Monday, April 27, 2009

The U.S. engaged in torture that was morally and legally legitimate?

The United States is currently in the grips of a contentious torture debate. For some answers, we must first outline the semantic facts to set the stage for reasoning.

The word torture comes from the word tort, first used in 1350-1400 meaning injury, wrong, or injustice. The word was later expanded to tortus meaning twisted, crooked, dubious and then torquere meaning to twist, wring. The specific word torture dates to the 1530s. Its original form was tortura, meaning a twisting, torment. The suffix, -ure, describes action, result, or instrument of, as in pressure (the action of pressing) or legislature (the action of legislating).

According to Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, Torture means, to put to torture; to pain extremely; to harass; to vex; to wrest from the proper meaning; to keep on the stretch, as a bow; to punish with torture; to put to the rack.

Against this background which stops any hair splitting, let’s clear up the torture debate. Behavior towards another person called “torture” can either be a method of punishment or a method of harassment to vex (irritate, annoy, provoke) and wrest (to take away by force) by twisting a person (mentally, physically, emotionally) into telling the proper (truthful) meaning or information wanted. Torture then has two distinct meanings: one, which defines torture as punishment, and another, which defines it as a method to get to the truth.

The key to the debate is to delineate the morality and ethics of each type of torture and then compare what the U.S is doing against each moral backdrop. Those against the government’s torture methods only see torture as punishment. Those who approve of the government interrogation methods are viewing torture as a way to the truth. Both sides do not see torture from the same perspective and thus are at odds. The debate over torture then is really a debate over why it has been used, not if it can be used.

On the one hand, torture to punish is wrong under the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which protects against cruel and unusual punishments inflicted as result of the conviction of a crime. Punishment that is based on retribution for crimes requiring the infliction of torture for evil reasons is morally and ethically wrong. As such, torture methods used on prisoners by the U.S. government were not based on punishment for their behaviors on the battlefield.

On the other hand, the torture methods that were used to secure information are appropriate, as they were not being used as punishment. Torture on persons who had the truth as to potential attacks on the U.S. and its people were not inflicted for evil reasons as retribution for war, but quite to the contrary. The torture was used to extract the truth to protect innocent human beings from attacks against their persons and property. In its proper context, the torture used by the U.S. is morally justified and thus legal. In fact, not using techniques to protect people and their property, which is the number one responsibility of government, would be irresponsible at best and immoral at worst.

Torture for punitive evil retribution is abhorrent and should never be tolerated, and torture to secure information should not be used for light or transient causes. However, torture is justified in self-defense where innocent people are at risk of their lives from individuals who have information that if offered would lead to the protection of the people. Torture can be both immoral and moral depending on the reasons it is being used. As far as the current U.S. torture debate is concerned, the facts are clear and thus the issue is moot.


  1. Either way torture isn't the rightful way to obtian information. If we create a double standard for the 8th amendent, then we are become what our founding fathers fought against.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. The study of rights and ethics under deontology are completely at odds with this statement.

    The ends, in deontology, do not justify the means. When looking at a specific example, like torture, can it not be said that to take a human being's rights (inalienable, by the way) to life, liberty, and property, it then undermines the very institution of private property (and the protection thereof) that we strive to ensure?

    In essence, once torture becomes a viable means to protect people, it then underwrites the foundation of property in the first place.

    As the Magna Carta says: No man shall be taken, imprisoned, or destroyed except for by the lawful judgement of his peers.

    The only crime terrorist suspects have committed is being privy to specific information. But this is always true. Looking at economics, isn't information asymmetry a natural occurrence in establishing price? In the creation of middlemen?

    By using the guise of "public safety" to destroy a man physically and psychologically, it belies the truths we stand for.

    Speaking simply, Mr. Kalahar, I believe, in order to protect private property, we must protect private property.

    Edit: Caught a spelling mistake.