Torturer’s Black Grip

November 29, 2011

Political Theory

“You should therefore know that there are two ways to fight: one while abiding by the rules, the other by using force. The first approach is unique to Man; the second is that of beasts. But because in many cases the first method will not suffice, one must be prepared to resort to force. This is why a ruler needs to know how to conduct himself in the manner of a beast as well as that of a man.”

                        —Niccolò Machiavelli

 Recently within lecture and discussion, the Dirty Hands theorem has been a topic of great examination, while playing a viable role in depicting the influential views of numerous political theorists. In Niccolò Machiavelli treatise entitled The Prince, Machiavelli, to the chagrin of many contemporaries, explains his ideal of political behavior within a sixteen-century government. In particular, his justification and acceptance of immoral and criminal acts by leaders, has left this work on an immortal stage. Why advise that a prince should carefully calculate potential wicked deeds?

Machiavelli wanted a leader of great substance, one that digested and understood the belief that a man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin. In his eyes, too many people could combat the purist sense of the moral compass and expose a leader who only vows by good deeds. This ideal by Machiavelli led to the claim of the Dirty Hands Theory; that is to do something that is wrong in order to do something that is right.

In response to Machiavelli’s excerpt, many political theorists have challenged his view on ethics with regards to political power. English rationalist philosopher Martin Hollis argues the contrary. He believes political leaders should be citizens squared; that is, statesmen should only bring private virtues to public life. Hollis believes the Dirty Hand theory would only go into affect if the people at large don’t like their political leader. He perceives that if thou shall not lie, then thou shall not lie in office or order others to lie.

In today’s society, one of the most important concepts within political ethics revolves around the idea of the moral dilemma. In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, the notion of this predicament underwent an obvious reconceptualization. Is it justified for a political leader to lie? Are they allowed to cross boundaries to gain added intel? To this day, we have seen the revision of this concept immersed into fictional as well as real life scenarios. Are these fanciful and authentic portrayals analogous?

No show did a better job depicting this conceptual revision than that of FOX Television’s 24. Their writer’s portrayal of the protagonist Jack Bauer, often leads to a similar argument documented by Machiavelli five hundred years prior. He’s willing to risk everything — his life, those he loves, and most importantly the Constitution — to succeed. One scene specifically depicts this highly controversial approach, when a terrorist conspirator who now lies as their “single lead” to a larger conspiracy, threatens to release nerve gas in multiple locations in Los Angeles. Bauer shoots the conspirator in the leg, refuses to allow him to receive pain medication, and begins applying direct methods of torture to elicit the needed information. Is this stunt justified?

 One might argue, major success from limited, surgical torture, is a fiction, a fantasy. Author Alfred W. McCoy cautions audiences that, “as we slide down the slippery slope to torture in general, we should also realize that there is a chasm at the bottom called extrajudicial execution.”[1] McCoy examines this scenario and mentions the utterly unexamined assumption that torture can get useful intelligence rapidly from any hardened terrorist, let alone the information received is valid and of promising value. This scenario known as the “ticking time bomb,” is an idea not fully comprehended by those without full judicial jurisdiction.

            In the real world, one of the darkest chapters of US counterterrorism ended with almost all suspected CIA torturers dodging crimes. To be specific, 99 out of 101 cases of suspected torture have been dropped, with only two cases, both resulting in deaths, being tried by a jury.[2] Torture techniques such as ‘water boarding’ and ‘slap sticking,’ have been terminated during the Bush campaign; however, it is quite clear a gray line has emerged behind the potential secrets undisclosed by the government.            

            How would Machiavelli and Hollis digest the inevitable fictitious depiction coupled with the actuality of torture? For me and most other 24 fans, Bauer’s approach is extremely affective and likewise earns its own merit. Does this make them right? Are Dirty Hands essential to preserve order and control the people of a nation?  For Bauer in this mythical world they for sure are, but in our modern society, are they likewise justified?




[1] McCoy, Alfred W. “The Myth of the Ticking Time Bomb | The Progressive.” The Progressive | Peace and Social Justice since 1909. 1 Oct. 2006. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <;.

[2] Ackerman, Spencer. “CIA Exhales: 99 Out of 101 Torture Cases Dropped | Danger Room |” 2 Jan. 2010. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <;.




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One Comment on “Torturer’s Black Grip”

  1. ksaukas Says:

    I think a point that has been overlooked in this post is that Jack Bauer is using torture on a person I assume not to be an American citizen or one who is 100% percent guilty of treason. If we take this into account it makes it more reasonable to accept acts of torture, but if we were to imagine this was an American citizen or maybe a person who has not been proven guilty without a shadow of a doubt our ideals would definitely change. A recent exam we should look at is the ordeal that took place in Abu Ghraib prison. Their personal statements about what took place in the prison can be read here

    The prisoners in the infamous pictures we should all have seen were tortured by soldiers in the lower echelons of the army, but the responsibility has traveled up the chain of command to Generals, the CID (Army’s Criminal Investigation Command), and the CIA. The question is were the tactics used justified? Who were these men and what information did they hold that was so important to national security that the torture tactics used were encouraged from the top of the chain down to the soldiers that did the dirty work? More can be learned at the following website.

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