top of page


Image by Maria Oswalt

What is torture?

Torture is the intentional infliction of pain, physical or psychological. It is generally done for the purpose of coercing a confession; punishing, intimidating, or threatening a person; or to force someone to comply with the torturer’s demands. It is often referred to euphemistically as “enhanced interrogation.” 


“[T]here is a tragic conflict between the principles by which we wish to live together, ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ and the duty and conscience of those who bear responsibility for protecting the lives of others. Extracting information from the enemy is vital to the fulfillment of that responsibility and torture and degradation can deliver it,” wrote Derk Roelofsma, a former intelligence officer. Do we have a “responsibility” to perpetrate aggressive violence against another? Is torture a responsibility that outweighs regular rights and moral concerns? Can committing a terrible crime take away a person’s right to live free from violence?


The Consistent Ethic of Life gives a resounding “No!” to these questions. Our value as human beings is intrinsic, and no crime, serious as it may be, can take away this intrinsic worth and dignity — to be deserving of human rights, it is enough that you are human. Torture does not recognize the humanity of the interrogated person: it views them as an object to be manipulated, an obstacle to achieving some end. To say that someone is worthy of torture is to practice a grave kind of discrimination.


Do utilitarian arguments for torture hold any weight?

In addition to being intrinsically wrong, torture has shown to be ineffective and impractical. It is important to note that even declassified CIA interrogation manuals, which were used to train torturers, do not portray torture as a particularly successful interrogation technique:


“Intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, fabricated to avoid additional punishment.” (Human Resources Exploitation Training Manual, 1983)


As neurologist Lawrence Hinkle explains, “Any circumstance that impairs the function of the brain potentially affects the ability to give information as well as the ability to withhold it.” The terror and extreme stress that torture provokes often causes people to become “more dogmatic and tenacious,” making them more committed to not talking, or it causes them to dissociate, giving them the ability to withstand enormous amounts of pain. Furthermore, traumatic pain and exhaustion can cause even cooperative individuals to have trouble recalling information; in their exhausted and pain-addled state, they may give false information they believe is correct, or their “heightened suggestibility,” caused by the pain, might cause them to start believing whatever they think the torturer believes.


Torturers, like all people, are prone to making self-fulfilling calls, in some cases believing lies, and in other cases not realizing when they’ve gotten a true confession. Interrogators are notoriously bad at telling if someone is lying — to the extent that chance is often more reliable than supposed “experts.” As Dr. Darius Rejali writes, “The notion that one will stop torturing when one hears the right information presupposes that one has gathered circumstantial information that allows one to know the truth when one hears it. That is precisely what does not happen with torture.”

Some people will talk simply to get the torture to stop, some will purposely lie, others will give misleading information simply because they are unable to think straight, and a few others will give correct information. Combine this situation with the fact that torturers may not be very good at judging the veracity of a confession, and it is obvious that this leads to a serious glut of information that intelligence seekers will need to verify. In other words, torture gives intelligence seekers more data to work with, but it also requires the extra work of verifying and sifting through those high amounts of data, much of which is purposely misleading and false. 


Furthermore, torture is not something that can just be conducted once or twice on only the worst criminals. Torturers are not just born; someone needs to train them, and some kind of institution is necessary for this. In order to be done “safely” and not indiscriminately, then, torture requires the institutionalization, medicalization, and professionalization of violence. Torture agencies need to work in cooperation with the military, the police, or the judiciary. Medical professionals need to research the “best” ways to cause pain and keep the victim alive until a confession has been given.


Institutionalization brings its own set of challenges to the utilitarian argument. As Jean Maria Arrigo writes, “The utilitarian argument for torture interrogation… must justify the additional sacrifice of the torturers — made vulnerable to ‘perpetration-induced traumatic stress’... or develop some hitherto-unknown transcendent regimen for training and after-care of torturers.” She argues that these supports would also need to be made available for all involved with torture interrogation, including support staff, families, and even the secretaries who have to handle the torture analysis and reports. 


Torture is not only wrong, it is ineffective and impractical — gaining dubious information at enormous institutional and moral costs.

Image by De an Sun
Image by Maria Oswalt

Torture at Guantanamo

Perhaps the most infamous case of torture by the United States is the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, a detention center for suspected terrorists. Former prisoners and interrogators have reported the use of numerous torture techniques, including sleep deprivation, shackling combined with long periods of solitary confinement, beatings, setting dogs on prisoners, threats of murder or rape, sexual degradation, isolation, and exposure to extreme temperatures. 


Guantanamo has been described as a place for “the worst of the worst,” but 93% of their prison population has been released without a formal charge. In addition to this, all of the 780 people who have been kept there are Muslim, which should lead us to question whether the prison is really meant for the worst or if it’s actually a convenient shield for institutionalized Islamophobia. Much of the torture there has relied on religious harassment, including forced shaving of beards, force-feeding during Ramadan, and desecration of the Koran. These facts have led many to call out Guantanamo as a place where Islamophobia can be practiced with impunity, privacy, and, at the same time, public sanction. In many parts of the world, Guantanamo has come to symbolize the United States’ treatment of Muslim people


Rather than leading to the downfall of terrorists, Guantanamo has only made it more socially acceptable to attack an already-targeted group. Defense of torture, like defenses of other forms of violence, all too often turns into an excuse to degrade those that society does not want to treat justly.


Torture in the prison system

Although torture is illegal in the US, its use often goes relatively unchallenged in the prison system. 


Solitary confinement, for example, is often used as a punishment for incarcerated people, even though it has been shown to have serious, lasting physical and mental effects, including increased risk of suicide and self-harm. The United Nations considers any solitary confinement that lasts longer than fifteen days torture, calling for it to be banned as a “punishment or extortion technique.” And yet, an estimated 80,000 people in the US prison system are in solitary confinement — and this number does not include those in county jails, juvenile facilities or immigration or military detention. This means that in 2017, the UK had the same number of incarcerated people in their entire prison system as the US had in solitary confinement.


Solitary confinement is a staggeringly common form of carceral torture; there is plenty of evidence that other forms of torture are also common (and there is also reason to believe that our knowledge of conditions in prisons is far from complete). Medical neglect, corporal punishment, and harassment are also commonly reported. Once torture is accepted as an appropriate way to punish or manipulate one group, it is difficult to see why it should not be applied to another. Once it is decided that guilt strips you of your right to be free from violence, the accused and the guilty become easy targets.


Learn More

Trapped at Guantanamo: Rehumanizing the Face of Injustice

Solitary Confinement Amounts to Cruel and Unusual Torture


Other Resources

Witness Against Torture

Image by Hédi Benyounes


bottom of page