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date: 02 June 2020

Summary and Keywords

Despite an absolute prohibition against torture, countries throughout the world continue to engage in ill-treatment and torture, often during times of national stress, when perceived others or out-group members are subjected to extreme interrogation. This is shown in numerous analyses and documentary evidence of the detention and interrogation policies adopted by the US government after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, including coercive interrogation techniques that many regard as torture, secret detentions, and extraordinary renditions to third countries known to practice torture. Faced with an uncertain and stressful situation, prison guards in Abu Ghraib turned to violence as a way of reassuring themselves that they were in control. With little oversight and a general mandate to secure actionable intelligence, aggression was encouraged and physical and psychological techniques refined in Afghanistan and at the detention center in Guantánamo became standard operating procedures. Though government leaders disavowed the use of torture and claimed that the United States used legally and morally acceptable coercive interrogation methods, US actions prompted a renewed philosophical and political debate whether there should be an absolute prohibition against torture or whether, under carefully specified circumstances, it is a lesser evil to torture a suspect for information to prevent a greater evil that menaces society. Justifications for the limited use of torture focus on its utility in preventing greater harm, especially under ticking bomb scenarios. Arguments for an absolute ban on torture question its effectiveness, citing anecdotal and experimental evidence that coercive methods often produce false confessions. Critics also cite strategic costs, including harm to the US reputation and its counterterrorism efforts, as well as damage to the global norm against torture. Public opinion in the United States and globally is ambivalent, though increasing representations of torture in popular culture have cultivated a torture myth, according to which torture is only used against hardened terrorists and in exceptional circumstances, when time is of the essence and torture is both necessary and effective in forcing terrorists to divulge valuable information that can save lives and avert future attacks. Ultimately, unrealistic depictions of torture and ambivalent signals from political leaders have created a climate of impunity and broad, though deeply divided support for harsh interrogation techniques.

Keywords: war on terror, black sites, detention, extraordinary rendition, coercive interrogation, enhanced interrogation techniques, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, ethics of torture, ticking time bomb scenario, torture in popular culture, public opinion on torture

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