Asking ourselves questions about torture

Torture is back. And, as before, we have some questions to answer. Events oblige us, after – let’s face it – decades of complacency, to make a serious moral calculation in the absence of the comfortable absolutes we’ve observed over the last Century or so. So:

Question 1: is an aversion to torture a luxury we can no longer afford? If we scrupulously decline to torture a suspect and thus fail to prevent a terrorist incident killing dozens, have we, nevertheless, done the right thing?

Question 2, more subtly: if we’re offered a sheaf of intelligence gathered by means of torture in some less fussy part of the world which, we’re told, provides good evidence for a planned attack in Britain, should we say “thanks, but no thanks”?

Question 3: what happens to a state that permits torture in its police stations (or, more likely, grants secret CIA ‘torture flights‘ landing rights)? Does it leave behind its claim to being a ‘civilised country’ or does it grimly acknowledge the inevitable conditions of survival in a multipolar world?

9 thoughts on “Asking ourselves questions about torture

  1. ‘in the absence of the comfortable absolutes we’ve observed over the last Century or so.’

    Sorry, what are those comfortable absolutes and in what way have they changed?

    ‘torture is an aversion to a luxury we can no longer afford?’

    I thnk you’ll find that, slightly more than an effette ‘aversion to ‘, there exists historic philisophical, moral and legal reasoning behind our ‘aversion to ‘. Surely opening the gates to at any level opens them at all levels. Opening those gates for specific instances of supposed overriding and immediate need opens them all down the chain.

    ‘If we scrupulously decline to a suspect and thus fail to prevent a ist incident dozens, have we, nevertheless, done the right thing?’

    If we, unscrupulously, a suspect and fail to prevent a ist incident, e.g. because there was no incident planned, because we d the wrong guy, because under the guy lied to us, whatever – have we done the right thing?

    ‘if we’re offered a sheaf of intelligence gathered by means of in some less fussy part of the world which, we’re told, provides good evidence for a planned attack in Britain, should we say “thanks, but no thanks”?’

    I think yes, we should decline to receive information derived from . That said, I don’t imagine the security forces ever do decline such information. The real issue is whether we should use such information in court proceedings, or to arrest and charge people. It’s well understood that most information derived from is absolute rubbish. In Kampuchea/Cambodia, at S17, every prisioner was d before killed. And every prisioner eventually capitulated, admitted they worked for x, y or z foreign service – and implicated others, who were then rounded up and d.

    I imagine that any state that officially sanctions forfeits its place in the civilised world. Eventually, whatever the initial reasoning for starting down such a road, it will be abandoned and the excesses of the policy will be exposed.
    When I was a kid, I liked to read books about the s in Europe. I read a lot about the horrible Gestapo who would spies to get information out of them. One image that stuck in my mind was the repeated immersion of someone in a tank of water, so that they thought they were drowning. I always remembered the idea with horror. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been reading about ‘waterboarding’. Ooh, err, it’s a medieval , quite effective. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WaterboardingThe CIA has been indulging against various, ahem, suspects, in various parts of the world.
    So think of this. Somewhere in the world, a man is being repetedly brought to the point of drowning. He doesn’t know where he is and no-one else know’s where he is. The people torturing him are agents of a foreign power under no control by the country they are operating in. It is a lonely and ographic scenario. Oh, and the man is entirely , they mistook him for his cousin. But he’s now singing like a canary. . Heh, very handy.

  2. Consider the hypothetical example of a detainee whose mobile phone number was found in a terrorist’s laptop PC rolodex and is living in some middle east country using forged papers… He’s hauled before the local cops, and beaten in the presence of a western intelligence agent. Bad? I think so. It offends my sense of legal process. There are probably better ways of getting what you want to know out of the guy and in my example there is no immediate life or death emergency.

    But, I think Ivan is only partially correct… maybe torture is not a 100% reliable way to gather information. But that doesn’t mean it is 0% reliable either. He’s assuming intelligence agents don’t then take that information and corroborate with other information or sources, etc. Somehow, these agents found Khalid Shaikh Mohammed…and they didn’t do that by just blindly beating everyone they found.

    Plus, you could add a 4th hypothetical scenario to counter Ivan’s statement that “Surely opening the gates to [torture] at any level opens them at all levels”. Let’s test what he means by “any level”:

    Imagine an intelligence agency posseses something akin to a truth serum – harmless to the recipient, but rendering them incapable of lying when questioned. That also offends protections of law dealing with forced self-incrimination. Should the serum be used to save lives if a 7/7 bomber were captured the morning of the 7th with other bombers on the loose? Not only would I not mind the serum being administered, but I would want the police chief sacked if he didn’t order it.

    I use this example, because coercive methods are not binary: (i) torture or (ii) no torture… there is an entire range of coercion dealing from a simple attempt to shame someone into doing the right thing, to beating someone almost to death. In between are all kinds of things, ranging from isolation, an uncomfortable cell, a less than generous diet, a threat to prosecute for a visa violation, a promise of money, a threat to (otherwise lawfully) deport back to their home country, sleep deprivation, lying to the detainee about co-detainees (in the style of the prisoner’s dilemma), etc.

  3. Imagine an intelligence agency posseses something akin to a truth serum – harmless to the recipient, but rendering them incapable of lying when questioned … I use this example, because coercive methods are not binary: (i) torture or (ii) no torture…
    Well, coercive methods may not be binary, but torture is binary (from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights):

    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.

    So administering a truth serum, whatever else it may be, is not torture. Nor is being nasty to someone, or giving them a less than generous diet. Of course, these things taken to extreme may indeed become torture, and are indeed worth regulating. But Torture is a fairly clear thing.
    And, to revisit my argument, yes, of course information gained under torture is not 100% unreliable – but what of it? Does that make it acceptable? Torture corrupts the torturers, the society that instigates and accepts torture and all those that become willing accomplices of it. If I didn’t believe that, I’d be some sort of fundamentalist neocon – and I am not.

  4. I’d also like to address Steve’s third question:

    ‘Question 3: what happens to a state that permits torture in its police stations (or, more likely, grants secret CIA ‘torture flights’ landing rights)? Does it leave behind its claim to being a ‘civilised country’ or does it grimly acknowledge the inevitable conditions of survival in a multipolar world?’

    I wonder what you mean by ‘survival’? I don’t think anyone seriously avers that terrorist outrages threaten the existence of the state? Though I suppose huge outrages might threaten the existing political order, which may be more what plays on politicians minds. Of course, the nature of the state may change without the state itself collapsing – maybe we’ll end up with a state that practices torture, detention without trial, deportation, stripping nationality from citizens, shoot to kill, etc, etc.

  5. Re: Ivan’s point ‘maybe we’ll end up with a state that practises torture, detention without trial….’ It feels as if we aren’t very far from embracing that already. Shoot to kill, detention policy and sinister CIA-run Eastern European Gulag-style interrogation (torture) centres being at the forefront of media attention right now. Condoleeza’s going to have to come up with some serious answers to some serious questions in Brussels next week. And as per usual she will dodge them as well but slightly more eloquently than that pillock Rumsfield who should never be allowed to speak in public again. Ever.

  6. Doing without torture is a new thing – the oldest of the Geneva Conventions is only a hundred years old and the UN convention half that – and in half the world it never went away. Some of the most enlightened cultures in history routinely tortured and abused. We may be coming to the end of the no-torture era.

    Objecting to torture on the basis of its effectiveness (“it doesn’t work anyway”) is bogus and dodges the big questions. If torture is effective (which it probably is, even if only partially), then the question remains: what if information extracted by means of torture saves a life? Is it still wrong? What if it saves hundreds?

    The only conceivable response to this question is a moral one. Something like this: “yes torture is wrong. A society needs to accept the additional risk to public safety and social stability produced by refusing to torture people.” It’s just that this trade-off is going to get harder and harder as nihilist terror becomes more widespread and pervasive.

  7. Well, yes, I think is wrong. Per se.
    I also think capital punishment is wrong. Is there an ‘additional risk to public safety and social stability produced by refusing to hang people’? Some undoubtably think yes, but I don’t even think it’s a trade off. I think it’s part of the inexorable march of progress (god, put that in the file with the Non Aligned Nations).
    I think sending small children down the mines or up the chimneys is wrong. I think ual exploitation of children is wrong. I think the feudal system was wrong. I think coup d’etats are wrong. I think is wrong.
    I think what we are dealing with at the moment is nothing like as threatening as we like to make out. There’s no reason to slip back to things we did 100 years ago, though I suspect that’s what certain parties want us to do.
    We need to keep our nerve and our beliefs.
    Did we condone when the ANC was trying to topple the South African regime, or when the Sandinistas were fighting US financed thugs in south america, or in Malaysia or during any of the Arab-Israeli wars or for either side in Chechnya? Should we Palestinians or Basques or the Real IRA? Who should who in Sri Lanka or in Somalia?
    The world is full of wars and conflicts, most of them far more brutal and dangerous than our current obsession.
    I guess, once we have had our fill of torturing people, and found it to be ineffective, we’ll move on to wanting to nuke them (or kill their leaders and convert them to christianity pace Ann Coulter).
    And when we’ve moved on from the select torturing of specific indviduals who we know (?) have information about imminent atrocity to the casualised of hundreds and then thousands, because we can’t really know which of them have information, and you can only those who you hold, so we better grab as many of them as we can while the going’s good (oh, Guantanamo and ‘rendition’ and secret jails, we’re already doing that). Ho hum, what was the question again.
    All we can be sure of is that in a decade or so, this whole ‘war on ‘ interlude will look plain ridiculous and people will still be writing books about how wrong we got it.

  8. Heeeeeeeere’s Condi:

    IN AN ATTEMPT to quell a growing storm in Europe over the CIA’s secret prisons, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday issued a defense based on the same legalistic jujitsu and morally obtuse double talk that led the Bush administration into a swamp of human rights abuses in the first place. Ms. Rice insisted that the U.S. government “does not authorize or condone torture” of detainees. What she didn’t say is that President Bush’s political appointees have redefined the term “torture” so that it does not cover practices, such as simulated drowning, mock execution and “cold cells,” that have long been considered abusive by authorities such as her State Department.

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