Thursday, April 23, 2009


With brief interruptions for Susan Boyle and Miss California, American television news has been dominated by torture. That torture was approved by Bush downwards is now certain as is the the fact that Abu Ghraib soldiers were imprisoned for acts that were based, directly or indirectly, on that approval. Whatever else is decided, it should be quite clear that if Lynndie England went to prison, then so should a lot of much more senior people, probably including, at least, Rumsfeld. Beyond that, things get a little murky. Did torture work? Unknown and possibly unknowable. Was there a ticking bomb justification? I doubt it - Al Qaeda would have to have been much dumber than they are to spread information about forthcoming attacks beyond those who needed to know. Was torture, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, justifiable? The Cheney/Rove defence is that it was because it worked, but, as I say, this is probably unknowable. The previous defence - that it was not really torture - is no longer viable. But the ultimate question is, of course: is torture absolutely wrong beyond all considerations of efficacy? The answer in western liberal democracies has to be yes. That answer does not require a metaphysical justification. It is just the way we are and how we define ourselves. That we might so define ourselves while averting our eyes - as Peggy Noonan has suggested - describes a likely state of affairs but cannot represent an explicit position. Torture is and will always be inevitable, it is a default human response. As John Gray has pointed out, that it should, once again have become quasi-respectable, is as clear as sign as any that ethical and moral progress is a myth. It is also as clear a sign as any that moments of respite from our fallen natures - like the moment provided by the institutions and mores of the liberal west - should be defended at all costs, not least against our own torturers.


  1. Andrew Sullivan spotted a very pithy summary of how he felt (link below). It was cathartic for me too

    It features someone called Shep Smith. What a good boy.

  2. It is quite simple in Christian countries:
    "You shall not wrong that good may come of it."
    Whether or not it's done is not the point, it's still wrong.

  3. Sorry that should have read "not do wrong" and I should have said "in Christian doctrine".

  4. Also I meant "whether or not it works".

  5. Well said. Thank You.

  6. Unpack torture is a default human response. Is that to do with very human reactions of anger and revenge, under pressure, or because we assume that it works or even have direct experience that it works? Or is it murky combination of all these?

  7. "The Cheney/Rove defence is that it was because it worked, but, as I say, this is probably unknowable."

    Well Bryan, would you like to put it to the test? ill douse your "sneakers" in petrol and give you 30 seconds to tell be your bank account details before i set light to your much traveled feet, one at a time :0)

    The French in Algeria in the 50s is the best example. military theorist Brian Crozier put it, "By such ruthless methods, Massu smashed the FLN organization in Algiers and re-established unchallenged French authority. And he did the job in seven months -- from March to mid-October." and how the hell do you think Saddam managed kept power for so long? a good spin doctor?

    I also know from my late grandfather who was one of the liberators of Belsen that the locals where hiding some of the camp officials and guards, these were found pretty sharpish with the locals unflinching co-operation.

    The fact is 911 happened because the CIA and FBI went to sleep, and they went to sleep because Clinton tied one hand behind their backs(read the congress report on 911)

    Clinton Emasculated the CIA so much with Human Rights twaddle that the CIA effectively stopped the recruitment of Chinese nationals by the CIA, demanding that only high-ranking embassy officials could be recruited, knowing this is almost impossible. You never know we might have even stopped the Credit Crunch

    Sorry Bryan you,Bam et all are playing a very,very dangerous game.

    “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

  8. "The object of torture is torture."

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Naive, sentimental waffle I'm afraid.

  11. "The French in Algeria in the 50s is the best example. military theorist Brian Crozier put it, "By such ruthless methods, Massu smashed the FLN organization in Algiers and re-established unchallenged French authority."

    It hasn't worked in all cases though - the Soviets in Afghanistan is one.
    Especially in today's 24 hour media- it's much harder for Liberal Democracies to cover-up and justify torture when they're constantly lecturing others about human rights.

  12. I'm still reeling from Sean's use of Orwell in defence of state torture.

    I'd like to see Nick Cohen get hold of that one, preferably when he was a bit drunk.

  13. I don't think 'torture is normal." I think it's cruel and barbaric. Something people who lack compassion do.

  14. The previous defence - that it was not really torture - is no longer viable.Which absolutely begs the question: just what constitutes torture?

    By failing to attend to that little detail, you have completely gutted your post.

  15. It is indefensible, but I suspect that few of us would allow that to stop us if it was in defense of us and ours. It's when it becomes a state instrument that we have problems.

  16. It's quite astounding to see someone apply Orwell's words to torture. It's simply wrong.

    "All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.
    Whether such deeds were reprehensible, or even whether they happened, was always decided according to political predilection."

    George Orwell,"Notes on Nationalism":

  17. David has it, torture, wrong in principle, right in the correct circumstances, one of life's real conundrums.

    Shows where absolutes don't work.

    Keeps the left busy though.

  18. Brit, did I defend it? I pointed out that worked, true is true. and FFS Brit WE ARE NOT CUTTING THEIR GOOLIES OFF.

    Chris, what I am saying is an observation of the system, of course specifics cases it might not, but as a general rule it does.

    Also worth pointing Generals reveal the whole battle plan to as few people as possible, because? 1, spies 2, Torture.

    Philip, off course its wrong, but killing and war are sometimes necessary. It says a lot about us that we agonize about it, and thats a great thing, but at the end of the day we have to make sure we win and the bad guys lose.

  19. And btw brit, my wife is Malay Chinese, her grand father fled China becasue of Communist torture, and her father fled Malaysia becasue of Islamist torture, I know what torture is ive seen the scares and talked to the people with them (one at least) sorry what went on at Gitmo is not torture, its not nice, but its not torture.

    Torture is when you are in real fear of your life and limb, with a real possibility that it might happen.

  20. I have no doubt that, over a longish period and certainly following the Abu Ghraib revelations, the whole of the USA (Executive, Congress, legal system and the people) knew of a significant number of such dubious activities: and did not stop their continuation?

    Concerning 'special rendition', likewise, the UK Government was aware of its complicity, as customer and as transportation assistant: and did nothing but spin.

    The UN appoints (or is that elects) those from countries with the worst records in human and other rights, to lead and oversee enforcement of those same rights.

    What does all this say?

    Back to the USA, how, given the complicity of an whole people, can it later be decided who to prosecute and who not to prosecute.

    Away from the specifics of USA 'torture', there is a serious philosophical and human problem.

    If some activity is designated torture, and is hence illegal, there is a lesser type of interrogation that is not torture and so is legal.

    But a great many people will feel that the lesser activity is highly reprehensible. They will not want their ('respectable, fair and decent') country to undertake such activity; they will want it to be illegal.

    But these same people will, even if the activity is made illegal in their own country, not force breaking off diplomatic relations with countries that continue with such 'marginal' torture; nor will they stop holidaying there, nor stop buying the nice products of that country.

    'Respectable, fair and decent' countries remain members of the UN and extensively fund its hypocritical activities.

    As pointed out above with the quotations of Orwell, it's a grey old world.

    Best regards

  21. I decided not to get into an argument about whether torture was justified. It's wrong and illegal and that's sufficient for me.

    However, I think Hey Skipper is identifying what the real problem is here: the definition of torture. After all it's a small minority in the US (I hope) who are arguing torture is fine. Most are arguing that what happened wasn't torture at all.

    I would argue that current laws and conventions at least the UK (the jurisdiction I know) are sufficient to define what is and what is not torture. I don't believe we need to create from new an abstract definition.

    Funnily enough the article on Mr Scruton recently referred to in this blog had this comment, which I will nick as a justification for my position:

    “Burke brought home to me that our most necessary beliefs may be both unjustified and unjustifiable from our own perspective, and that the attempt to justify them will lead merely to their loss. Replacing them with the abstract rational systems of the philosophers, we may think ourselves more rational and better equipped for life in the modern world. But in fact we are less well equipped, and our new beliefs are far less justified, for the very reason that they are justified by ourselves.”

    Anyway the argument between Hey Skipper and me is here:

  22. I didn't say your argument is necessarily wrong, Sean - I find this one very tricky - I was just pointing out that your use of Orwell in it is, well... words are insufficient.

    The issue of what is defined as torture is bit of a distraction, I think, Skipper, rather than the central issue. Is waterboarding as 'bad' as some of the more imaginiative medieval instruments? I suppose not, but that's all just the speculations of people who haven't experienced either. The point of torture is to use the power you have over someone to push them beyond their limits of tolerance - ie. to 'break' them as autonomous humans. We and our Governments all know what these things are - they're the things we're ashamed of and try to cover up.

    The important thing is that we continue to feel ashamed of them and agonise over them. Once we lose the shame and agony the game is up.

  23. Here, here, Brit. You said it perfectly.

  24. So, did Lynndie England go to prison for torture outside the call of duty? If not, then she should be released from prison.

    Or is she and her fellow now-imprisoned guards in jail because of the psychology tapped into in the Stanford prison experiment? And that prison England's in, is hopefully is a properly run one, using the best training available for its guards, something Lynndie England et al probably were not privy to.

    Let's look at this without being a lynch mob. We can rethink how we make wartime prisons and what we do with them, without becoming a holier-than-thou lynch mob. Or is this not possible either? But let's not ignore it while we try on our haloes.


  25. Thanks Brit, but I did say the same thing at 6.49.

    The orwell quote always comes to mind when reminding the great and the good who keeps the peace.

    My general problem with bryans post is that he accuses Cheney of muddying the waters and then he muddys the waters with "uncertainties", its important that we keep an open mind, but when push comes to shove we have to fall were the overwhelming amount of evidence is and of course your own common sense.

    At the end of the day it will not be journalist or politicos and academics who have to clear up the mess, it will be our sons and daughters, they and we can argue and theorize as much as we wish but the reality is we have a failed state sitting on top of 200 plus nuclear weapons, with our mortal enemies just about having one hand on them.

    It seems it might not be a good idea to bind the hands of the people who might be able to do something about it without the rest of us getting involved.

    Note the date the date. Tuesday, April 21, 2009.This is the day we sent our bravest into battle with one hand tied behind their backs. Bam now owns the problem, one hit on America, and one agent in the press saying he could have done something to stop it but I was second guessing myself and its all over for this president.

    As far as I can see he is playing politics with dynamite.

    PS you might have read Ben Macintyre in the times this morning.

    this is a bit of a classic. "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of 9/11, was waterboarded 183 times in one month, and “confessed” to murdering the journalist Daniel Pearl, which he did not"

    I wont post the many links on the net to the 1000s of pics of KSM holding Pearls head aloft, they are easily found. I did enjoy the film though, "A Mighty Heart"

    Its interesting that "psychological pressure." from ww2 is now noble and honorable but not now? I suppose we see what reinforces our already held belief?

  26. A Murdoch journalist got a fact wrong? Hmm, not quite on the scale of your earlier revelation that O'Brien is the hero of 1984. But indicative of the same scratching around for an argument.

    A quiet word of advice about where the herd is headed. The "bad apples" defence has been abandoned, along with the ostentatious demands for punishment that accompanied it. The "we don't torture" defence, to which you remain attached, looks set to join it. This is because the recent memos are only one of many rocks now being lifted.

    Take your lead from Dick Cheney. The defence is shifting to a claim that "it worked". Prepare your talking points accordingly. That way, when you are confronted - as you will be - with the fact that people were killed, and others were driven to madness, you will not be left sucking air, or scuttling for the nearest cover.

  27. Are you on the right blog, Bert, I can't recall ever mentioning O'Brien.

  28. Bryan, it's terrific you read the comments. I'll try and make mine more intelligible.

    Actually I was having a go at Sean, who has offered himself up as pinata for all us right-thinkers.

    The thought strikes me, somewhat late, that you too are a Murdoch journalist. Which only goes to show that some are more equal than others, as someone or other once said.

  29. Brit said:

    The issue of what is defined as torture is bit of a distraction ...Without coming to terms with what torture is renders any condemnation of it emotional, not analytical.

    This, for example, is pure posturing: The previous defence - that it was not really torture - is no longer viable. But the ultimate question is, of course: is torture absolutely wrong beyond all considerations of efficacy? The answer in western liberal democracies has to be yes.In other words, some things beyond some undefined degree of unpleasantness are always wrong, no matter what is at stake.

    It cedes the argument to those most inclined towards hand wringing, and makes pacifism's mistaken claim to moral superiority.

    Since no one asked, here is my take:

    If an intrusive medical examination would be unable to detect any physical consequences of a coercive interrogation technique one day after the fact, it does not constitute torture.

    (Why one day? Because I don't think sleep deprivation should ever be considered torture.)

    By that definition, essentially nothing US authorities condoned qualifies as torture, and that definition clearly separates what the US did from, say, the North Vietnamese treatment of POWs.

    Clearly, even accepting my definition, some coercive techniques are far more intuitively repellent than others. Stress positions or sleep deprivation are clearly not in the same class as water boarding.

    Which gets to the second absolutely fundamental distraction: context.

    The degree of coercion used must be proportional to the cost of failing to corroborate information. It is a complete abdication of moral judgment to simply state torture is absolutely wrong no matter what. There is no end of hypotheticals that make a mockery of that failure to appreciate the amorality of pacifism.

    That such hypotheticals are exceedingly rare only means that coercion to the point of torture should also be exceedingly rare, and have a correspondingly high, and explicit, approval level.

    But absolutely wrong, no matter what? Piffle.

    Full disclosure: in a previous life I went through Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Evasion training. It included sleep deprivation, stress positions, hypothermia, and very close confinement.

    Unpleasant? Heck yes.

    Calling any of that torture, though, absolutely demeans the word.

  30. btw, it's worth noting that Miss California and Obama share the same view on homosexual marriage...

  31. SERE was training to resist torture, wasn't it.

    Out of interest, were you waterboarded, Skipper? On that subject, this (pdf!) is a careful legal review, rather than an appeal to the emotions. It shows that US courts have consistently ruled that it's torture, and have even executed people for it.

    I recognise that you have a different view, and I'm glad you were able to shrug it off. But you weren't tortured, you were trained.

    The Bushies reverse-engineered their techniques out of that program. The techniques were then applied in the field, often in circumstances these DoJ lawyers would find hard to imagine.

    There's been over a hundred deaths in US custody in the War on Terror. When the details - already widely reported, and until now widely ignored - begin to fill the headlines in the coming months, the usual suspects will find ways to explain these deaths away. It would be a shame if you did the same.

  32. Some questions:

    If it is defensible in some circumstances to do something as drastic and definitive as kill people, why isn't it permissible to do something less drastic like inflict pain?

    If we use guns and they use guns does that make us as bad as them?

    Or is our gun use ok because we do it as a last resort in defence of democracy, while they use it as a first resort in pursuit of fascist objectives?

    So if that logic applies to gun use, why not to torture? Or is it the case that there's a difference between guns and torture ie guns are value neutral and torture isn't?

    But if I tell you that one man is inflicting pain on another, have I told you enough to judge that situation? You can't tell if it's a mugging or a copper dragging a man to court can you? So the morality of it depends on context doesn't it?

    If the infliction of pain had any inherent moral status, then you could judge it regardless of context, so it can't have any inherent status, so it must be as morally neutral in itself as a gun, mustn't it? So then we can inflict pain in defence of democracy without being as "bad" as them can't we?

    If you agree that being moderate means not just avoiding excess but also avoiding deficiency ie the scale of the solution should match the scale of the problem, and you further agree that threats of suffering and destruction in general are unlimited in principle, then logically the solutions to unlimited problems in principle must themselves be unlimited in principle.

    This means that you can't impose any a priori limit on what is specifically permissible in a solution. There is no brutality so savage it can be ruled out in principle, because the alternative might be worse. There is no "Will of God" or "Universal Right" dictating moral specificity in the abstract regardless of practical context.

    We can't know what is going to happen. The terrorism might tail off eventually with no more catastrophic attacks and we will have survived without going beyond our present rather liberal comfort zone. Then again, we might suffer catastrophe through our failure to fight fire with fire. I suppose the real question is, how scared are you of catastrophe?

    It's possible that illegal acts have been committed, but before we talk about prosecutions we need to ask how far we support the law in its present form, because if we decide to be a bit more pragmatic and change the law to allow more torture then it would seem pointless to be prissy about past infractions. You don't prosecute people for possession of cannabis the day before you legalise cannabis.

  33. See? It's about levelling power. Even spambots can figure this one out.

  34. bert:

    SERE was training to resist torture, wasn't it.That was one of its purposes. However, the training was also used to improve resilience by demonstrating that sufficient coercion will break anyone, so self-recrimination after the fact is wrong.

    Out of interest, were you waterboarded, Skipper?No. The closest I have come to it is reading an article by Christopher Hitchens on his voluntarily undergoing waterboarding. He minces no words: it is bloody awful.

    But is it torture? I browsed the PDF. It appears to treat the US method of waterboarding the same as other coercive techniques involving water. I don't think the comparison is fair, but maybe the distinctions are not, in fact, important.

    I recognise that you have a different view ... My view is that it both possible and necessary to use the word "torture" precisely, which Mr. Appleyard and a great many others have completely failed to do.

    Given my trial balloon definition, I do not conclude that waterboarding done in such a way that leaves absolutely no detectable physical aftereffects immediately after the fact constitutes torture.

    Clearly my notional definition of what constitutes torture clearly includes physical injury and, by extension, death. Presuming deaths occurred due to coercive interrogation, then those interrogations clearly qualify as torture, full stop.

    Which leads to the next stone which must be over turned: context. What was the corroborated information supposed to prevent? I think Appleyard's position that torture is never permissible in a liberal democracy is immoral in precisely the same way pacifism is.

    So, those putative deaths must have come about as a consequence of torture. Without further information, though, it is impossible to know if torture was the least awful option on offer.

    But you weren't tortured, you were trained.I absolutely was not tortured; however, there are a great many people who would call the sorts of things in SERE training torture. They blanche the word en route to morally empty posturing.



    If it is defensible in some circumstances to do something as drastic and definitive as kill people, why isn't it permissible to do something less drastic like inflict pain?Because in the latter case, the person is under your complete control, which is entirely different than the heat of combat.

    Having drawn a clear line as to what constitutes torture, the default should be very strongly against it, while knowing there could be circumstances where, awful though it is, it is still justified.

    Which means the approval level has to be explicit, and go all the way to the top.

  35. You might be interested in this, Skipper. A guy arguing from experience in a way I clearly can't.

    And you give the effectiveness argument a run out. As far as that goes, this fella has been getting some self-congratulatory coverage over here recently.

    All the best,

  36. Some thoughts on this debate here, Skipper.

  37. "Torture is and will always be inevitable, it is a default human response. As John Gray has pointed out, that it should, once again have become quasi-respectable, is as clear as sign as any that ethical and moral progress is a myth."

    The fact that the ground exists, and that aircraft periodically plummet to it, doesn’t make a myth out of flight.

  38. Sean, you are the reason we are disgusted.

  39. Bert:

    Thanks for the link to the Slate article.

    I am not sure it is quite germane, though. It makes a fairly persuasive case that we should not be fighting the last war -- good advice the military does not take on board nearly often enough.

    As far as effectiveness goes, I have been taking that as a given, under specific circumstances.

    I could well be wrong, but that question is rightly part of the analysis, not taken a priori one way or the other.

  40. We executed Japanese soldiers after WWII for doing what we did (waterboarding). To be consistent we should execute Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. Or at least put them in prison for the remainder of their lives.

    And the Orwell "quote" about rough men standing ready to do violence is a misquote. Orwell never said it although Churchill supposedly said something close.

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