Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Torture

I have long admired Andrew Sullivan's dogged and conscientious insistence that the endorsement of torture destroyed the legitimacy of the American right. There can be no doubt that the Bush administration permitted and encouraged the use of torture. The justification was that, though they said the fight against terrorism was, indeed, a war, it was a war unlike others. Asymmetric wars require unconventional tactics. The example always given was a captured terrorist who knew where a ticking bomb was located. He could and should be tortured into giving up the information. The obvious problem with this kind of argument is that it is so open-ended - the term 'ticking bomb' could be expanded to mean anything, maybe even the location of a man who might, in the future, plant such a bomb. At that point, control is lost. Furthermore, the idea of official torture creates a climate in which appalling abuses like Abu Ghraib occur. (It's cultural also - I notice the BBC series Spooks seems to have internalised the zeitgeisty view that torture is okay; in fact, rather fine in a manly kind of way.) Whatever the actual chain of command that led to this, the moral chain of command is clear. Intellectual legitimacy was given to this view by arguments like those of Alan Dershowitz who admitted torture was a step backwards but, sometimes, civilisation has to take two steps backward to move three steps forward and it is better to have formally regulated torture than unacknowledged backroom torture. John Gray, however, used the legitimation of torture as evidence of his conviction that there is no such thing as progress. This makes more sense as it rests on a more persuasive definition of civilisation, not as an absolute progression, but as temporary respite from at least some aspects of our fallen condition. To Gray, torture is an inevitable human crime that, with luck, we can periodically suppress. I take this to be a validation of Sullivan's view that torture must be absolutely forbidden. The reason is that civilisations can only exist on the basis of absolutes. These may be delusory, they may be brutal, but their role is vital - the sustenance of a civilisation's self-belief. Via Christanity and the Enlightenment, our civilisation is based on the irreducibility of the individual, on restraint and on the quality of mercy, on, in fact, the absolute wrong of torture. Maybe we can fight a war better with torture, but only by sacrificing our civilisation, which is what Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld chose to do. And it is the fact that they, not their underlings, did it that raises the stakes so high. Politics will decide what will be done about this sad episode of American history, but, for the moment, go, Andrew, and have a good one.


  1. I'm against resorting to torture and I'm also against the Gitmo-style suspension of habeus corpus because, as both conservatives and liberals have argued, we need to protect the things that make us civilised.

    But it's not simple and I hate people getting preachy, judgmental and holier-than-thou about it.

    This is firstly because 9/11 was an unprecedented and unimaginably horrible shock to America so we should cut the people who had to deal with it some slack.

    And secondly because in a thought experiment I imagine being a Government official and explaining to the family of a terrorist victim why we let his killer go free on the grounds of strict adherence to principle.

  2. i'm not convinced that there's even much practical purpose to torture. '24' always has a torture scene where Bauer beats a confession out of some ne'er-do-well but i never found this too plausible. i guess it may be tenable occasionally but i suspect 99% of torture is pointless and even counter-productive in that the victim will come up with anything to make you stop so you end up with reams of bs.

    In the short-term use of torture and other horrors, such as killing children, can terrify a populace into cooperation but it seems to have considerable 'blowback' in that you become hated and despised; and there's also the effects it has on the torturers, and those who work with them, on those who know it's going on and in some sense assent to it.

  3. In the historic context it was very much a case of who. In that one should not torture within the group. With the USA it is the definition of Group which is very flexible and to our eyes almost late medieval. A convict, does not hold full citizenship, he is placed into the other. You must remember that slaves were emanusapated, for there is nothing which in Law could allow the concept of Slavery to be wrong, an error in law.
    I do not much like the reduction of the Right to Silence any more than I like the idea of State torture.

  4. The root of this dilemma for the Americans is their addiction to legalism and legal process. I assume we can agree that, as great powers past and present go, their record on this subject is among the best, but their legal system and political culture demands that their moral ideals be encoded in rigidly and universally applied law. They give no wiggle room for in extremis exceptions or the edge or notions of prohibitions honoured more in the breach, etc. The result is that their adversaries, both within and outside of America, hold them to the strict letter of law and moral principle (the same thing for them)in a way that isn't expected of others. They do this because they know Americans so hold themselves. Who really gets that upset because the French dirty their hands this way? Nobody, because the French hide and deny it and are untroubled by the hypocisy, but the Americans are an open book that insists on legally sanctioning whatever they do. That can end up corrupting them by leading them to search for ways to give a legal imprimatur to the barbaric.

    There are lots of parallel examples. I don't know whether this tale is apocryphal or not, but I've read that Churchill and the French were initially opposed to the Nuremburg trials because they saw that individual unspeakable evil doesn't sit well with universal positive law and they perhaps forsaw where codifying "crimes against humanity" would lead to. They just wanted the Nazi and SS leaders summarily shot. The Americans would have none of this extra-legal justice (funny given their history of lynching) and so they called in the lawyers. The Brits and French saw no need to "legalize" their proposals for summary justice. The Americans have been battling rhetorical abuses of the consequent laws in the court of international public opinion ever since.

    Wilson's crusade for self-determination as a bedrock tenet of international law is another good example.

  5. However much the commentariat may disapprove, I suspect that most people in the US, Britain and elsewhere still approve of torture in certain circumstances, eg the ticking time bomb, so I doubt that it's all that responsible for the destruction of the 'American Right'.

    Why should permitting (say) sleep deprivation in extreme situations lead to a free for all in all cases? It's a bit like arguing that smoking dope automatically leads to crack addiction. Meanwhile the appalling abuses at Abu Ghraib are nothing new and in fact are extremely restrained compared to the usual behaviour of conquering troops (rape, looting).

    Torture is not a new tool of the American forces, though the US has probably done a lot less of it than most great powers, which is probably the best we can hope for. As Peter says, it was the insistence on taking it out of the shadows and putting it on some kind of respectable, legal footing that led to all manner of confusion and turmoil.

  6. Most interrogators (there is a book by one who worked in Iraq) regard torture as unnecessary- chiefly on pragmatic grounds. Khalid Sheik Mohammed was waterboarded- in Afghanistan and Poland- but it was a CIA drug cartel analyst called Deuce Martinez who formed a rapport with KSM- to the point where they latter write poems to give to Deuce's wife (they went to an Agency psychologist). The 24 ticking bomb scenario is pernicious rubbish- I can recall only one case like that. In Germany where a detective threatened to torture a kidnapper to reveal the whereabouts of a child. The kidnapper fessed up before anything happened; the child was dead already; and the dtetective was prosecuted. 24 and Spooks (and NCIS where a pretty Israeli is used too)normalise torture in our consciousness. Or try to.

  7. Its a tough one Bryan.

    My grandfather was one of the first troops to reach Belsen and there is no doubt it lead him to a early grave, he was an alcoholic, a addicted gambler, a terrible husband, he also had night terrors, which as a youngster used to scare the hell out of me, and thats just the beginning of the list. And believe you me there is an untold story to Belsen, Germans were not given a choice but to tell.

    Thankfully when it was my time to go to war I got to sit in a RAf bunker in the desert, in a very hot chemical warfare suit.

    Its all right for philosophers and journalists to criticize from the sidelines but war really is hell or as Orwell said "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."

    I think the problem stems for the enemy not being a national or state organisation, which was covered by the Geneva convention, or as Bush said, something like "in accordance with but not subject too"

    Bams solution seems to me to be worse, he is going to bring gitmo into the sphere of civil american law, which will pollute the principles that Americans live under.

    To me the issue gets complex because we are squeamish about capital punishment. A quick military trial followed by execution would have solved this issue because it would get around that unless you told and cooperated the noose was a certainty, most i think would do so.

    Sorry I am not happy about Gitmo, but I am loathed to condemn it.

  8. Re. Nuremburg. It was not Churchill, but Whitehall that had the objection. But not to the trial as such but to the idea that a State could be held to account for the cause of war. Where the US logic being that it should be proved that active intent was there very early on. And if it could be proven that the war was criminal then all that followed was criminal.

  9. This piece is interesting in its comparison of
    The Gäfgen ruling and the American “torture” debate. I think it useful, if only as a thought experiment, to ask oneself how far one would go in interrogating someone who knew the whereabouts of one's kidnapped daughter.

  10. Just finished watching Clive James’ interview with Terry Gilliam (it’s one of his podcasts) and he talks about the torture scene in ‘Brazil’. Sir Clive said that his worry wasn’t the thought of being in a concentration camp but the fear of being in charge of a concentration camp. That, I think, is the issue with torture. It’s not what we think or say now that matters. It’s what we do when suicide bombers are running through London. Only in the act of rejecting torture in those or similar circumstances would we really know what we think and it’s only then that we would be able to demonstrate that we have risen above our nature.

  11. To, Frank and Dick. Had your child been kidnapped, then there is nothing that you would not do. Nothing. But surely that is the point.
    We are writing about the actions of a State, where there should be distance.
    I thank God that Blair and other NATO armies went with the US to Iraq, for Lord alone knows what might have happened. For there was a distinct feeling of ethnic cleansing to the rhetoric. Where the US was building itself up to do it alone.

  12. Ethnic cleansing? In your dreams, Vince, in your dreams.

  13. I saw Spooks - wasn't Harry brave?

  14. I think the idealism of respect for human dignity and rights is fine when it comes to matters of life and death, and as such, torture to the extent that it runs the real risk of causing death should be repulsive to everyone.

    On the other hand, torture of more limited scope falls into a much greyer area, especially if its goal is to prevent the death of others (that is, the infringement of the "ultimate" right.)

    Waterboarding and sleep deprivation are undoubtedly torture, but I don't know that there is any risk of killing anyone when administered "properly". I reckon it is torture within those limits that people are most reluctant to see as "black and white," although everyone regrets that they have to be resorted to at all.

    In fact, although the anti-torture pundits expressed horror that, at high levels of the US government, they had meetings which set the exact details of the type of torture that could be used, I took it as a good sign that they knew it must be restricted in its scope to retain its limited sense of legitimacy. (Of course, this may not justify rendition if they knew other governments were using techniques the Americans simply could not use themselves.)

  15. Cannot find much evidence of torture at Gimo.

    1, Prison is not torture in itself
    2, Dressing Muslims up in Hindu Orange is certainly not torture
    3, Playing guns and roses at a loud level is not torture.
    4, Using Hookers to humiliate the religious sensitivities of the inmates is not torture.
    5, Water boarding is not torture as there is no chance of death, and its not painful, Uncomfortable yes and most service personal esp in the Army would have had it done to them at some time in war simulations ect.

    Lets hope Pakistan stays one or two steps away from being the worlds first nuclear armed terrorist state, if that happens Torture will be the least or our worries.

  16. There are things i wouldn't do to save my hypothetical daughter's life (or the life of someone i care about very much). i wouldn't, for example, kill their daughter, i wouldn't rape someone, i wouldn't burn someone alive, i wouldn't gouge our their eyes and make them eat them, i wouldn't rip parts of their body off with a chainsaw, etc. - i might give them a bit of a kicking, but i have my limits.

    Maybe i'm just squeamish but there's something sickening about having another human being cowering before you that cuts through rage - even where he was the aggressor. It leaves a pretty nasty taste in the mouth. But then maybe i'm just squeamish.

  17. "Why should permitting (say) sleep deprivation in extreme situations lead to a free for all in all cases?"

    Sleep deprivation, or "the conveyor" as the NKVD called it, produces false confessions. That's the point. Keep someone up 48 hours against their will, and they'll sign anything, say anything.

    That's what the U.S.'s torture methods have in common -- they are designed to obtain confessions, not valid intel.

    Torture may sometimes produce valid intel, just like anything else -- but it is no substitute for professional interrogation.

  18. Japanese soldiers that were found to have waterboarded american soldiers were executed.Too bad bush, cheney and and their band of criminals wont get the same sentence!

  19. Sleep deprivation may well produce false confessions; it may also lead to true confessions. Neither fact suggests it immediately leads to a free for all, and that American interrogators will suddenly find themselves coming over all Uzbek and applying electrodes to the testes of suspects or shoving coke bottles up anuses.

  20. Well, Elberry, killing the person who knew your daughter's whereabouts would be counterproductive - though killing him of you find out she had been killed seems reasonable to me. But most of the other things you mention would not be to my taste, either.