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Torture is bad - killing innocent people is worse

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Friday, 28 December 2007

Just as the US administration is recovering from the shock of Abu Ghraib, it is now involved in another torture scandal. CIA boss Michael Hayden chief is being grilled by US officials regarding recent revelations that the CIA has destroyed tapes depicting the coercive interrogation by his organisation of terrorist suspects.

No doubt this will lead to more fanatical claims by libertarian groups regarding the inappropriateness of torture. They are right that torture should never be used as a vehicle for punishment and domination. But different considerations follow when it is used for compassionate reasons - to save lives.

Paradoxically, people who propose an absolute ban on torture aren’t sufficiently repulsed by torture and are too willing to accept the murder of innocent people - either they lack compassion or have a warped moral compass.


Torture is bad. Killing innocent people is worse. Some people are so depraved that they combine these evils and torture innocent people to death. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is still gloating about personally beheading American Daniel Pearl with his “blessed right hand”, is but just one exhibit.

Closing the door on torture involves abdicating a potential means of preventing the torture and killing of innocent people. Torture opponents need to take responsibility for the murder of innocent people if they reject torture when it is the only way to save innocent lives.

We must take responsibility not only for the things that we do, but also for the things that we can, but fail, to prevent. Thus, it is morally repugnant to not throw a life rope to a person drowing near a pier. That’s why as a society we need to leave open the possibility of using torture where it is the only means available to prevent the murder of innocent people.

Life-saving torture is not cruel. It is motivated by a compassionate desire to advert moral catastrophes and is morally justifiable because the right to life of innocent people trumps the physical integrity of wrongdoers.

Viewed in this way, torture has the same moral justification as other practices where we sacrifice the interests of one person for the greater good. A close analogy is life saving organ and tissue transplants. Kidney and bone marrow transplants inflict high levels of pain and discomfort on donors. But the world is a better place for them because their pain is normally outweighed by the benefit to the recipient.

Such is the case with life-saving compassionate torture. The pain inflicted on the wrongdoer is manifestly outweighed by the benefit stemming from the lives saved. The fact that wrongdoers don’t expressly consent to their mistreatment is irrelevant. Prisoners and enemy soldiers don’t consent to the pain inflicted on them either, yet we’re not about to empty our prisons or stop shooting enemy soldiers - this would be contrary to the common good.


There are four main reasons that have been advanced against torture. All are demonstrably unsound. First, it’s claimed that torture doesn’t elicit reliable information.

This is factually wrong. There are countless counter-examples. Israeli authorities claim to have foiled 90 terrorist attacks by using coercive interrogation.

Retired CIA Agent John Kiriakou has admitted to torturing an al-Qaida suspect, Abu Zubayday, in a bid to obtain life-saving obtain information. Agent Kiriakou said the technique known as “waterboarding” broke Zubaydah in less than 35 seconds and that the suspect answered every question from that day on. Kiriakou stated that he had no doubt that the information provided by Zubayday “stopped terror attacks and saved lives”.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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