The Torture Issue (with a DBQ)

The Torture Issue (with a DBQ) A student reading includes examples of U.S. treatment of prisoners as revealed in investigations and excerpts from the Geneva Convention and UN Convention Against Torture. A DBQ (document-based question) includes diverse points of view on the efficacy and morality of torture.

To the Teacher:

U.S. abuse and torture of prisoners is an issue that exploded into public prominence with the photographs from Abu Ghraib in the spring of 2004. Reports from such human rights organizations as Human Rights Watch (, the American Civil Liberties Union ( and Amnesty International ( continue to document prisoner torture and violations of American international commitments under the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture. See the websites of these organizations for such documentation.

President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have insisted repeatedly that the U.S. does not torture prisoners despite evidence to the contrary embodied in reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Pentagon, the FBI, official commissions and documents retrieved by the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act. See "Torture and War Crimes: The U.S. Record in Documents" on this website for a student reading that includes administration legal memoranda on allowable interrogation techniques and the results of inquiries into prisoner treatment.

The student reading below on "The Torture Issue" includes specific examples of U.S. treatment of prisoners as revealed in various investigations, excerpts from the Third Geneva Convention and the UN Convention Against Torture, and a brief discussion of torture definitions. A DBQ (document-based question) follows. It includes statements from diverse points of view on the efficacy and morality of torture. Suggestions for use of the DBQ for student discussion appear in the section that follows on classroom activities.



Views on Torture

U.S. treatment of prisoners

The photographs of prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib became public in the spring of 2004. Then came reports of additional abuses, especially in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A subsequent series of investigations by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Pentagon, the FBI, and special panels appointed by the president stimulated further controversy over U.S. treatment of prisoners. These investigations reported that Americans had used such practices as:

  • Hooding prisoners to restrict their breathing and disorient them
  • Handcuffing prisoners with tight flexi-cuffs causing skin lesions and nerve damage
  • Beatings with hard objects, punching and kicking
  • Forcing prisoners to parade naked, sometimes hooded, sometimes with women's underwear over the head
  • Exposing hooded prisoners to loud music
  • Forcing hooded prisoners to endure prolonged exposure to summer sun at temperatures of 122 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Forcing prisoners to remain for lengthy periods in such stress positions as squatting or standing with arms lifted
  • Exposing prisoners to strobe lights and loud rock and rap music while air-conditioning is turned to maximum levels
  • Forcing prisoners to bark like a dog, to crawl on the stomach and then being spit and urinated upon by MPs
  • Waterboarding, a process in which the head is pushed under water until the person believes he is drowning
  • Putting lit cigarettes in prisoners' ears

Do some or all of these constitute torture?

Army Major-General Taguba's report (2/04) states that prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib was "systemic" and not just practiced by a few soldiers. The Schlesinger Panel (appointed by President Bush) in its report (8/04) found that high-level officers bore responsibility for abusive treatment at various detention centers and for the deaths of at least five prisoners from torture. Dozens of other prisoners have died in U.S. custody, some under suspicious circumstances.

The Third Geneva Convention and the UN Convention Against Torture, both of which were ratified years ago by the U.S., ban torture. This is what they say on that subject.


Third Geneva Convention

Article 13: "Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity."

Article 17: A prisoner of war is required "to give only his surname, first name and rank, date of birth, and army, regimental, personnel or serial number.  No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever, Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind."

This Convention also states: "Should any doubt arise," all fighters are covered by the Geneva Conventions until "a competent tribunal decides they are not."


UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Part 1, Article 1: "torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession."

Article 2: "Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction."

Article 3: "No State Party shall expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

Article 4: "Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offenses under its criminal law. Each State Party shall make these offenses punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature."

The Convention also declares, "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture."

The United States has ratified the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture

What is torture?

"Acts of violence or intimidation" and "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental is intentionally inflicted." The Third Geneva Convention and the UN Convention Against Torture use these words to define torture. For many years they were unchallenged.

But soon after 9/11 Bush administration officials in the Justice Department introduced a new definition of torture. It had been requested by White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales from Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee. The latter wrote that "physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." To be considered torture, the harm "must cause some lasting, though not necessarily permanent, damage." (8/1/02)

After this memorandum became public in the summer of 2004, its extension of the meaning of torture created an uproar. The administration disavowed it, and in December 2004 issued a new legal opinion about torture. But it did not disclaim interrogation techniques authorized earlier or state specifically which of them the CIA continues to use. The president has said repeatedly that the U.S. does not torture prisoners, that such treatment is wrong. "Torture is wrong no matter where it occurs, and the United States will lead the fight to eliminate it everywhere." (6/24/04) But exactly what he and other U.S. officials mean by torture remains unclear.

For discussion

1. How adequate are the torture definitions in the Third Geneva Convention and the UN Convention Against Torture? Why? Can you write a better one?

2. Which, if any, of the reported examples of prisoner treatment would you classify as torture? Why?

3. Why do you suppose that Bush administration officials developed a new definition of torture after 9/11? Why do you suppose that later they disavowed it? Why do you think their definition of torture remains unclear?


Document-Based Question


DBQ Directions:

Read each item and then answer the question following it. After you have read all of the paragraphs, write an essay in response to item I.


[Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee] avowed that he was sure he was not the only member of the committee "more outraged by the outrage" over the photographs [of Abu Ghraib prisoners] than by what the photographs show. "These prisoners," Senator Inhofe explained, "you know they're not there for traffic violations. If they're in Cellblock 1-A or 1-B, these prisoners, they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them probably have American blood on their hands, and here we're so concerned about the treatment of those individuals." It's the fault of "the media" which are provoking, and will continue to provoke, further violence against Americans around the world. More Americans will die. Because of these photos.

Susan Sontag, "Regarding the Torture of Others," New York Times, 5/23/04

Question: Why is Senator Imhofe more "outraged by the outrage" over the Abu Ghraib photographs than by what they show?


I was once [during the Vietnam War] physically coerced to provide my enemies with the names of the members of my flight squadron. I did not refuse, or repeat my insistence that I was required under the Geneva Conventions to provide my captors only with my name, rank and serial number. Instead, I gave them the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line, knowing that providing them false information was sufficient to suspend the abuse. It seems probable to me that the terrorists we interrogate under less than humane standards of treatment are also likely to resort to deceptive answers that are perhaps less provably false than that which I once offered.

Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona), "Torture's Terrible Toll," Newsweek, 11/21/05

Question: What potential problem does McCain see in using torture to elicit information?


The primary commodity, the primary weapon in this war with such an elusive enemy [as terrorists] is information. And the most reliable source of information comes from the people in al Qaeda you captured. The need for information from individual detainees is not as important in a normal nation-state world, where you can observe the other side's army and you know where their capital is. You have satellites and things, reconnaissance, where you can determine what's going on with the other side. You can't do that in a war with al Qaeda because they don't have territory, population or cities. And so the way to stop terrorist attacks is to get information from them.

And the one thing I think we don't want is for the government to be hamstrung in the way it interrogates people who have knowledge of pending attacks against the United StatesÖ.We are facing a very aggressive, determined enemy to which the normal rules don't apply and they don't follow any rules as far as we can tell. What happens if we happen to capture Osama bin Laden? Are we going to restrict ourselves to reading [him] the Miranda rights, providing [him] with a lawyer and right to remain silent, and trying [him] in a federal court despite the fact that [he] must have knowledge, the names of al Qaeda operatives who may be in the United States and in Western Europe and who are planning attacks on the United States? I don't find any reasonable alternative being proposed by critics.

John Yoo, deputy assistant attorney-general, 2001-2003, Frontline,, 10/18/05

Question: Why shouldn't the usual rules about prisoner interrogation apply to terrorists, in Yoo's opinion?


Let's take an example that is far from hypothetical. You capture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan. He not only has already killed innocents, he is deeply involved in the planning for the present and future killing of innocents. He not only was the architect of the 9/11 attack that killed nearly three thousand people in one day. But as the top al Qaeda planner and logistical expert he also knows a lot about terror attacks to come. He knows plans, identities, contacts, materials, cell locations, safe houses. What do you do with him?....

Let's posit that during the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed we got intelligence about an imminent al Qaeda attack. And we had a very good reason to believe he knew about it. And if we knew what he knew, we could stop it there is waterboarding, a terrifying and deeply shocking torture technique in which the prisoner has his face exposed to water in a way that gives the feeling of drowning. According to CIA sources cited by ABC News, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed "was able to last between two and 2 and ½ minutes before begging to confess." Should we regret having done that?....

And what if he possessed information with less imminent implications? Say we had information about a cell that he had helped found or direct, and that cell was planning some major attack and we needed information.  A rational moral calculus would surely permit measures beyond mere psychological pressure. Such a determination could not be made with an untroubled conscience. It would be troubled because there is no denying the monstrous evil that is any form of torture. And there is no denying how corrupting it can be to the individuals and society that practice it. But elected leaders, responsible above all for the protection of their citizens, have the obligation to tolerate their own sleepless nights by doing what is necessaryóand only what is necessary, nothing moreóto get information and prevent mass murder.

Charles Krauthammer, contributing editor, "The Truth About Torture: it's time to be honest about doing terrible things," Weekly Standard, 12/5/02

Question: Why does Krauthammer believe that even though torturing prisoners is evil, it is a duty of our leaders, under certain circumstances?


It is possible to concede that, in an extremely rare circumstance, torture may be used without conceding that it should be legalized. One imperfect but instructive analogy is civil disobedience. In that case, laws are indeed broken, but that does not establish that the laws should be broken. In fact, civil disobedience implies precisely that laws should not be broken, and protesters who engage in it present themselves promptly for imprisonment and legal sanction on exactly those grounds. They are saying that laws do matter, that they should be enforced, but that their conscience in this instance demands that they disobey them.

A rough parallel can be drawn for a president faced with [a] horrendous decision.  He may have to break the law [because] a president might well decide that, if the survival of the nation is at stake, he must make an exception. At the same time, he must subject himself to the consequences of an illegal act. Those guilty of torturing another human being must be punishedóor pardoned ex post facto.

Andrew Sullivan, Senior Editor, "The Abolition of Torture, The New Republic, 12/19/05

Question: How does Sullivan think the use of torture in some circumstances might be similar to the use of civil disobedience?


The abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have become international embarrassments for the United States, and by many accounts have helped to recruit young people to join al Qaeda. The U.S. has squandered the sympathy it had on September 12, 2001, and we now find ourselves in a world perhaps more hostile than ever before. With respect to detainees, the U.S. is now in an untenable bind: on the one hand, it has become increasingly unacceptable for the U.S. to hold hundreds of prisoners indefinitely without trying them; on the other hand our coercive and inhumane interrogation tactics have effectively granted many of the prisoner immunity from trial. Because the evidence we might use against them is tainted by their mistreatment, trials would likely turn into occasions for exposing the United States' brutal interrogation tactics.

David Cole, "What Bush Wants to Hear," The New York Review, 11/17/05

Question: What is the "bind" the U.S. has created for itself in its handling of prisoners, in Cole's opinion?


As a journalist who had reported on torture and torture victims, and who therefore thought he knew something about the subject, I was surprised that I was finding it harder than most commentators and most people I knew to take a fixed view of coercive force in interrogation. I didn't know whether it was effective, whether it had any potential, as sometimes claimed, to save thousands of lives by preventing a catastrophic attack. How many lives would have to be demonstrably saved before such intimidation and punishment achieve a kind of moral sanction? If it could be shown with some certainty that, say, 10,000 lives would be saved, few purists would argue against the infliction of pain. If the number was a much smaller multiple of 10 and the degree of uncertainty candidly acknowledged, the true murkiness of the issue in the real world would have to be faced.

Joseph Lelyveld, "Interrogating Ourselves," The New York Times, 6/12/05

Question: Why is the writer uncertain about the usefulness of torture?


Torture is wrong because it inflicts unspeakable pain upon the body of a fellow human being who is entirely at our mercy. The tortured person is bound and helpless. The torturer stands over him with his instruments. To abuse or kill a person in such a circumstance is as radical a denial of common humanity as possible. It is repugnant to learn that one's country's military forces are engaging in torture. It is worse to learn that the torture is widespread. It is worse still to learn that the torture was rationalized and sanctioned in long memorandums written by people at the highest level of government. Torture destroys the soul of torturer even as it destroys the body of his victim. The boundary between humane treatment of prisoners and torture is perhaps the clearest boundary in existence between civilization and barbarism.

Jonathan Schell, writer, "What Is Wrong with Torture," The Nation, 2/7/05

Question: What are two reasons Schell believes torture is wrong?



Opinions differ about how prisoners who are suspected of being terrorists and of having vital information should be treated.

Using information from the above statements about prisoner treatment and any other knowledge you have on this subject, write a well-organized essay that includes an introduction, several paragraphs and a conclusion in which you:

  • compare and contrast different viewpoints on prisoner treatment
  • discuss your own viewpoint and the reasons for it


Classroom Activities

1. Classroom discussion

a. Have students read both parts of the two-part reading.

b. After they complete the reading, assign them to write two good questions about the torture issue. A good question is one which, if answered well, would lead them to a better insight into that issue. The question need not be one they can answer.

c. Write on the chalkboard without comment a sampling of student questions. Which three or four would students most like to discuss? Have them consider the nature of each questionóits clarity, the kind of answer it calls for, whether any words need definition. (See "the doubting game" section of "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website for further suggestions.)

d. Do a "go-around" with the following question: For vital information-gathering about terrorist activities, should the U.S. government, in crucial cases, permit torture? Why or why not?

e. Periodically, summarize major points.

f. If the discussion becomes heated, stop for a moment and do a feeling/reality check. How are students feeling about the discussion? Try to identify areas of agreement and disagreement. Look for common ground. Discuss the differences between dialogue and debate.


2. Fish Bowl

Invite five to seven students to begin a conversation about their reactions to different viewpoints about torture. Ask them to make a circle with their chairs in the middle of the room. Try to ensure that the group reflects diverse points of view.

Ask everyone else to make a circle of chairs around the fish bowl. Only people in the fish bowl can speak. The others are to listen carefully. Facilitate the discussion by using student-generated questions and any others on the torture issue that seem appropriate. Each student in the fish bowl should have the opportunity to speak before a larger discussion takes place. Invite clarifying questions when appropriate

After 15 minutes or so, invite students from the larger circle to participate in the fish bowl conversation by tapping a fish bowl student on the shoulder and moving into that student's seat.


3. Debate

Organize a classroom debate on the following subject. "Resolved, that the U.S. government should permit torture of selected high-level prisoners to obtain vital information about terrorist activities.


4. For Inquiry

  • The origins of the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention on Torture
  • Findings of the various investigations into U.S. treatment of prisoners
  • Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross
  • The Taguba Report
  • The Schlesinger Panel Report
  • The Fay-Jones Report
  • The Church Report
  • The Robb-Silberman Report
  • Bush administration policies on prisoner treatment and how they were developed
  • Individual casesóKhaled al-Masri, Maher Arar, both of whom are suing the U.S. government for mistaken arrest and mistreatment

5. For Citizenship

Letters and e-mails to representatives, senators, and the president expressing views on the torture debate. If there is a class consensus, students might be interested in drafting a detailed letter to such officials.

Consider with students the possibility of having the debate suggested above for a school assembly.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: