The problem of the "ticking bomb" - rediscovered after September 11 by Alan Dershowitz, a renowned criminal defense lawyer in the United States - is old hat. Should physical torture be applied - where psychological strain has failed - in order to discover the whereabouts of a ticking bomb and thus prevent a mass slaughter of the innocent? This apparent ethical dilemma has been confronted by ethicists and jurists from Great Britain to Israel.
Nor is Dershowitz's proposal to have the courts issue "torture warrants" (Los Angeles Times, November 8, 2001) unprecedented. In a controversial decision in 1996, the Supreme Court of Israel permitted its internal security forces to apply "moderate physical pressure" during the interrogation of suspects.
It has thus fully embraced the recommendation of the 1987 Landau Commission, presided over by a former Supreme Court judge. This blanket absolution was repealed in 1999 when widespread abuses against Palestinian detainees were unearthed by human rights organizations.
As Harvey Silverglate argued in his rebuttal of Dershowitz's aforementioned op-ed piece:
"Institutionalizing torture will give it societys imprimatur, lending it a degree of respectability. It will then be virtually impossible to curb not only the increasing frequency with which warrants will be sought - and granted - but also the inevitable rise in unauthorized use of torture. Unauthorized torture will increase not only to extract life-saving information, but also to obtain confessions (many of which will then prove false). It will also be used to punish real or imagined infractions, or for no reason other than human sadism. This is a genie we should not let out of the bottle."
That something has the potential to be widely abused - and has been and is being widely misused - should not inevitably lead to its utter, universal, and unconditional proscription. Guns, cars, knives, and books have always been put to vile ends. Nowhere did this lead to their complete interdiction.
Moreover, torture is erroneously perceived by liberals as a kind of punishment. Suspects - innocent until proven guilty - indeed should not be subject to penalty. But torture is merely an interrogation technique. Ethically, it is no different to any other pre-trial process: shackling, detention, questioning, or bad press. Inevitably, the very act of suspecting someone is traumatic and bound to inflict pain and suffering - psychological, pecuniary, and physical - on the suspect.
True, torture is bound to yield false confessions and wrong information, Seneca claimed that it "forces even the innocent to lie". St. Augustine expounded on the moral deplorability of torture thus: If the accused be innocent, he will undergo for an uncertain crime a certain punishment, and that not for having committed a crime, but because it is unknown whether he committed it."
But the same can be said about other, less corporeal, methods of interrogation. Moreover, the flip side of ill-gotten admissions is specious denials of guilt. Criminals regularly disown their misdeeds and thus evade their penal consequences. The very threat of torture is bound to limit this miscarriage of justice. Judges and juries can always decide what confessions are involuntary and were extracted under duress.
Thus, if there was a way to ensure that non-lethal torture is narrowly defined, applied solely to extract time-critical information in accordance with a strict set of rules and specifications, determined openly and revised frequently by an accountable public body; that abusers are severely punished and instantly removed; that the tortured have recourse to the judicial system and to medical attention at any time - then the procedure would have been ethically justified in rare cases if carried out by the authorities.
This proviso - "if carried out by the authorities" - is crucial.
The sovereign has rights denied the individual, or any subset of society. It can judicially kill with impunity. Its organs - the police, the military - can exercise violence. It is allowed to conceal information, possess illicit or dangerous substances, deploy arms, invade one's bodily integrity, or confiscate property. To permit the sovereign to torture while forbidding individuals, or organizations from doing so would, therefore, not be without precedent, or inconsistent.