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Justifying the Use of Torture in the Name of Public Interest

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Does The Ends Justify the Means: Justifying the use of torture in the name of Public Interest Public Administration can be thought of as where the rubber meets the road in the act of governing via the Constitution. Under normal conditions the framework of the constitution leaves room for Public Administrators to interpret if they should govern by what the “Public Interest”, wants or what they believe is in the public’s best interest. Under the extra-ordinary times following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 this discretion was asserted by the highest levesl of government. This decision to impose its will on the, “Public Interest,” erode the moral fabric of everyone involved down to the very bottom causing ordinary men and women to do horrible things all for what they were led to believe was for the,” Public Interest.” The public interest refers to the “common well-being” or “general welfare”. The public interest is central to policy debates, politics, democracy and the nature of government itself. While nearly everyone claims that aiding the common well-being or general welfare is positive, there is little, if any, consensus on what exactly constitutes the public interest, or whether the concept itself is a coherent one (“Public interest,” n.d., p. 1)

That definition of “Public Interest” ends with the premises that there is no consensus of exactly what constitutes the “Public Interest,” The difficulty in defining the “Public Interest” puts pressure on elected officials in trying to legislate for the ,”Public Interest” and it puts even more pressure on the Public Officials to administrate the ,”Public Interest.” The question is should public officials push programs that they feel the public needs or should they carry out programs the public express they want through elections. “Are the servants of the public to decide their own course, or is their course of action to be decided by a body outside themselves. The servants of the public are not to decide their own course: they are to be responsible to the elected.”(Stillman, 2009, p. 447) This would suggest that elected officials are beholden to the electorate by the nature of their relationship but should senior level administrators be held to the same requirements or should they govern to what they believe the, “Public Interest,” needs, “Politicians and employees are working not for the good of the public in the sense of what the public needs, but of the wants of the public expressed by the public.”(Stillman, 2009, p. 448)

If not clearly defined the ambiguity can filter down to street level government and effect or alter decisions. In order to overcome this ambiguity proper Public Administrations must have skilled executives who can correctly identify the critical task of their organizations. These administrators must distribute the authority to handle these tasks. Then they must infuse their subordinates with a sense of purpose and the autonomy to permit them to get the job done. This need to interpret the, “Public Interest,” led to the decision chain that allowed the President of The United States to disregard the Constitution and allow the torture of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib Prison. The attacks of September 11, 2001 intensified the United States’ worldwide war on terrorism. In the aftermath of the attacks it was clear that the American, “Public Interest” would be willing to put up with anything to find the parties responsible and prevent future attacks. Anything included not complying with the Geneva Conventions.

The spirit of the Geneva Conventions are woven and intertwined with the US constitution. The Geneva Conventions also protect our soldiers if they are to be captured, “The justification of torture as a means to extract tactical information is the reason that rules of warfare have developed over the centuries and why the United States is a party to the Geneva Conventions. The generally accepted rules of warfare forbid torture and provide for the humane treatment of enemy captives. Without these rules, all armed forces would be vulnerable to torture if captured by the enemy; therefore, all sides have a stake in limiting the use of torture, (Pfiffner, Fall 2005, p. 317) This feeling was perceived by the Commander and Chief who took certain steps that helped the collective psyche accept the consequences of lowering our moral standards in order to obtain the objective. On February 7th, 2002 President Bush signed a memorandum that stated: “Pursuant to my authority as Commander in Chief, I determine that none of the provisions of Geneva (ie, The Geneva Convention) apply to our conflict with al Qaeda in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world because among other reasons, al Qaeda is not a High Contracting Party of Geneva”(Bush 2002).

This determination allowed the aggressive techniques of interrogation used by the military on suspected al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo and later in the fall of 2003 at the prison at Abu Ghraib. (Pfiffner, Fall 2005, p. 319) These provisions possibly bent or fractured provisions of the US constitution. The same constitution that these very same soldiers had sworn to protect. “, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God”(Powers, p. 1) This dichotomy of orders is what I believe is at the heart of the breakdown that allowed the torture to continue at Abu Ghraib. The low ranking individuals who actually performed the actions believed they were just following orders,(Pfiffner, Fall 2005, p. 324).

They also believed that there actions where sanctioned all the way from the top and that these actions where in in line with the, “Public Interest”. This alignment with the perceived, “Public Interest,” is what gave all players cover to perform any means necessary to extract the desired ends. In retrospect the individuals responsible for performing the torture acts where punished. Individuals are ultimately responsible for their own actions. Part of the reason the defense of “Just following orders,” did not hold is because there was several individuals at all ranks who at great personal and professional risk, spoke out or did not comply with orders. Besides individual failures there where many failures in supervision and command and control that originated from the top. Fredrich stated in his essay that “without a well-defined and well worked out policy, responsibility becomes very difficult to bring about. (Stillman, 2009, p. 442)Ultimately it was the commanders and chief’s decision to alter the constitution in the name of the War on Terrorism based on what he believed was best for the, ”Public Interest” that laid the framework for these actions to occur.


Morgan, D. F., Green, R., Robinson, K. S., & Shinn, C. W. (2008). Foundations of Public Service. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. inc. Pfiffner, J. P. (Fall 2005, Fall 2005). Torture and Public Policy [Article]. Public Integrity, 7(4), 313-329. Retrieved from http://pfiffner.gmu.edu/files/pdfs/Articles/Torture,%20Public%20Integrity.pdf Powers, R. (). Oath of Enlistment . Retrieved from http://usmilitary.about.com/od/joiningthemilitary/a/oathofenlist.htm Public interest. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved 01/21/13, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_interest Stillman, R. (2009). Public Administration:Concepts and Cases (9th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

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