9/11 Torture Program, puts it. “That the prohibition is universal is a reflection of the fact that human societies are always going to feel some existential threat. It’s the one-on-one experiential horror of torture that the prohibition is rooted in.”
And yet Donald Trump is not alone. There are those willing to defend torture—that is, defend what many say is indefensible, defend the likes of what The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy wincingly describes variously as being “practices [such as] as searing with hot irons, electric shock treatment to the genitals, inserting a needle under the fingernails, drilling through an unanestheticised tooth...”
The celebrated lawyer Alan Dershowitz, for example, has made a case for state institutions to be able to issue torture warrants, much as they might a warrant for surveillance or to search a home; while Professor Fritz Allhoff of Western Michigan University, author of Terrorism, Ticking Time-Bombs and Torture, has made a strong case for torture’s limited use. And—given that even discussing the possibility of practising torture has become taboo—that is not, he says, an easy position to take. “It’s a risky subject and one reason why my work has got attention is that people see it as being the best version of the wrong argument,” says Allhoff. “Let’s just say that [defending torture] is not great for career opportunities.”
In part, a readiness to defend what many would call torture lies in a rebuttal of the use of the word to describe the treatment meted out. While the European Court of Human Rights agreed that those detained men in Northern Ireland had suffered “inhuman and degrading treatment”, they had, it stated, not been tortured. That’s a matter of degree, of interpretation of the measure of severity—whether or not it results in “serious physical injury, organ failure or death”, as the Pentagon’s notorious ‘torture memos’ of 2002 sought to limit definitions.
Indeed, the UN Convention Against Torture may rule torture illegal, framing it as the only crime other than genocide that every state must punish, no matter who commits it or where—but it also makes a distinction between torture and what it calls (and also opposes) “other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Water boarding, the practice carried out by the CIA in the interrogation of suspected terrorists in its Abu Ghraib facility, for example, may be a terrible experience, but—legally—it remains open to debate as to whether it, and similar acts, are torture. Then there are arguments made that, since terrorists are not a state party to the Geneva Conventions, they aren’t covered by their prohibitions anyway. Since 9/11 it’s all become a very grey area—unconvincing to many—for a very dark subject.
But Allhoff’s question is more precise: despite the repulsion that the idea of torture no doubt inspires; despite the claims that it corrupts the soul—not just of the person tortured, but of the torturer, even of the state and of society; despite claims that it’s a slippery slope—that one instance of torture is the beginning of the road to it becoming a state sanctioned tool; despite broader claims, by the likes of Rebecca Evans, associate professor of politics at Ursinus University, Philadelphia, that it damages the reputation of the state, complicates relations with its allies and suggests a hypocrisy that makes the recognition of human rights by other nations harder to insist on; despite—false—claims to its ineffectiveness in an interrogation situation—that the tortured don’t provide reliable information (that the very act of inflicting pain is said to negatively affect the centres of the brain required to be able to give truthful information)... After all this, can torture ever be justified? And he says yes.
“Some people admit that in principle, in rare cases, there could be some conceptual, abstract acceptance of torture. They’re comfortable with that because they’re not taking the idea on in the real world,” says Allhoff, “But others say that in principle torture is never OK, which is just implausible. Critics say that it’s better to have an absolute bar [on torture] because it’s too hard to nuance. But I think you can have semi-effective torture in limited cases without torture becoming institutionalised. The idea of a torture warrant doesn’t work—that amounts to a blank cheque. But if torture is the right thing to do—if intelligence indicates no other options in tackling a substantial and imminent threat— then do it.”
The argument—which does not support the use of torture for, for example, the benefit of sadists, for revenge, or as a means of states terrorising their own populations—is couched