The Gray Zone: Defining Torture

By Gewen, Barry | World Affairs, May-June 2010 | Go to article overview

The Gray Zone: Defining Torture


Gewen, Barry, World Affairs


Few issues divide people as deeply as the current controversy about torture. Slightly more than half of all Americans believe torture should be prohibited in the war on terror; slightly less than half believe it should not. People on both sides of this divide hold their positions with the kind of fierce tenacity we are more accustomed to encountering in debates such as the one that has raged for at least three decades over the right to abortion. The absolutism that prevails on both sides of the torture debate damages our ability to think and talk clearly about the issue.

The anti-torture camp insists that torture must be prohibited at all times and everywhere, and lends legal authority to this view by citing the Convention Against Torture (CAT), an international agreement that was signed by the United States in 1988 and ratified into American law in 1994. The convention requires that participating countries ban torture comprehensively, with no exceptions or extenuations.

CAT is a triumph of high-minded idealism. Yet can ethical people who cherish its principles allow no exceptions to a complete ban on torture? In fact, an all-star roster of legal thinkers--including Richard Posner, Alan Dershowitz, Walter Dellinger, Philip Heymann, Philip Bobbitt, and Sanford Levinson--believes there may be occasions when a president will have to step outside the law and use torture, or at least harsh interrogations. Why? Because of the ticking bomb.

Eventually, every discussion of torture arrives at the question of the ticking bomb. We are all familiar with this scenario. Law enforcement or military officials capture a terrorist who knows that a nuclear bomb is about to go off in a major American city. Isn't the president morally obligated to use torture against such a person in an effort to prevent mass murder?

The anti-torture camp hates the ticking bomb scenario. One law professor, Stephen Holmes, calls it "a utopian fantasy." Another, David Luban, says it's "an intellectual fraud." But in truth it's not that hard to imagine a situation in which the head of Homeland Security rushes into the Oval Office and tells the president that police are "pretty certain" a bomb is set to explode, and they're "fairly confident" they have a man who knows where it is. And it's probably the case that any president--whether George W. Bush or Barack Obama--confronted with such a choice would approve the use of torture rather than risk a catastrophe. And almost certainly a majority of Americans would support the decision.

Of all the ticking bomb examples, none is more directly relevant to the current debate than the case of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. As the head of al-Qaeda's military committee and the reputed mastermind of the September 11 attacks, he possessed invaluable information--about the inner workings of al-Qaeda, its finances, and its future plans, including efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction and plots already under way.

After Mohammed's capture in 2003, officials understood that time was of the essence, and after he failed to respond to direct questioning--"soon you will know," he initially told his captors, deepening their concern--interrogators employed harsher methods, methods that any but the most blinkered would call torture. Over a period of several weeks, he was kept naked, shackled, and isolated, deprived of sleep for up to seven and a half days at a time, and subjected to waterboarding one hundred and eighty-three times. Eventually, he opened up, revealing alleged plots to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge, poison reservoirs, detonate dirty bombs, and spread anthrax.

The usefulness of Mohammed's information is hotly disputed, with torture proponents believing that he was truthful at least some of the time and torture opponents dismissing him as a fabulist who told his tormentors what they wanted to hear. But clearly he embodies the alpha question in this debate: Does torture ever work? …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Gray Zone: Defining Torture
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.