The Torture Myth

On Human Rights Day, Cory Davia fact checks common arguments for torture and explains why torture is ultimately a moral issue.

At Alberto Gonzales' confirmation hearing for attorney general in 2005, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) holds up a copy of the Geneva Conventions while saying that it does not apply to terrorists. Policies Gonzales supported were believed to have led to the torture of terrorism detainees. (AP/Susan Walsh)
At Alberto Gonzales' confirmation hearing for attorney general in 2005, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) holds up a copy of the Geneva Conventions while saying that it does not apply to terrorists. Policies Gonzales supported were believed to have led to the torture of terrorism detainees. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Under the Bush administration, torture has essentially become a sanctioned policy in the United States. Yet 60 years ago today—Human Rights Day—the United States signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” Bush’s legal team has redefined torture such that almost nothing counts—even widely recognized torture tactics such as waterboarding, acute sleep deprivation, and stress.

Many of the arguments for and against torture involve political and legal concerns, but torture is inescapably a moral issue; it represents a fundamental disregard for human dignity and moral agency. Yet 47 percent of the public believes that torture is acceptable in at least some circumstances.

Those who support the use of torture—even if only in extreme situations—often rely on the hypothetical ticking-bomb case: If a terrorist has planted a bomb, and the only way to find the bomb in time is to torture the terrorist, then torture is necessary.

Partly because the ticking-bomb case is so persuasive, philosophical and popular debate has shifted somewhat from if torture is ever acceptable to when it is acceptable. But the ticking-bomb case relies upon three faulty rationales to defend torture.

Myth one: Torture is justified because of the innocent lives that will be saved.

The evidence does not support this claim; torture is an unreliable method of gathering accurate information because the victim will say virtually anything to make the torture stop. The CIA documented this reality in a recent collection of articles that concluded that pain and torture-like threats are unlikely ever to lead to true, verifiable, or actionable information from those being interrogated. One contributor writes that the scientific community “has never established that coercive interrogation methods are an effective means of obtaining reliable intelligence information.” The CIA’s research—and interrogators’ experience—shows that torture is ineffective, even when assuming that the person being tortured is without a doubt the one who possesses needed information, a claim that is itself fraught with uncertainty.

Myth two: Even though torture is unlikely to work, it should still be attempted in extreme cases.

The benefits of torture will never outweigh its costs because torture damages society in innumerable ways and creates even more danger. For instance, acts of torture often motivate terrorists and give fuel to their cause.[1] Torture also makes those who are initially moderate more extreme in their views and more sympathetic to terrorists.[2] And torture increases the risk of hasty, misdirected military action. The now-discredited intelligence claiming that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was obtained through torture.[3] Furthermore, the use of torture undermines respect for rule of law both within the United States and internationally.

An act of torture does not occur in a vacuum. Torture requires training and supervision, the production of torture devices, and research by the medial and scientific community about ways to inflict the most pain without killing or incapacitating victims. Torture requires a culture of torture,[4] and this infrastructure has the potential for myriad unintended abuses.[5]

Myth three: Torture is a defensive action, similar to fighting a war against a country that poses an imminent threat.

Even in war, not all actions are justifiable. There are established rules of warfare—championed by the United States—that impose moral restrictions on combat, including safeguards against attacks on civilians and on military response. According to these rules of warfare, military orders should respond appropriately to imminent threats, and when violence is used, it must be as a last resort.

Criminal law is an apt comparison when considering torture. Before a criminal can be punished, the government must establish that he or she is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This standard ensures that the government does not sanction punishment unless it can be sure—beyond a reasonable doubt—that the defendant is guilty of a crime. It defines a legal requirement about punishment and codifies a moral prohibition regarding the unjustified use of force. Given that torture is an extraordinarily worse ordeal than the sanctions for many crimes and misdemeanors, at least as strong a standard of certainty ought to apply when attempting to justify torture.

Could someone ever be so certain of each and every one of these conditions? The answer is no. Torture is supposed to defend against a threat by revealing information, but if the government has enough information to be sure that a suspect is connected to a threat, it also has enough information to defend against that threat without torture. As a result, one cannot be simultaneously sure that torture is a response to a direct threat and that it is a last resort.

Careful reflection of these arguments contributes both to the moral debate and to the restoration of respect for the rule of law. It is not surprising that each of the arguments for torture is unsuccessful. Torture requires one to completely disregard the worth and human dignity of one’s victim, which is the basis of major religious traditions and of our nation’s founding principles. Such a gulf between our political and religious values and our actions robs the United States’ credibility as a moral leader.

Many in the religious community have taken the lead in the effort to eliminate torture, arguing that all instances of torture are morally unacceptable. The National Religious Campaign against Torture is a coalition of religious groups and individuals committed to ending torture in the United States. Its message resonates across faith traditions. In the two years since its inception, it has attracted members from the Roman Catholic, evangelical Christian, Protestant, Unitarian, Orthodox Christian, Quaker, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh communities.

There is much work to be done to convince the many Americans who still believe that torture can be justified. Faith communities are an important part of this effort, as their work affirms that torture is not an abstract national security option but a serious moral issue. And abandoning the idea of torture is not only the best policy option for resurrecting the United States’ international legitimacy; it is also the only morally acceptable option.

The United States must stop any and all instances of torture, close any legal loopholes that allow it, and shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay. We should also renew our focus on international cooperation against threats such as terrorism and climate change that challenge us all. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that such changes will make everything right again. Moving past torture and reestablishing the United States as a moral leader will mean acknowledging that these abuses happened on our watch, and that reasonable fears can lead to grave abuses unless we are vigilant in upholding our nation’s founding commitments to human dignity and the rule of law. Getting our moral authority back will mean applying these principles consistently, both at home and abroad.

Cory Davia is a junior at Claremont McKenna College and an intern with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at CAP.


[1]Rev. Dr. William Schulz, Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights (Nation Books, 2003) pp. 182-183.

[2] Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Rev. Dr. William Schulz, "The End of Barbarism? The Phenomenon of Torture and the Search for the Common Good." In Sally Steenland, Peter Rundlet, Michael H. Fuchs, and David Buckley, eds., Pursuing the Global Common Good (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2007).

[3] Susan Thistlethwaite, The Devil in Politics: Good and Evil in American Public Life (Forthcoming) Ch. 2, p. 5

[4] David Luban, "Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb." In Karen J. Greenberg, ed., The Torture Debate in America (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[5] Uwe Steinhoff, "Torture: The Case fort Dirty Harry and Against Alan Dershowitz," Journal of Applied Philosophy 23 (3) (2006): 337-353.

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