In last month's Prospect, Michael Ignatieff wondered if torture, under some circumstances, may make us safer. The answer is a firm noby Steve Crawshaw / May 20, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
The subtitle of the recently published Human Rights Watch volume of essays on Torture asks “Does it make us safer? Is it ever OK?” Michael Ignatieff’s essay for that volume, excerpted in April’s Prospect, seems to answer those questions with, respectively, a “yes, probably” and an “in the circumstances, many might think so.”
Ignatieff personally rejects torture as a solution. None the less, he opens the door for those with fewer scruples, arguing that “moral prohibition comes at a price” and that those of us who oppose torture should “also be honest enough to admit that we may have a price to pay for our own convictions.” The practical implications of this reasoning mean that his argument deserves a considered response.
Clearly, torture may sometimes persuade people to reveal information they would not otherwise have divulged. But that does not mean that permitting torture might keep us safe.
Ignatieff argues that an absolute ban on torture might prevent our intelligence services from gaining “timely access to information that may save lives.” The “ticking-bomb” scenario, as it is usually known, can seem persuasive. If someone knows of a vast bomb primed to explode in the heart of central London, how could one not torture him, to save thousands of lives? Exposed to reality, however, the hypothetical is no longer so neat. It has damaging consequences for individuals and societies alike.
It is partly a question of the accuracy of statements made under torture. Take the case of the Peruvian student Magdalena Monteza, abducted as an alleged subversive. After being tortured and repeatedly raped by her captors, she admitted to being part of a revolutionary cell. In the film State of Fear, she describes her story: “I’d never had sex before. I was a virgin, 19 years old… I couldn’t take the torture so I decided to sign. I confessed to things I never did… If they had sentenced me to death I wouldn’t have cared.” The Canadian-Briton…