Alasdair Palmer

Is torture always wrong?

Alasdair Palmer says that our absolute ban on all forms of torture is inconsistent with our acceptance of shoot-to-kill

The officers who pumped seven bullets into Jean Charles de Menezes as he sat in a Tube train in Stockwell station on 22 July believed he was a suicide-bomber about to detonate a bomb. They were wrong, and may now face trial for murder.

Whether or not they are prosecuted, however, it is almost certain that the Metropolitan Police’s policy of killing people who its senior officers believe are about to detonate bombs will remain. Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Met, has said it will stay, and insists it has been approved by the Home Office, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police Authority. Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, has gone further: he has confirmed that the shoot-to-kill policy applies not just to the Met but to all police forces in England and Wales. They are all entitled to shoot dead people they have good reason to believe are about to detonate bombs.

The great majority of the British people support this method of policing. So do the judges: shoot-to-kill isn’t going to be ruled illegal by the Law Lords. The public and judicial acceptance of shoot-to-kill is puzzling, however, when compared with the absolute prohibition on torture. Why, when we are so willing to accept a policy of killing people — a policy which has already led to the killing of an innocent man — do we have an absolute ban on the use of non-lethal torture? Torturing someone is appalling; but killing them is surely even worse.

Utilitarian logic is used to justify shoot-to-kill: hundreds of lives could be saved by the policy of shooting suspected suicide-bombers, so it is rational, ethical and legal to follow it. The same utilitarian logic justifies the use of non-lethal torture to extract information from terrorists when that information — perhaps it is the location of a radiological bomb primed to explode in the rush hour — could save hundreds of lives.

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