Finding excuses for torture
I found myself this morning (as a result of following a link from the admirable Philobiblion) reading a fine denunciation of torture on an American lady’s blog: but was then disturbed to find that the comments which followed it included several by contributors whose preoccupation seemed to be to think up definitions and scenarios in which a little bit of torture would be OK. I wrote my own comment expressing, I hope quite courteously, my profound disagreement with these efforts. But the blog refused to accept my comment:
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You can judge for yourself whether the content of my attempted comment was ‘questionable’. Here it is.
"I have to say (as an ignorant and priggish Brit) that I’m dismayed by some of these comments. Torture is always and everywhere wrong and inadmissible: it corrupts and brutalises those who torture, those who are tortured, and the society that acquiesces in it. At the lowest level of practicality and leaving aside overriding considerations of ethics, information obtained by torture is rarely reliable: people being tortured will say anything to get the torturer to stop.
It’s easy to devise fanciful scenarios in which someone has information about an imminent explosion or other disaster that might claim thousands of lives (or even one life) and the only way to extract the information and prevent the disaster is to torture its possessor, but extensive research has failed to turn up a single example of any such situation in real life. It’s pure Hollywood B feature. To base an entire policy on the possibility of such a situation arising is essentially frivolous. And it suggests that the prohibition of this utterly evil practice is somehow relative, and dependent on circumstances. Once you cross that Rubicon, you may be sure that it will be ruthlessly exploited by sadists and moral monsters until torture comes to be regarded as a kind of regrettable but necessary way of getting information out of people who aren’t really fully human and who don’t have the same level of human rights as the rest of us.
In Britain the use of torture by the state was formally and definitively abolished in 1640. It’s frightening, and shaming, to find people in the 21st century solemnly trying to think up situations in which it could justifiably be restored, turning the clock back by three and a half centuries.
The attempt in some of these comments to identify types of torture that needn’t be regarded as torture is equally grotesque. There’s not a lot wrong with the definition in the UN Convention Against Torture (binding on the US, the UK, and just about every other civilised country):
…torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
No-one should try to wriggle out of that."
Brian [More >>>>]
Postscript, 12 December 05: Those who think it legitimate and useful to play around with sanitised definitions of systematic state-sponsored brutality that somehow isn’t supposed to qualify as torture, or who are inclined to take at face value the carefully phrased statements by Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, on her Grand Tour of Europe last week, denying that the US ever ‘knowingly’ sent terrorist suspects to countries where they could safely and discreetly be tortured, ought to read the long article, ‘Terrorised’, in yesterday’s London Sunday Times by Stephen Grey and John Follain, usefully including on its fourth page a relevant and moving article by Andrew Sullivan, all compulsive and compulsory reading. If you Google ‘Stephen Grey’, incidentally, you’ll find ample evidence of the huge contribution this courageous prize-winning British journalist has made, not only in his reporting from Iraq but also in uncovering some of the murky practices spawned by the so-called war on terror: he more than anyone else has been responsible for publicly exposing the massive scandal of ‘extraordinary rendition‘ by the CIA, with the apparent Nelsonian complicity of the British and other European governments. He is also, I ought to declare, a friend. (Tony Hatfield, as mentioned in his comment on this post, has put some invaluable material about the Condi Rice denials and attempted re-definitions of torture on his admirable website.) Can it be that it’s all beginning to unravel?