Torture is a Just Means of Preventing Terrorism

The fundamental arguments for and against the motion are below. Underneath those are useful links to find out more information, and then links to campaigning organisations who argue for or against the use of torture.




The Geneva Conventions only apply to prisoners of war. They do not apply to spies or terrorists. The Convention Against Torture only applies on a country's own soil, which is why torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay is legally acceptable.


The Geneva Conventions1 ban the use of "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture" (Article 3:1(a))

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights2 does not approve torture. Article 5: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

The United Nations Convention Against Torture3 bans torture of all civilians, combatants, prisoners of war and terrorists alike. This is an unambiguous piece of international law, which forbids the use of torture in all circumstances; this includes the 'exceptional ticking time-bomb' scenario. Although the Geneva Conventions don't explicitly ban the torture of terrorists because they are not parties to a state, the Convention Against Torture does protect terrorists.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court4 classes torture as a "crime against humanity", for which a suspect can be tried at The Hague.


In a 'ticking time-bomb scenario' there is a bomb that will detonate in a public area somewhere very soon. The person who planted the bomb is the only one who knows its whereabouts. That person is being held by the police/intelligence services. The interrogators have overwhelming evidence to believe that they have the right man. They can check anything he says to see if he is lying, because of the other intelligence they have gathered. However, he is refusing to disclose the location of the bomb under interrogation.

The three reasons5 torture is justified in this scenario are that, firstly there is a specific time pressure and the knowledge that there is no other possible to way to retrieve the information. Secondly, on a utilitarian calculus, the benefits to many outweigh the cost to one man. Thirdly, because the man is strongly assumed to be guilty, he deserves punishment anyway for his actions.


This situation is entirely hypothetical and there has never been a reported incident such as this. Intelligence agencies collect a wide range of information over time concerning one situation. Mostly, the intelligence they gather is not entirely verifiable. So, there is a possibility that the intelligence services are interrogating the wrong person. When it is doubtful that the person is even guilty, the argument that they deserve punishment falls. Nor is it worth the risk to torture someone unjustly. Even if they did know that the person captured was guilty, 'cruel and unusual' punishment is banned in many countries, including the United States of America.

There has never been a case in which there is a known time span in which to prevent something from occurring. If there are the time and resources to use other methods of extracting information, then surely they should be used? This hypothetical scenario is used to "score moral and policy points"6. If the time limit is what makes this scenario most justifiable, then the logical extreme is that any immoral action can be justified under time pressure to extract information.


Even under normal circumstances, rather than an immediate TTB scenario, the risks of a single terrorist putting the lives of far more people in danger with a long term plot is too great to be ignored. Interrogating one man can help reveal even more information to prevent other possible plots. The utilitarian principle still applies in a hypothetical situation. In fact, it is even more justified because the torturer puts one person in pain. Not only do you save more lives, but torturing someone causes them temporary physical pain. Killing thousands is permanent damage. The benefits vastly outweigh the cost of torture if a person is put in temporary pain and this prevents the deaths of many more.

Regardless of whether one person is innocent and does not deserve to be punished, if you consider the possibility of so many people dying and the risk that the situation is real and not hypothetical, an interrogator can be justifiably excused for torturing an innocent on a utilitarian basis7.


Every human life is unique and should be rewarded with respect. The concept of autonomy, somebody being in control of their own life, is a major part of our concept of what it is to be free. When you use someone as a means to an end, the way torture uses a terrorist as a means to finding information, you take away from that person's autonomy. They are no longer ruling themselves, but being used for a gain that is not their own. Torture impinges on the freedom that all humans deserve as autonomous beings.

If the victim survives, there are long term harms to that person, because their identity has been broken by this process of controlling their minds and bodies. When released, they are unable to function again in society. They are likely to be psychologically damaged for the rest of their lives, suffering trauma or finding it difficult to trust others. That is still a significant amount of damage to one life and directly impedes their autonomy. So, it is never justified to use utilitarian morality in decision making8.


With the use of modern technologies by intelligence services and the co-operation and exchanges of information between different intelligence agencies around the world, the likelihood of catching the wrong person has slimmed significantly. If you consider the history of intelligence gathering and the various techniques, you see that it was a lengthy and painstaking operation. This proves a great level of caution in gathering information and suggests that modern intelligence agencies do not take the risk of accidently accusing an innocent10.


There is no determined end to torture. In corporal punishment, we know someone is guilty. They are being punished for a crime. Whilst there is an element of justification for punishing a terrorist, that is not the aim of interrogation. The aim is to extract information by breaking down the will of an individual. If the terrorist refuses to give in, how far will an interrogator go to get this information? How do you know when a terrorist has revealed everything they know which could be of significance to the intelligence services? The torture can then carry on indefinitely, even to the point of death. Since you may not know whether this person is guilty, you may kill an innocent, which would be murder, or at the very least manslaughter9.


Regardless of whether the terrorist is right or not, it is still the duty of a democratic State to protect its citizens. This is because of the 'social contract.' Citizens support the State because collectively there are certain social goals that can only be achieved through an organized body. In this instance, individual citizens are unable to protect themselves, so the State steps in. If the purpose of the State is to achieve these goals, it is irrelevant whether that terrorist is right or not. When that terrorist has stepped outside the 'social contract' by damaging the State, the terrorist is no longer protected by the State and is not owed any civil rights that go with it.


The terrorist may be right. It is a false assumption to claim that any act of terrorism is necessarily unjust. The terrorist may have a utilitarian calculus of his own, that the benefit of achieving their goal benefits everyone overall and is worth the cost of a number of other people's lives. Nelson Mandela was famously considered a terrorist by the elite in apartheid South Africa, but he was another man's freedom fighter. People are for the most part constrained by the attitudes of their society and their times. So, what we may hold as immoral in our society may not necessarily be true, but only appears true in our time. If the terrorist sees some moral point that we do not in our society, then he cannot be tortured on the presumption of guilt.


Terrorists or spies view their morality as above the law. So, they have no incentive to co-operate under normal circumstances. However, the victim is psychologically broken down, because extreme physical suffering makes the victim think of nothing but the pain and the prospect of pain. Everything the victim thinks of is shaped by the experiences of interrogation. The terrorist is made to feel powerless and dependent, because somebody else is controlling what they feel and think. When a torturer has this much power over someone the victim's only aim is to please their torturer, because they seem to be so powerful and important. The suspect is then made to hand over the needed information. Even if they give misleading information, an agency can check and, if the information was false, they can continue to torture, until honest information is given. If people do say anything under torture it is likely that some of it will be true11.


The suspect still has an incentive to lie, for three reasons. Firstly, they will lie because of their ideology or morality. They still see themselves as above the law and torture strengthens their hatred and distrust of the interrogator. It most likely strengthens their conviction in their cause too, which is one motive for a terrorist to lie. Also, if the victim's world view is entirely shaped around pain, they must also think about how to relieve this pain. It is in their immediate best interests to stop the pain for a short period: if they are capable of lying they will do so.

Even if the terrorist was granted freedom after the interrogators had received all the information they wanted, that terrorist will be ostracized by his former fellows, if not killed by them in revenge, or for tactical reasons. So, the terrorist has a third motive to lie. This is why torture doesn't work in every instance. Take the example of Abu Zubaida. In the hands of the FBI, using only translators interrogating him, he revealed useful information. When he was subjected to torture techniques by the C.I.A, his information soon proved to be false or useless12.


Terrorism has become a much greater security threat than before. It is the in the nature of terrorism to be fast, high impact and difficult to detect. International tensions caused by Western involvement in the Middle East and other causes are likely to rise. It is reasonable to assume that terrorist activity will continue or increase as well. Add to this that weapons are easier to purchase, to make for yourself and more lethal than ever before and these extra measures seem justified to protect ourselves13.


Allowing even a few abuses as an acceptable side effect of improved security will change the tolerance level of the public and lead to a belief that rights such as the presumption of innocence and habeas corpus (which prevents the state from imprisoning someone without charging them with a crime and then trying them) are a negotiable luxury. Allowing torture normalizes its use. It is easier for politicians and policy makers to justify using torture in less extreme cases. If the argument is that it is necessary to protect citizens, there may be another, less serious, situation where citizens need to be protected (e.g. political dissidents within the USA) then torture can be justified again14.


Torture acts as a deterrent to others. Physical and painful consequences of one's actions are a greater deterrent than imprisonment, because of the relative safety one can have in prison compared to the pain felt in torture. Fear is often used successfully as a motivator: for example, children were forced to become soldiers for rebel armies in Sierra Leone. If fear is so effective, it can equally be used as a deterrent15.


Torture feeds propaganda for terrorist groups. They can claim to have a higher moral standard and feel superior to those that torture. Torture can anger criminals if used in the police force. Criminals are often repeat offenders. This is for many reasons. If criminals feel they cannot respect the police, or trust in them, why should they be compelled to follow the law or comply again?16


If torture is accepted then it can be controlled. Rules and definitions can be set, to prevent unnecessary and overtly inhumane techniques from occurring.

"If torture is going to be administered as a last resort [...] to save enormous numbers of lives, it ought to be done openly, with accountability, with approval by the president of the United States or by a Supreme Court justice." – Alan Dershowitz17


If you legitimize a distinction between the treatment of terrorists and the treatment of citizens, the police and intelligence forces view terrorists as a less human 'other.' Once it is in your psyche that they deserve to be treated differently to normal citizens, then where do you draw the line? There is no way to prevent interrogators seeing them as utterly inhuman, and it is unlikely that the checks and balances in place will prevent interrogators from breaking the rules. There will be more instances of torture being used and it will become more and more brutal. For example, in Israel from 1987 to 1999, there were state commissioned guidelines on torture. The Supreme Court ruled this out in 1999, but NGOs and released prisoners still report the use of physical abuse in interrogations.18



General useful links:

Balanced View:



Useful links on preparedness for terrorism:

  • NationalTerrorAlert "chronicle[s] homeland security related news, trends and events in an effort to create national awareness and focus."
  • SafeSoundFamily on keeping your family safe during a terrorist attack
  • American Red Cross a guide on recovering financially after a disaster
  • National Center for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) information on how to help children cope with learning about, or experiencing, terrorist attacks.



For Some Torture


Against All Torture

The Tea Party is an American political movement for "limited federal government, individual freedoms, personal responsibility, free markets, and returning political power to the states and the people." Although they do not have a fully formed unified voice or organization, parts of the movement have come out in support of harsh interrogation tactics, like water boarding, some of which have been defined as torture.


The World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) is the main coalition of international NGOs advocating for an end to torture, with 297 affiliate organizations. They provide medical, legal and social assistance to torture victims, have targeted programs towards particularly vulnerable people and work with a number of organizations, including the UN, to develop global norms to enhance internation.


Thom Hartmann's (Radio and TV) shows are broadcast on the channel Big Picture, and while his opinions reflect his own personal thoughts, the ideas that he is disseminating include support not only for harsh interrogation tactics, but privatization of torture in an effort to make it cheaper and more effective.



The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) is made up of 140 organizations in 70 countries that work to help torture victims to access health services necessary for rehabilitation and legal services necessary for obtaining justice; IRCT also teaches people to themselves advocate for an end to torture. They fund organizations around the world that work towards these goals, push for global policies that enhance their vision and work to disseminate information about the atrocities of torture.


Dick Cheney is the CEO of Halliburton, an oil services company and, while vice-president of the United States, worked with the department of defense to increase the use of harsh interrogation practices against terrorists. However, when the company was working on an oil pipeline in Burma, corporate security forces raped, tortured and killed local people. While Halliburton was aware of the situation they did nothing to stop it.



Human Rights Watch (HRW) is one of the leading organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. HRW prides itself on impartial reporting, which allows it to publish 100 briefs on the human rights situation in over 90 countries. The clear information they provide has given them the leverage to meet with organizations like the African Union, European Union and many other institutions to press for an end to human rights violations like torture.


Bill O'Reilly has expressed his support of torture on his TV show on Fox News. Although his opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the network, Fox News does allow him to say what he does on national television with their logo in the corner.



Amnesty International is an organization that advocates for the full enforcement of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and is not affiliated with a government, political or economic ideology. Activities include writing and collecting signatures on petitions, letter writing campaigns, disseminating information and organizing members for action, putting pressure on governments to either end atrocities or take action against them. They make an effort to collect as many supporters as possible that span age groups, capabilities, and borders – they presently have over 3 million members in more than 150 countries.


Basics Project is a non-profit organization committed to education and research. They are particularly focused on the threat of terrorism to the US and insist that the US must use all tools at their disposal to combat extremism.


Human Rights First works to improve respect for human rights and the rule of law around the world. Through lobbying, researching, reporting, public advocacy, work with retired military officers and other activities, Human Rights First works to raise awareness and push increased action towards ending human rights abuses like torture.