The Torturous Question of Torture

November 4, 2011

Political Theory


Imagine the following scenario:

The CIA is certain a terrorist attack will take place within the next twenty-four hours, but they can’t determine the location of the bomb. The leader of the terrorist organization responsible for the upcoming attack has just been captured, but the bomb will detonate unless the location of the bomb is uncovered. The terrorist refuses to talk, saying nothing but anti-American slurs. He knows the location of the bomb, but refuses to give up any information. Does the CIA abide by the law, or is it their responsibility to use any means necessary to find out the location of the bomb and protect innocent American lives? Would using torture tactics in such a situation be unthinkable? Do the ends justify the means?

Maybe there isn’t a right answer. There are millions of supporters of torture and perhaps even more who are against it. The question I pose to you is would Machiavelli support torture methods? Would an act as inhumane as torture be looked at as just getting your hands dirty from Machiavelli’s point of view? Does the potential information that can be obtained from torture result in a greater good?  The bottom line: is torturing a necessary evil?
In my opinion, torture is a necessary evil only in certain situations. Torture as a form of punishment is unacceptable in my opinion, and since the ends would not benefit society as a whole, I think Machiavelli would be against mindless torture as well.  I also believe torturing every prisoner of war or subject of interest in an attempt to get information is unjustified as well. Many of these people are not withholding any valuable information, and often share false information in attempts to end the torture. The only situation in which I believe torture is a necessary evil is when it is known the criminal is withholding critical information that is vital for the protection of others. People such as Osama Bin Laden or other heads of terrorist organizations who refuse to cooperate in matters of national security are the only instances where I believe the ends justify the means. When all is said and done, if torturing a known terrorist can result in the safety of innocent lives, then is torture a necessary evil?

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4 Comments on “The Torturous Question of Torture”

  1. amandel12 Says:

    This is a very interesting post that i think deserves a lot of attention. In his scenario mentioned, there are few Americans who would be in favor of allowing innocent people to die in order to strictly follow the law. However, at the same time, when the situation is not in front of a person, it is hard to stand up and say that torturing another person is humane. So the question remains, would Machiavelli be in favor of torture. While I don’t think Machiavelli would be in favor of using torture as a constant tactic, I think he would unwillingly be in favor of torture as punishment in a dire situation. The country as a whole must do whatever it takes to protect the rights and lives of their citizens and I believe that Machiavelli would only be in favor of torture when innocent citizens’ lives are in danger and the only way to protect them is by getting some hands dirty.

  2. pelarkin Says:

    This is certainly an interesting point that you raise, and I’m not sure that there is a right answer to this question. Both sides of this argument could be considered right. Does the government strictly abide to the international regulations set forth (regulations that it supported), or does it apply just cause and try and save their people by any means necessary?

    I’m not too sure that there would be any way to get around this situation without using any means possible to save as many citizens as possible. For one, I believe that the US government would put the safety of their people above moral principles in this case. The US government, in times past, has not been afraid to use various methods of torture to extract information that they believe is necessary to ensure the safety and prosperity of their people. I don’t think that this situation is any different. I also think that the President and his staff would be afraid of major media backlash if a story like this was made public. Can you imagine what would happen to the President if it was announced that he could have prevented a terrorist attack that killed thousands of people and chose not to? He would definitely have to fear for his own personal safety more than normal.

    I think that in this situation, Machiavelli would definitely support getting this information by any means necessary. In this case, he would believe that the ends truly do justify the means. The safety and security of thousands of potential victims, in his opinion, would probably be more important than violating a higher moral code that the government is supposed to abide by. After all, if this terrorist group leader wants to kill so many people, does he really deserve to be treated ethically and morally? I’m still not sure that there is a right answer to this question.

  3. rmwells3 Says:

    Torture can be justified, but only in certain extenuating circumstances. The scenario described above, in essence, captures all the requirements needed to justify torture–sacrificing a “harmful enemy” for the safety and lives of many innocent law abiding citizens. Unfortunately, this perfect world scenario is rarely ever the case. It is difficult to tell what information a prisoner of war or a subject of interest may or may not be withholding. If we find the accused to be falsely placed under suspicion and tortured, then all of the prior reasons for torturing that particular individual become unjustified. Albeit the extremity to which one would decide to use the force of torture should, as Machiavelli seems to support in my opinion, only come in situations in which the cost of harming one individual is necessary for the success of a greater cause. He writes, “And if constrained (the Prince) to put any one to death, he should do so only when there is manifest cause or reasonable justification.” (Chapter 17 Par. 121) Thus, Machiavelli would not support unjustified torture or torture for potential information, but in congruence with all the prior posts, he would support it if he knew it could protect the lives of other innocent beings. Machiavelli would get his hands dirty if there was legitimacy to the reasoning.

    I believe, as all of mankind would, that torture should never be used as a means of punishment because of its cruel nature. But, if used as a method to save innocent lives at the death of the one threatening those innocent being, then torture is a last resort and justifiable course of action.

  4. bonannianthony Says:

    I like the questions raised in this blog post. Personally, I would think Machiavelli would be in favor of the idea to gain the information by any means necessary. He would have no problem getting rid of competition in the race for a kingship or political gain so there is no way he would have a problem getting valuable information for the good of the society.

    Personally, there is no good answer for what should happen in this situation. I know if I was in the situation where I needed that information to save my brother I would do anything possible to get the information out from the terrorist in custody. I also think it is way easier to say torture is never good when people don’t know what the stakes are or if the stakes could affect someone they know or love.

    Last year in my high school Religion class my teacher posed this exact question to us. He took the stance torture is never a good thing and should never be used. When we took a class vote he was voted against unanimously. I think it would be very hard to let people die when you know the information is right there in front of you, being hidden by a criminal and more than likely a horrible human being.

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