Torture & Nonviolent Communication

by Evelyn Zellerer on March 2, 2012 · 17 comments

I’m teaching a course on Justice. I always invite students to engage, both with the real world and with each other. Yesterday students facilitated a discussion on their own topic of interest: torture.

I’m disturbed that some students think torture is justified. I’m much more disturbed that some leaders, like former president George Bush, endorse it. And passive endorsement is just as bad; as Jack Harris said: “Why is this government getting Canada into the torture business?”

Like in my student’s debate, we’re still asked: is it ok to torture someone in order to extract information to save lives?

But that’s not actually the question to ask. That’s a question that keeps us trapped in “us vs. them” mentality. The only seemingly common sense answer in this scenario would be sacrificing one to potentially save thousands. It’s amazing that Bentham’s utilitarian argument – the greatest good for the greatest number – still has an influence on our answers.

I’m interested in getting us out of that destructive, fear-based paradigm and asking what else is possible? No one wants innocent people to die. So really the question is how do we best prevent violence and terrorist attacks?

Torture would not be the answer to that question. Information gained from torture is certainly suspect since people just want to stop the pain. Inflicting pain on someone to prevent pain being inflicted on someone else simply does not make sense. Nor is it the kind of world I’d like to live in. Dehumanizing people is actually part of what is required for war and violence.

Humanizing all parties involved would be a step in the right direction. Reaching across our differences to develop understanding, respect and accountability makes sense. And that’s what works.

I’m intrigued by Marshall Rosenberg’s bold claim: it takes about 20 minutes to resolve any conflict once each party can clearly state their own needs and can clearly acknowledge the needs of the other party. So far this has proven true, even between warring tribes with mass murders.

Desmond Tutu, in response to the bloodshed occurring in Syria right now, confirms: “Dialogue, however difficult, is the only way to work toward a lasting peace”.

So if we truly want to save lives, we have to commit to that target and that must include our so called enemy’s lives too. Otherwise, it would be terribly hypocritical to judge some lives as worthy of respect and some lives as worthy of torture. There are no disposable people. We’re all in this mess together. And the only way out is to raise our collective consciousness.

Universal Declaration of Human RightsI appeal to our entire global community to uphold the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Imagine what our world would be like if we all just took that step?


{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Ruffin March 3, 2012 at 4:17 pm

I never understood how individuals can justify torture. To me torture is idol handed, the work of opressors and it might sound comical, but evil doers as well. I once sat in on a discussion about how torture possibly save the lives of millions of americans, but a week later the same women spoke vehemently about the importance of humanity and how the constitution defends us from self incrimination after her nephew was accused of being an accomplice in a home invasion. What if your nephew was tortured for the information? You would definitely have a different view then, but why do whe find out when our family and close one’s are in trouble first to understand we are universally connected.


Evelyn Zellerer March 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Thanks Richard. Yes I too really don’t understand how someone can torture others or justify it. I agree that it may seem like a distant issue, especially when there is talk about saving millions of lives; but our perspective can change dramatically when it gets closer to home so to speak. We certainly are interconnected…


Libby & Len Traubman March 5, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Evelyn: You thoughtfully point to the human default setting — taking “sides” — seeing life as “us vs. them.” An antidote is to move people into authentic experiences — far beyound intellectual information — to validate and truly Know that we are one and neighbors forever. Beyond thinking, such human encounters seem to be at the heart. This contact apparently trumps fear and messages the brain that it’s safe to be cooperate and thus finally release unprecedented creativity. A recent example of 200 young Africans doing this is in the new 2012 grassroots documentry film availabel cost-free on DVD:
DIALOGUE IN NIGERIA: Muslims & Christians Creating Their Future


Chris March 11, 2012 at 3:24 am

This was a great debate in class that brings up many ethical issues. Two key moral theories come to mind: utilitarianism, and libertarianism. The point of my argument is to provide a thought experiment, which there are cases that rational people from different philosophical views can/do have reasons to choose to torture. I do agree that this a very controversial area and torture dehumanizes individuals, which is extremely wrong. I do not nor would ever want to argue for all reasons to choose to torture. In most cases it grossly ignores individual rights. My goal is to provide a situation that one’s intuitions would lead one to choose torture, even though in most cases it is wrong.
First, I would like to address the “us vs. them”argument. I believe this premise leads to a further ideal utopian state in which there is no torture nor KILLING. It sounds like a great goal and I hope we can achieve it. However, the unfortunate reality is we have not achieved this utopian state. Furthermore, when applying the thought experiment it should not change which country of origin, race, ethnicity, or so forth the individuals belong to, whether the torture victim or the murdered victim. I agree all should be considered equal. (Also a Bentham utilitarian principle)
In brief, utilitarianism is, as Evelyn laid out “the greatest good for the greatest number,” however I do not believe it has to apply only to Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism, I believe it applies to contemporary utilitarianism as well.
Libertarianism is individual rights trump group rights.
The thought experiment presented in class (roughly): There is a bomb set to kill one thousand people. You have custody of a man that you know has information about the bomb that if you were to extract, would save the innocent lives. In order to extract the information, you must torture the individual.
Some objections from the blog seem to argue that if you talked with the individual then you can get the information, thus use a humane method. I think merely adding in a premise that only torture will work or saying that you exhausted humane methods prior to the option of torture. Perhaps this is unrealistic but that is not the point of my argument. I am merely presenting a situation in which most would choose torture.
Rational reasons for choosing to torture this person are that yes, one person’s rights are being violated in order to protect a thousand lives. That to physically harm (torture) but not kill one person does infringe individual rights, but to choose not to torture will lead to the death of a thousand lives which infringes more lives. That the right to life is the most important right concerned, any right thereafter is secondary (including torture).
Now, I do not believe any of these reasons need to include fellow countrymen, family members, friends, or so forth. I think the innocents imagined can be any persons on Earth or even the universe. At the same time that is something to think about, what if one of the innocent people to die is your mother, son, friend, or colleague. Does/should it change the outcome? But than one might say well what if the person to be tortured is family/friend, does/should it change? Again, for my argument this idea is not detrimental, merely another factor to add on one’s own.
I believe that from the information presented most would choose to torture one person to save numerous lives. The thought experiment was to support the claim that there are certain, albeit, precise circumstances one would choose to torture.
Again, I do not condone nor agree with torture overall. I am a liberal (in the philosophical sense not political) and strong supporter of individual rights and freedoms. I wanted to present a different perspective and objection, which was discussed in class. The discussion was full of rich information and critical analysis.
P.s. J.S. Mill is a utilitarian that also strongly argued for individual rights, that basically argued through individual freedom humanity can flourish.


Libby & Len Traubman March 11, 2012 at 7:50 am

Chris: Rigorous intellectual analyses like yours of “the world out there” are important. Yet life beyond war is a personal, intimate decision. Rejection of violence must be pre-decided (or not) with your same excellent brain, because in the heat of threat and crisis, it’s too late. Then fear hijacks thinking to the reptile brain — our “hind brain” — that fights, withdraws from the relationship, or only rationalizes old-thinking and mean acts. In our experience, your “eutopian” idealism is actually what workis in rela life, actual relationshps at home and internationally. We urge you to hold on to that!!! A useful graphic is at and a new 2012 film of 200 Nigerians choosing this life in the midst of brutal violence around them is at


Chris March 11, 2012 at 4:45 pm

You two have a great project going and have achieved magnificent results. I would never argue against an ideology of that nature. You have accomplished amazing things in Nigeria. I did visit the website but have not had a chance to watch the video YET(mostly due to seemingly countless essays).
My argument was more directed towards comments about the statements that torture is NEVER justified. My argument was set up as 1) Either A or B 2) not B, 3) therefore must be A. It seems you are saying it is not only A or B but you must add C – different mind state.
I agree your ideas may be achieved through a lot of hard work and sacrifice. I hope we can reach a time when war and violence is not seen as a plausible option, particularly for hegemonic power, which is often the case for many countries.
However, I fail to see how you response adresses the thought experiment? It seems that the response is if one is given the choice between torturing to save lives, one should not torture because that person does not believe in war or violence or so forth. I would argue that to choose to not partake in action, whether due to beliefs, ethics, etc., is still a choice and there is a result. Or, you argue that this should not be a question. (Please tell me if I misrepresented your meaning, this is my interpretation and I mean no disrespect) I believe that choice C could be a sub-premise that results in choosing either A or B. On the other hand, if you argue it should not be a question, then it seems to disregard/ignore the dilemma.
Again, I agree that in order for humanity to move forward towards a peaceful, ideal world we must focus on the positive as clearly is being done in your and Evelyn’s work. I have volunteered in the past and present for certain agencies to help as well. It is a tough, long ‘fight’ (world peace) but the only ‘fight’ everyone should pursue. I hope I can achieve a fraction of the work you’ve done in the fight.
P.s. I enjoy the back and forth, as I enjoy hearing different views on various subjects. I hope not to play devil’s advocate too often as this has no part of my core beliefs, which I intend to continually question and critically analyze in order to better my views. It is due to classes and professors, such as Evelyn, that help me better understand the world and myself.


Libby & Len Traubman March 11, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Chris: You’ve asked for clarity. Acts of violence incluidng torture are commonly rationalized, reasoned, defended and explained by the initiator — “us” and “them.” These are acts of war, more or less. The relevant personal implication is one’s very personal choice to pre-decide about violence, because “things” don’t change; we change, a soul at a time. One more time, the means is the ends in the making. Beyond “nice,” today’s hard news is about people and small collectives who make these decisions.


Chris March 11, 2012 at 7:39 pm

This seems problematic if not everyone agrees to this belief. I immediately think of the prisoner’s dilemma. In other words, this seems like a good end result but if you partake but others do not, I feel there are many cases negative results due tp one’s reliance on faith. Maybe this is an issue of my age as I fail to hold “blind” faith in humanity when so much wrongdoing occurs. That does not mean I do not trust people, in fact I give the benefit of the doubt. However, this seems to rely on others in a significant manner that my intuition tells me is wrong. So, I shall further review.


Libby & Len Traubman March 11, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Chris: Truly, faith is not sitting down on a chair that isn’t there. An agent of Change does not wait for “everybody else,” but decides to be an Innovator or Early Adopter. There are those who make Change happen, those who watch Change happen, and those who wonder, “What happened?” Much of this is illustrated in English, Arabic, and Hebrew at


Chris March 11, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Also, I do not fully understand how this view allows one to side step the thought experiment. It still seems to say either that you refuse to answer because the scenario is unrealistic to you or that you would choose to not harm through torture because you could never torture. But again my main argument was towards those that were unable to conceive how someone could “justify” torture. Thus a universal statement.


Chris March 11, 2012 at 7:59 pm

I will definitely analyze it more, you pose the premise eloquently. My concern remains that it be steps toward change not jumping from a bridge believing people will secure the cable for you. However, I’m looking theoretical, you have practical experience. I definitely agree that change ought not rely on everyone else, but this particular ideal seems to rely on others. I think there are movements one can make towards the goal. “Rome was not built in a day.” But this particular case seems to rely on many other people. Again, I think there are things you can still do to change. Whether legislation, help in other countries, plan procedures, etc.


Richard Ruffin March 11, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Hello Chris
A couple hours ago I viewed an interview with former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. She stated that the new war on terrorism would have to be proactive and preemptive against those that wish to cause harm to our country and democracy. Ehance interrogation, she said is what led to the many successes in the war on terrorism. Dr. Rice also stated that the war on terrorism in not law enforcement, “allow” someone to commit the crime, make an arrest, and then investigate. Law enforcement don’t allow people t commit crimes, that’s why we have those that patrol to prevent and deter crime. Though law enforcement actively pursues criminals, we lose thousands of citizens yearly to crime but we are not out there torturing suspects and gang leaders for information because in our country that is illegal. Whenever programs like ehance interrogation are implemented during war controversy isn’t far behind. Remember the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War. She also stated that unlike law enforcement if the individual or group succeed then thousands of people loose their life, no one can argue otherwise but I just think during this period in time there are more humane ways of extracting information from someone.


Chris March 11, 2012 at 9:05 pm

First, the example I provided lays out the options for the known result. I agree most cases misapply torture. But in my case provided lives would be directly saved.
Second, I do not fully understand how you are applying the “crime causes lives lost” to my argument. However, if a police officer saw a person that without a doubt was holding a detonator to kill thousands of people and the only way to save those people were to shoot the person. I argue that officer would shoot. I argue that if I was the officer, I would shoot. I accept it is wrong to shoot people, knowing if I shoot it will hurt him/her, but I will save countless lives.


Chris March 11, 2012 at 9:12 pm

I really want to remind that I do not endorse torture as a whole. I am arguing for one case in which torture can be argued as “justified”. In fact I strongly disagree with many of the cases of torture, such as in Afghanistan, Guantanamo bay, etc. I am unaware of the details from Vietnam you presented but I would probably agree with you.


seth March 12, 2012 at 6:18 am

It is a great step in this process to address the utilitarian argument, as well as the “us vs. them” mentality. Individually, they can be dangerous. Together, they can be devastating. Unwinding that knot is a great step.
I often read the news on yahoo, (they have a good range of stories), and have been jumping into the discussions. It is almost shocking, and embarrassing, the level of ignorance people embrace when it comes to ending conflict, conducting military operations, and gaining a better view of their “enemies.” I wish I could paste some examples, but lets just say that the popular American response to the “enemy” is very much like a mob mentality. So that is what your facing. Mob mentality, where people embrace the “us vs. them” where “they” are are evil and backward while we are right and correct.
These types of thoughts and beliefs are what lead to torture, to the degradation of human beings on one or both sides. If you want to stop it, hopefully you can instill and enforce laws such as the geneva convention, where for the most part, the signers follow the convention when in conflict with eachother. Obviously, that is not the case when one or more parties with a no-holds-barred attitude are fighting. So we are left with two avenues of approach: stop conflict and stop the mentality that facilitates torture and degradation should conflict ocurr.
Perhaps looking at historical cases where diverse groups either dont have violent tendencies towards eachother, but still live and practice their cultures in close proximity with eachother, or cases where people are not tortured during conflict.
There was a time when Muslims and Christians and Jews coincided quite well with eachother in the middle east. Americans were once welcomed into Afghanistan, doing much to build and work along Afghans. What made those instances successful?
In each case, culture and economy were strong. If nobody is threatening your identity, and you can comfortably provide for your family, than conflict is a non-issue.
Once battle is joined, however, I think that lines must be drawn between proper conduct (limiting damage to civilians, engaging ONLY enemy combatants, etc…) and improper conduct (crimes against humanity, terrorism, etc…). In the end, cultures of the world need to realize that everything will not simply go their way, all of the time, and everyone standing in their way should be viewed as an opponent. In short, we need to grow up, using education, cultural diversity, strengthen cultural safety-valves that choke up the conditions of violence.


seth March 12, 2012 at 6:21 am

Btw, I meant limiting the damage TO civilians.


Evelyn Zellerer March 13, 2012 at 11:09 am

Thanks so much everyone for your thoughtful comments and contributions! I’m thrilled that we are engaging in dialogue. Part of my work involves building community; it warms my heart that strangers across thousands of miles are corresponding here on my blog site!!

Wow, so much I could say! Here are some thoughts I’d like to offer.

I invite people to step into possibilities. I like how Libby & Len you talk about change agents (thanks for all the great resources on your website!).

I appreciate Chris you grappling with justifications for torture and asking hard questions; you have an intelligent mind. I invite you though to please let go of that thought experiment the students presented. It seems you want us to answer this specific experiment with known results. But this is the limiting box that I am inviting people to step out of. As others posting here talked about, we must engage in the realities and be inspired by what people are accomplishing in war torn places (like in Nigeria and Israel-Palestine that Libby & Len documented).

Some say it’s not possible; it’s utopian to end torture. Or that if others don’t agree then we can’t do the “right” thing. I disagree. In fact, I think it’s imperative that we step up and be leaders, even if no one follows. That’s actually the definition of a leader – going whether anyone else does or not. How else can we bring about change or create a new reality?

I think of a time not that long ago when women couldn’t vote and blacks were segregated. There were all kinds of “logical” reasons and “evidence” given. It was “justified”. Unfortunately, in some places this is still legislated or practiced.

Thank goodness people like Rosa Parks simply did not give up her seat on the bus. Thank goodness Martin Luther King shared his dream.

Leaders like Gandhi and Mandela didn’t buy the justifications and they didn’t need anyone else to agree to do something. They stepped out of their current reality and stepped forward into the unknown to create another reality, with an invitation for others to co-create. We discover over and over the incredible power of non-violence.

I totally agree Seth that we must overcome the “us vs them” and mob mentality. This is so central to change and for us to remember our common humanity, no matter the choices people make.
Although we’d like to think we can identify and take out the monsters, evil doers, enemy, the truth is there is no enemy. It’s just us human beings.

And Richard I too am disturbed by calls for “enhanced interrogation”.
You raise an insightful point that the government is willing to torture “terrorist suspects” but take a different approach to street crime. How convenient (and awful) to label some people, dehumanize them and justify committing violence against them. All in the name of preventing violence. It’s really ludicrous! Nelson Mandela was labeled a terrorist…

Let’s get to the bottom of conflict. As Seth as well as Libby & Len point out, we must learn to respond to conflict. This has been the focus of my work for the past 20 or so years.

I learned that conflict is not the problem. It is an opportunity. The key is how do we respond, effectively and humanely.

So far, the most powerful process I’ve discovered is peacemaking circles. I also appreciate the transformative power of dialogue overall and nonviolent communication.

Let’s question the current reality of violence, dehumanization, us vs them. Let’s keep asking, what else is possible?


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