Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Has torture always been controversial?

Modern Views on Torture

Torture is a slippery concept. For example, it stems from general punishment, but the delineation between the two is a gray area that's wide open to interpretation. Then there's the question of effect -- what constitutes "severe pain or suffering" differs among different people. Torture also straddles the fence between acceptable and unacceptable. Like most moral conundrums, it can be viewed from many different perspectives. Sure, the torturee isn't having a good time, but what if his suffering will alleviate the suffering of many others? It's the classic Trolley Car Problem scenario.

When it comes to tolerance versus censure, the breakdown of torture basically works like this: Being familiar with the practice of torture generally leads to the approval of torture. Once torture is acceptable, then it's justifiable. And sometimes, once it's justifiable, it ceases to be viewed as torture at all. Another factor to consider in terms of controversy is a person's position in society. If someone is able to torture others and chooses to do so, then that person probably doesn't view torture as remotely controversial.

So how do current opinions of torture compare with those of the past? That's a difficult question to answer -- opinion polls weren't exactly commonplace in medieval Europe, pre-Columbian America or ancient Rome. However, we do know that torture is fairly controversial today. In a 2006 BBC survey of more than 27,000 people in 25 countries, an average of 29 percent were OK with torture being used to combat the threat of terrorism, while 59 percent were opposed. Israelis were the strongest supporters of the use of torture to oppose terrorism with 43 percent in agreement, while Italians were the most against it -- 81 percent said torture is never acceptable [source: BBC].

More to Explore