Richard’ Matthews’ The Absolute Violation: Why Torture Must be Prohibited (McGill- Queen’s University Press 2008) should be essential reading for everyone on the left.

The complicity of the British intelligence services with the practice of torture, and the failure of Obama, so far, to hold US officials accountable, the issue remains of pressing importance, and the defenders of torture have not gone away. Matthews gives us a thorough dissection of all the possible intellectual defences of torture, and systematically shows them to be fatally flawed. Socialists, in particular, should be struck by this book as an example of committed philosophy.

Far from being an abstract logical exercise, the force of Matthews’ arguments arise from his grounding the analysis in the real, social context of torture in practice. Unlike the facile purveyors of the ‘ticking time-bomb’ scenario, he considers torture from the perspective of the real social relations it creates, and is an example from which we can all learn.

Dominic Alexander

In the last 8 years, ticking bomb scenarios have flooded popular and academic media. Their structure is straightforward and familiar. Suppose that state agents have captured a ‘terrorist.’ Suppose further that they determine that he has set a bomb that, if it explodes it will kill thousands, tens of thousands, millions or whatever – set the catastrophe as high as you want. The agents have tried every standard interrogation technique and they have failed, leaving only the choice either to do nothing and allow the deaths of countless innocent people, or use torture in the hope that it might succeed where all other methods fail. Torture apologists uniformly assert that state agents are morally permitted, if not obligated, to torture in these circumstances.

One of the striking features about such thought experiments is that they are written largely by some liberals to convince other liberals of the justifiability of torture. Contemporary torture apologists are American, Australian, and Israeli, to mention the nationalities of the most prominent authors, who believe that torture is somehow compatible with a state’s decency and human rights commitments. This is odd, given that liberalism conceives itself with some justice to be the defender of individual rights and the absolute dignity and worth of the person, not to mention that liberals publicly commit themselves to limited government power. Nonetheless David Luban notes that, paradoxically, liberal political culture ‘creates the possibility of seeing torture as a civilized, not an atavistic, practice, provided that its sole purpose is preventing future harms(Luban 2007).’ This is torture rendered decent.

So how might someone balance such conflicts? For contemporary defenders, torture can be used only where necessary to preserve the lives and dignity of other citizens of the state, or where the very existence of the state is in question. Furthermore, it must be a last alternative employed only with the failure of the more legitimate alternatives. Furthermore, since torture is fundamentally abhorrent and essentially evil, those liberals who defend torture believe that the only justifiable use is as an interrogational tool.

The various other historical purposes of torture – as a spectacle, to compel confessions, to divide and conquer communities, for blackmail, for the pleasure of the troops and generally as a mechanism of dominance and oppressions, are absolutely wrong. But some liberals believe that it is justifiable at least in principle when used to save the lives of others.

This does not work, and for a host of conceptual, medical, psychological, sociological and political reasons.

The first problem is a consequence of torture being fundamentally about the destruction of personal identity. Careful reflection on personal and cultural identity undermines a core element of current arguments for torture: the assumption that it is merely a matter of trading the suffering of a single ‘terrorist’ against the harms suffered by indeterminately many innocents if the bomb explodes.

Tacit individualist assumptions about the nature of identity mar the debate here. If each of us were an isolated asocial being, then it might be plausible to speak of the torture victim being the sole entity harmed in torture. However, human beings are social, not atomic. Our identities are constituted intersubjectively in our families, our local communities, our social classes, our ethnic and racial relations, not to mention gender. A given human identity is a complex function of these and other social webs.

Attacking any individual is an assault on a complex web of relations, and never solely an assault on an ‘individual’ ‘terrorist. One consequence of this is that torture is inevitably sexist. Where race is an issue, it is inevitably racist; where class is a concern, then class identity is targeted.

Torture attacks classes of people, not individuals, demarcating the privileged from the oppressed and imprinting the political differences on the bodies and minds of the torturable(Dubois 2007). ‘Witch,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘beggar,’ ‘hobo,’ ‘lesbian,’ ‘woman,’ ‘homosexual,’ ‘Indian,’ ‘Black,’ ‘Slave’. Take your pick. Each category is a potential focal point of torture.

There is little abstract about these identity issues. Careful analysis of the medical and psychological sequelae of torture conclusively demonstrates the gendered nature of all torture. It also decisively shows that the primary victim of torture is never the only one to suffer; rather, immediate family also suffer both physiologically and mentally. Job loss as a result of an inability to work following the escape from the torture chamber entails additional economic losses. These effects carry over into the children of survivors as well, a consequence of a psychological phenomenon called ‘trans-generational trauma.’ Furthermore, more distant relatives, friends and more or less close neighbours are also impacted as they get caught up by direct and/or indirect association with the torturable individual(s).

There are also unavoidable institutional consequences. Torture apologists treat torture as if it can be employed in exceptional circumstances. But consider what it means for torture to be done ‘well.’ As a skill, nobody deliberately will torture badly. They will try to succeed. We tend not to think of torture as a skill, but it is that, among other things. As a skill, it has to be learned. Nobody is a natural at it. Getting good at torture requires forethought and practice and the development of the ‘appropriate’ normative dispositions. But what does this mean for a state that considers the practice of torture? It means that, for states and organized non-state actors, torture must be institutionalized. It requires the following, to the extent that the torturing organization has the resources to provide them:

  • trained torturers
  • trained medical and psychological support teams for the torturers
  • logistical support ranging from pay clerks to buildings to the gas bill
  • transformations of law to permit these teams to operate; alternatively, to build an entire state apparatus whose function is to conduct illegal operations
  • victims upon which to practice
  • in principle, it might require the dedication of research funds, personnel and projects to work out scientifically which methods are likely to be most effective, and for which purposes.

All but the last are standard features of modern torture, at least for those that can afford it. More impoverished states lack the resources and so their torturers appear to be a little cruder. All of this is needed to become skilled at the destruction of human identity.

Note, I do not say that it is needed to become good at acquiring information. That is not what torture is about. The skill of torturing and the skill of interrogation are logically independent. The latter is the art of acquiring true information, a purpose that is at best a contingent feature of torturing. However, given that there is no hard evidence supporting the view that it is an effective interrogation tool, and some pretty strong empirically grounded arguments about why it cannot be(Rejali 2007), liberal apologists are on weak psychological, sociological and historical ground in thinking that they have a case for interrogational torture.

So torture essentially attacks networks of social relations and is unavoidably sexist (as well as racist and classist, where these are at issue). It does not attack single individuals, but harms target populations, as well as neutral third parties, provided they feel themselves the possible targets of the torturing states’ violence. But this means that torture never targets the lone ‘terrorist;’ rather it is indiscriminate in its harms and essentially terroristic; it does not matter what specific goals interrogators conceive themselves to be pursuing.

So the idea that torture can be employed only against a ‘terrorist’ is nonsense. But it also means that torture cannot be employed skilfully in the exception, but rather only as a rule. Torture requires complex political, legal and institutional support, as well as a more or less complicated logistics. It also requires practice and therefore a wide variety of primary torture victims. Otherwise how are the torturers supposed to get good at their craft? So, if torture is to be used by a state, its use can only be normalized and routine. Consequently it cannot be used as a last resort to save lives. It can only be used to terrorize and oppress.

Richard Matthews

  • Dubois, P. (2007). The Slave’s Truth. The Phenomenon of Torture. W. Schulz. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Luban, D. (2007). Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb. Intervention, Terrorism, and Torture: Contemporary Challenges to Just War Theory. S. P. Lee. Dordrecht, Springer.
  • Rejali, D. (2007). Torture and Democracy. Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press.

Richard Matthews, Introduction by Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).