Tuesday, 2 November 2010

To Torture or Not To Torture

Even in the most sophisticated, technologically and organisationally developed army in the world, mistakes and a loss of control in a war zone can happen. Tragically Abu Ghraib is evidence enough of that. Of course when Muslims blow themselves up, non-Muslim Europeans are the first to scream that they are just a minority, but whenever anyone or anything remotely connected to America happens (not matter how widely condemned they were), we are allowed to take the minority as evidence of the sins of the majority. In other words Abu Ghraib was evidence that all of the United States Army was full of unprofessional, sadistic murderers and of course that they as occupiers were worse than the regime they replaced. Never mind of course, that under Saddam, torturing prisoners was not a rare mistake, it was policy. Never mind that when these people were found they were tried and sentenced in court and widely condemned by the people they allegedly represented. There is no question that Abu Ghraib was a disgrace that is essentially proof enough of why torture could never be sanctioned as a broad based, anyone can use, policy of the United States or any other army. While the US is no different in that in a war zone, a minority of its soldiers may commit war crimes, it is different in that it actively tries to reduce them and punish those they catch doing so. License to use something as serious as torture needs to be very carefully regulated.

Even where torture may be morally justified there are plenty of pragmatic reasons for why it may still be undesirable. The footage from Abu Ghraib undoubtedely made the American mission in Iraq considerably harder, and greatly aided the recruiting tools of the insurgents and as such put the lives of all other soliders of the United States under greater threat. There were also immediate retaliatory attacks, and the danger that such practices will fall on those members of the Coalition that are captured. There is also the problem of bogus information, but I feel that this last point, is exaggerated drastically out of proportion. Every time the issue of bogus information comes up people, give me the example of trying to find out if a man is guilty or not and torturing him until he says yes. It should be quite clear that if the people that are out there defending us while we sleep were as stupid as to use torture in those circumstances we would not be still alive today. Yes, there are obvious examples of where torture would not be useful but there are also plenty where they would be helpful and can be cross-checked for reliability (the disarming code to a bomb, for example). For example if it is true that the torture is so bad it will make anyone say anything surely it would also make them tell the truth? For example if an insurgent knew of the location of a suicide attack that was imminent then if the criticism that torture would make one say anything would mean that he would give up this information if he was correctly identified in the first place? The influence again for this article came from a recent edition of Question Time where this round of discussion was inspired by a report from MI6 which implied in limited circumstances, torture could be acceptable and yet the audience had no hesitation, nor the panel in clapping away at any statement that utterly outlawed torture as useless presumably implying that they knew better than the secret services themselves. Just like we have to conede ground to biologists on issues of evolution we don't understand, we have to do the same with people who have evidence of the use of enhanced interrogation and whether it has worked or not (that doesn't mean we go to them for moral advice, but it does for directly relevant professional advice).   

Despite having made these arguments against the widespread use of torture I am not on those who oppose torture unconditionally's side. The debate is often presented as those who would sooner allow an entire city be destroyed by a suitcase nuke before laying a finger on those responsible beforehand, and those willing to torture an entire nation of women and children with the flimsiest of relevant evidence, and slightest of possible gains. I don't support either position. While I am against the widespread use of torture to say that there are never times that it is acceptable is ridiculous.

'Torture is never acceptable under any circumstances'. Well, what is torture? If without getting too deeply into semantics we accept that it is some form of deliberately applied extreme psycological and/ or physical pain, then the statement that torture is unconditionally unacceptable poses a problem. Let's say that the setting is a conflict involving an African milita that targets towns to rape and kill the women and kidnap the children for use as child soliders, and the victim in question is confirmed as having knowledge on the location of the next village that has been targeted. If torture is never acceptable then the army fighting the mission is in an unwinnable dilemma, surely allowing the women to be raped and see their children attacked and kidnapped or killed is a form of torment that could certainly be labelled torture, while at the same time using the means required to getting the information would also be a form of torture. As this is the case then it simply becomes a matter of priorities, do you prioritise the people you have an oath to defend or your enemies who are trying to kill them. Let's also bare in mind that this singular example could have wider consequences. For instance by not allowing the torture to take place as a policy in circumstances like this one, is to likely result in an increase or at least not a decrease in more of these same types of attacks happening, as the perpetrators know that they can carry the information and attacks out without consequence, as apparently the policy of the army fighting them is to prioritise their interests as willing fighters, over the women and children they would be attacking who have no say in the matter.


When discussing the morality, rather than the usefulness of torture, there is a lot of vague and slippery sounding babble that is used to discourage those from considering its usage. The fact that we don't do torture is what separated us from the terrorists we were told on the last QT. This idea, is the vague premise that we hold an inviolale moral structure within our societies and torturing in our name would tarnish that. This is unadulterated bullshit. Torture is a method used by those that defend our society to get others to bend to their will, if under that definition torture is unacceptable then what on earth do these people think war is? Killing enough of a nation until it has reached submission doesn't sound that different, and it is certainly much less reversible than the the waterboarding procedure. More to the point the fact that we don't allow killing in our civic society does not suddenly mean that it is necessarily immoral or should be outlawed in the army when defending that society. Our morals lie in the state and peaceful existence we live within that, they have nothing to do with the defence of that society. If refusing to torture someone who has planted a bomb to save the live of others is considered more moral I don't want to be more moral, I would consider that a cowardice to do what was necessary and more to the point selfish, as I would be prioritising my feelings of discomfort over the lives of those I am putting at risk. How on earth does forcing someone to reveal information that would save civilian lives, stop the those lives being saved as precious? How can it possibly be seen as the lesser of two evils that a school bus full of children explodes in Israel, rather than forcing the terrorist who put himself in the situation being tortured to stop that from happening. No-one would apply those standards if they were directly faced with that choice and it was their family on the line.

In the militia example I made a reference to the fact that the knowledge that was to be forcibly acquired was confirmed within the victim as if to rule out torture in cases where it was not confirmed. Here we get into the very grey area of what is an acceptable level of suspicion and what is not. As long as the proper procedure is in place I would have no problem with an executive order prioritising the risk of being wrong about the solider, than the risk of the women and children being raped. This is because by fighting on the side of people that may do this, I feel that the solider has put himself in a position where he has no right to demand special treatment. Christopher Hitchens is someone that I've quite liked personally, despite rarely agreeing with his (usually far left) thinking (until recently of course) who undertook a waterboarding procedure to prove to his readers that it did actually qualify as torture. Now, while Hitchens is against torture he seemed to miss the point that by being able to book an appointment for torture and then appear superiorly on a few shows to make his point, he was able to get on with his life fairly comfortably. Now imagine most other aspects of war that we find abhorrent but necessary, would he be able to just make an appointment to go into battle and get his leg blown off and recover from that? Or killing someone in hand to hand combat? If he can comfortably survive an experience that took well under 30 seconds of unpleasantness for the possible gain of saving many lives I cannot as strongly come on the side that most people seem to find so self-evident.

Opponents of torture are correct that many extreme examples are used incorrectly to defend a very liberal attitude to torture. However, when simply talking about the limited ability of the army to torture in certain cases where due process has taken place, I am completely at liberty to take those extreme examples such as the African militia because a blanket statement that torture is wrong in all circumstances would cover those examples as well. Having a mature discussion on torture is essential as our relevant agencies continue to report that in some circumstances it can be useful and if we do not legislate it then it cannot be controlled and regulated. This will also unfairly leave some individuals to be punished, even if they have done the right thing and saved lives. Most people that have tortured others in war are themselves tormented by the experience and we should be supporting and helping those who have been faced with these terrible circumstances rather than snidely chastising them and taking the examples of a few sadistic nutcases as representative of all members of the armed forces.

While there are many arugments not to torture we cannot overlook the rare cases when we should, and we should create a policy according to those circumstances rather than pandering to the idea that to allow some torture is to allow soliders the right to torture whoever they please, whenever they please. As I understand it the debate in the US is not centred around (as many in Europe portray it) ceding the right to all levels of the army to permiss torture, merely to allow those at the very highest level (namely the President) having assessed the sitaution to give permission for it. Admittidely even this may not be a desirable option were Sarah Palin to be made President who may end up accidentally warranting her own cat's torture, but the official policy of the President choosing answers two questions. On the practicality issue of when it should be used, it would mean it was not in private and permission has been sought and one would assume that if the President rather than a few rogue soldiers agreed that it was necessary then it most likely would be. If even then people are still not willing to let it happen then it suggests they are looking at warfare and what is required in the way they want it to be not the way it is, meaning that in attempting to do the right thing they are prioritising and helping the enemy that is trying to kill them over their own safety and livlihood.

No comments:

Post a Comment