Random Thoughts on Torture: Letting the Fly Out of the Bottle

Random Thoughts on Torture: Letting the Fly Out of the Bottle

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on June, 2009)

A Preamble

Philosophers are particularly good at untangling unclear concepts; they are experienced at the task of formulating problems clearly and logically; they are ready to unmask the hidden presuppositions underlying a particular formulation. This is the kind of work Wittgenstein describes as “letting the fly out of the fly bottle”; it is what J. L. Austin does so well in “Three ways of spilling ink.” Drawing distinctions and formulating ideas clearly — these are core intellectual tools, and they lie at the root of philosophy. (Understanding Society).


Everyone would agree that torture is deplorable, perhaps the most horrific in human behavior. Are there circumstances, however, under which it might be justifiable or permissible?

That’s one crucial question that seems to exercise the finest minds of late, both on the national stage and our little microcosm here on BC. A further-reaching question perhaps, though rarely if ever asked, might be put thus: Do the very same acts, which under normal circumstances would undoubtedly constitute “torture,” deserve this most despicable of epithets when performed under circumstances or conditions that are, by anyone’s estimation, unusual?


Consider the following, rather astute, observation to serve as our point of departure:

“If we look at torture in civilian life, we never see cases where torture is employed to elicit information. Torture is employed for personal amusement by twisted personalities.”

In a sense, this remark hits the nail on the head. It comes very close to what Wittgenstein called a “grammatical remark” — a remark whose express purpose was to elucidate the key concept (torture). In the first part, we learn that under normal circumstances (civilian life), torture rarely has anything to do with eliciting information; in the second, that it’s associated most often with “twisted personalities.”


At this point, the notion of cruelty comes to mind, intentional cruelty – cruelty to animals, for one. The act seems to serve no discernible purpose other than to satisfy one’s sadistic impulses and feed the crazed personality. 

That’s the core of the concept as far as I’m concerned: the association of torture with cruelty. 

And the connotation of the term only confirms that. Torture is a taboo – more of a taboo, perhaps than incest, rape, even murder.

And so, it would seem convenient to leave matters at that and argue that’s the purpose behind the harshest possible language and its highly evocative quality: namely, to guard against all instances or incidences of torture under “normal” circumstances.


But this cannot be the whole truth, or even partial truth, since it would mean a near-total misuse of an otherwise perfectly functional moral language. For it is not morality or moral rebuke that are likely to be most effective in preventing someone from pursuing their perverted inclinations to acts of cruelty and the like, but therapy or lock & key. 

All of this suggests that the intentionally strong language associated with such terms as cruelty or torture is designed with an entirely different purpose in mind, to deal with extraordinary cases.


What cases?

Precisely the kind of cases excluded from consideration in the first part of the subject remark – i.e., “where torture is [being] employed to elicit information.” 

Indeed, it’s because anything that even smacks of torture or cruelty is an utter abomination that extreme safeguards are necessary to prevent any such act, not out of depravity but when done for a reason, whatever the reason! And this brings us to our first question: 

Are there circumstances under which acts of torture might be permissible, let alone justifiable? What sort of circumstances might they be?


Consider the following “ticking bomb” scenario (and its “milder” alternative):

An innocent’s life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy. Even John McCain, the most admirable and estimable torture opponent, says openly that in such circumstances, “You do what you have to do.” And then take the responsibility.

The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great. (One of the “torture memos” noted that the CIA had warned that terrorist “chatter” had reached pre-9/11 levels.) We know we must act but have no idea where or how — and we can’t know that until we have information. Catch-22.


The way I see it, both situations can be reduced to the following:

One life versus the many, absolute knowledge versus knowledge that is imperfect? — these aren’t sufficient enough differences if getting bogged down with them would mean losing sight of the main point. And that point seems to be that one way or another, act we must. Lives are at stake, along with a reasonable assurance that direct action might prevent a catastrophe.


What Charles Krauthammer had done is to present us with an instance of linguistic incongruity. One way out of this incongruity (and the inherent dilemma) is to put a different slant on things. Let’s call it “enhanced interrogation techniques” – EITs, for short, and a common term by now –and escape thus the criticism that we’re engaging in torture.

The problem is that most of the acts subsumable under the more benign EIT label, such as waterboarding, for instance, are torture. And it wouldn’t help matters any if we tried to escape this dilemma by insisting that they’re not acts of torture, for I could readily come up with far more abhorrent “techniques,” such as piercing one’s eyes or maiming them, the worst things you could do to a human short of killing them – acts so horrific that no one in their right mind, not even the staunchest defenders of waterboarding, would dare argue that they’re not “torture.” 

And so we’re back to square one.


The linguistic incongruity I’m speaking of (and the ensuing dilemma) can be put thus: while it’s not unreasonable to engage in EIT, it’s certainly unreasonable to engage in torture. Torture, insofar as our shared understanding of the term goes, is never reasonable!

Bear in mind now that the injunction against torture, the very force of the term, the reason why it carries such a negative connotation, is not to dissuade the sickos. God knows we’ve got plenty of those, and lock & key or some kind of therapy is the only solution. Quite the contrary, the raison d’être for the injunction concerns ordinary folk, none of whom have either a predisposition for or the propensity to engage in violent acts against another human to satisfy their sadistic impulses. 


The injunction is directed to you and me and all reasonable people. And it’s against the idea of torture as a method — as a means to an end which, by all reasonable standards, is not only justified but desirable.

“Be careful” is what the injunction says. And if you think you must resort to torture to prevent a greater evil, you had better be sure that it’s necessary because the means rarely justify the ends. People have been known to go wrong here, and absolute certainty is a must. 

Which, again, points to our dilemma: the incongruity of not being able to reconcile torture with reasonableness; the situation seems to demand it, and yet – it doesn’t seem right.


I have a proposal to make. Though on the right track, Krauthammer doesn’t go far enough. He’s willing to live with the linguistic paradox in question, for he does speak of “no-torture rule” exceptions. 

Well, I’m not! Why not go the full mile and say, instead, that the same acts which under ordinary circumstances would constitute torture are not “torture” under extraordinary circumstances?

A radical proposal, you say? Perhaps. But consider the pitfalls inherent in judging any situation or act in terms of objective facts alone. 

Perjury, for instance, is not a lie, if only because it’s enunciated in a court of law and under oath: it may earn you a jail sentence, whereas lies are commonplace and carry no penalty whatever, except possible disapproval. Indeed, we even make allowances for lies, as when we speak of white lies.

And the same goes for involuntary manslaughter, whether due to negligence or recklessness, or for killing in self-defense (justifiable homicide). Both are different from “murder,” which, in turn, is different still from unlawful homicide

Needless to say, assassination, or targeted killing, is another thing still.


You might want to dismiss these examples as irrelevant, think of them as legal niceties, and you’d be right to a point because there is this tendency in legal thinking to go overboard at times and make distinctions without a difference. Let me assure you, however, that’s not the case here. A person’s future is at stake, whether they’ll be charged or not, not to mention their sentence. These aren’t trivial matters, and our language, legal or otherwise, is only doing what it’s supposed to.

It’s axiomatic, therefore, that the intent behind the act, the circumstances, all things large or small, are more pertinent when it comes to determining its nature or how we’re going to call it than its external, objective parameters. Things aren’t always what they seem, and language tries to keep track of the relevant differences if only to keep us honest.


How does this relate to the subject matter at hand, the apparent or would-be acts of torture, the exact definition, the kind of acts that are permissible, as well as those which are not — in short, the morality of it all? 

This, I’m afraid, I’m not prepared to say. But what I can and will say is that the subject matter of torture remains in that shadowy area of linguistic incongruity. And it promises to remain so, unless, of course, we come up with a better term for it than “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Come to think of it, it’s not even English!


Enter your email address to subscribe and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Follow Us

Become A Contributor

CNN - Top Stories

Share This Article

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on reddit
Share on email


Views from abroad

Culture and Society

The Arts

Food & Fashion

{ 0 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment

We respect your privacy and will not publish your personal details.

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Keep Reading....

Scroll to Top

Comments Policy:

We are offering a venue for lively debate. Comments must contribute to the discussion.