use of torture in the war against terror as an interrogation technique became part of a broader counterterrorist strategy, supported by the US and some of its allies.

Incidents of torture were reported from Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and Bagram Air Base, triggering questions about whether the use of torture could be justified in order to protect human rights from terrorist threats. The right to life and the right to security are fundamental human rights a state is obligated to protect.

Nevertheless, the right way to take this responsibility cannot include further violations of human rights standards. Protection against torture is a universal and non-derogable human right and its use is prohibited by international law without exceptions. Additionally, a moral justification of torture cannot be given, neither on deontological nor on consequentialist grounds.

From a deontological perspective, torture is morally wrong because it violates and perverts human dignity in an incomparable way. Similarly, a consequentialist argument for the justification of an exceptional use of torture has to be dismissed due to the fact that the hypothetical ticking bomb scenario does not resemble reality.

His research findings are also receiving increasing attention in court trials involving tortured detainees, particularly in the U.


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  5. This book brings together current behavioral science and international law perspectives of definition of torture. This course is based in part on the contents of his own contributions to the book.

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