Terrorism and Human Rights (25): A Theory of No Resort

In just war theory, the concept of “last resort” means that force, violence and other violations of human rights are allowed only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical, and when force etc. is clearly the only option. In the current “war on terror”, the use or torture is often justified as a last resort, as the only option available, in certain circumstances such as the “ticking bomb”, to avoid an outcome that is worse than the use of the last resort.

There are many possible and convincing arguments against the use of torture, but one which isn’t mentioned a lot is the fact that justifications for torture emanate from a philosophy that sees risk as something to be completely overcome. Torture is justified as an extreme measure to overcome a last remaining and very small risk. That is evident from the ticking bomb case: the case itself is by definition rare, so the risk that it occurs is very small. Even smaller is the risk that we have to resort to the use of torture as a means to avoid the risk of the bomb going off (if, exceptionally, we find ourselves in a ticking bomb situation, other means short of torture may well allow us to avoid the risk).

This philosophy of using extreme measures to avoid or eliminate as much risk as possible is, I think, mistaken. If I’m right, the justification of torture as one of such extreme measures is void. And don’t say I’m fighting windmills here: this philosophy is omnipresent. Look at the swine flu hysteria for example, or the recent and silly airport and air travel security measures after the “Christmas Day Attack” (e.g. forcing passengers to sit down during the last hour of flight). Maybe we need a theory of no resort rather than a theory of last resort. Maybe we should learn to live with the fact that bad things happen and that often we can’t do a thing about them.

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