Australia, in the height of summer, a woman inadvertently left the keys in her car ignition while she paid for petrol, giving the opportunity for a thief to steal it. Unfortunately, her baby was still in the car. The police advised the woman the thief would soon abandon the car, which he did. He was quickly arrested—but he refused to say where he left the car. Forty minutes in the heat would leave the baby brain damaged, possibly dead. Appeals to decency, reason and self-interest all failed. So the police beat the thief up. Realising the beating would go on until he told them where the car was, he did so—and the baby was saved, just.
In another instance, in Florida, one half of a kidnapping duo was caught. He refused to reveal the whereabouts of his partner-in-crime. Fearing that the victim would be killed, the police choked their suspect until he told them what they needed. The tortured criminal was later taken downtown and made a confession—one he later, at trial, sought to have suppressed. The state appeal court ruled against this request, but went further, stating that the torture was “understandably motivated by the immediate necessity to find the victim and save his life”. A further appeal to a federal court was met with the same decision.
Neither instance amounts to the thousands threatened by, say, a biological weapon, but most people’s moral intuition favours the police’s actions all the same. The ‘enhanced interrogation’ of known Al-Qaeda or ISIS terrorists whose fellow terrorists are planning further attacks brings us closer to real-life examples of the ticking time-bomb scenario than many are ready to admit.
Indeed, perhaps it is because our moral intuitions are just that—gut feelings rather than cold rationality—that that our responses to torture often vacillate between the pro and the con. The neuroscientist and public thinker Sam Harris has also put forward a case against an absolute prohibition on torture—“in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, not a comfortable position to have publicly adopted,” he has noted. “[But] while many people have objected, on emotional grounds, to my defence of torture, no one has pointed out a flaw in my argument. [And] I would be sincerely grateful to have my mind changed on this subject.”
Harris argues that the position against the use of torture in rare circumstances is at odds with our willingness to wage modern war in the first place: if we are willing to accept the ‘collateral damage’ that comes with dropping bombs—a method of warfare more or less guaranteed to inflict misery or death on a considerable number of innocents, often knowingly so in advance—why should torture of a terrorist “provoke convulsions of conscience”?
“What,” he asks, “is the difference between pursuing a course of action where we run the risk of inadvertently subjecting some innocent men to torture, and pursuing one in which we will inadvertently kill far greater numbers of innocent men women and children? It seems obvious that the misapplication of torture should be far less troubling to us than collateral damage. There seems no question that accidentally torturing an innocent man is better than accidentally blowing him and his children to bits.” Revulsion felt towards torture because it’s up close and personal is a failure of imagination in considering what it must be like to be bombed.
Harris even proposes his own thought experiment. If some kind of ‘torture pill’ might be devised—one that produced paralysis and a brief, intense spell of the kind of misery that nobody would wish to suffer twice, but which, after what appeared to be a short nap, led to the person who took it waking to give up all he knew—wouldn’t we be inclined to call this pharmaceutical intervention a ‘truth pill’? “Realism,” Harris has added, “is not the point of these thought experiments. The point is that unless your argument rules out torture in idealised cases, you don’t have a categorical argument against torture.”
It’s not an easy thing to hear. We all like to conceive of ourselves as civilised, as keeping back the barbarians, not stooping to their methods. But it would seem that, in exceptional instances, opting for torture would be the right thing to do—morally, practically, albeit reluctantly—in defense of legitimate self-preservation. That may not be intellectually satisfactory, suggesting only how moral issues rarely have neat endings. All the same, it’s probably not a conversation to have next time you’re enjoying a dinner party with friends either.