Sunday, October 01, 2006

Torture: Just What We Do

John Reid seems to be intent on relaxing legal restrictions on torture. At the Labour conference last week, he argued, 'It cannot be right that the rights of an individual suspected terrorist be placed above the rights, life and limb of the British people.' In the states, meanwhile, the lawyer Alan Dershowitz has been arguing for the granting of legal status to torture, not because he is in favour of it but because, as he put it to me, 'We now have ticking bomb terrorists and it's an empirical fact that every civilised democracy would use torture in those circumstances.' He doesn't like the 'surreptitious hypocrisy' involved in torturing beneath a blanket of official denial. The position of absolute opposition to this is, of course, put by the left and civil rights groups, but also by the right. Here, for example, is Andrew Sullivan in The Daily Dish - 'Now conservatives are the ones justifying torture - by the United States. They have become what they once fought. Unchecked power does that to you.' Meanwhile, John Gray (see previous post) has argued that the new enthusiasm for torture is further evidence (as if any were needed) that progress (see a full treatment of this here in Selected articles) is an illusion. Once progressives would have argued that the banning of torture was an irrevocable step towards a better future. Now, if they are honest, they will be forced to admit they were wrong. The progressive Dershowitz gets round this by saying that's just the way progress is - three steps forward, two steps back - 'Terrorism is a major step backwards in civilisation... Sometimes we have to step backwards too to combat such things.'
Gray's argument is the most fundamental. His is not a moral observation about whether we should or shouldn't permit torture. He is simply saying that it is an illusion that such things can be banished from human affairs by human aspiration. Our reason, our moralities, our hopes can do nothing against the dark logic of our tribal natures. As Isaiah Berlin pointed out, it would be nice if we really were the rational beings of which the Enlightenment thinkers dreamed, but we aren't, we are tribal carnivores.
Torture, like gentleness, compassion and art, is just what we do.


  1. And what civilised people wouldn't approve of concentration camps to deal with those who threaten our security? And only appeasers surely would object to the furthering of the policies implemented in places like Abu Ghraib. After all, our enemies are evil people; the kind who would be in favour of inhuman acts like torture. And who without anything to hide would object to "total information awareness", I think is how the US described what they wanted to implement, on behalf of the government. Kind of interesting the emblem this government body intended to use for this Information Awareness Office. Half way down this page- the old All-Seeing Eye on the capstone of a pyramid. I hate to have to make these points that can get one marginalised, but all is not as it seems.

  2. Not sure if I put in the url of the Information Awarenss thing. Here it is
    If it was already in, please omit this post.

  3. Ah yes. John Reid. Its that Glasgow thing isn't it where a kiss is just a head butt to paraphrase Casablanca. A pair of pliers and your teeth. Or maybe he's nostalgic for his time as a Stalinist- chairlegs and truncheons on shins? I predict Reid won't survive a month's scrutiny of the wider ambience of the Glasgow mafia. That's the mafia mafia, not the production team of BBC News Review.


  4. Ah, welcome back, Trout Mask Replica, if I may. Reid is, indeed, but a straw men, geddit? Brown is, at least, made of something, distasteful though it is. And Scottish. Give them independence, I say.

  5. It has been awhile since Alan Dershowitz was relevant. Torture is always wrong. We don't say, "It's OK to be brutal and evil when the going gets tough." We are supposed to be above that. We are supposed to convince allies and potential allies of our righteousness not our equivalency. When someone says, "We must use these tactics because our enemy would use them on us," I say "The reason they are our enemy is that they use tactics like that." Using their own tactics against them justifies their using those tactics on us. We become the enemy.