Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Torture: a good case for just saying "no"

When measures to defend a society undermine its fundamental values, just what are they defending?

The revelations by a US Senate committee of the extent of torture carried out by the CIA in the so-called “war against terror” is shocking, but hardly surprising. Anyone who believed that the CIA had been engaging only in “vigorous interrogation” – presumably intense questioning with the occasional resort to limited physical violence – was living in a dream world. It was obvious that the CIA, and no doubt MI6 and the security services of other US client states, were engaging in the most serious forms of torture they felt they could get away with.

It now turns out that these included not merely waterboarding, but “rectal rehydration” and even “rectal feeding” by the CIA itself.

It’s hard to see how any society that adopts these methods can claim to be civilised. If we are behave with the same brutality as the very enemies we denounce, how can we claim to be preferable to them? Are we not just two ugly bruisers slogging it out to decide who will dominate the other? Where does that leave our claim to moral or political superiority?

Upholding democratic values. Or undermining them?
The Senate report doesn’t even find the methods justified by the results. According to the Guardian:

After examining 20 case studies, the investigators found that torture “regularly resulted in fabricated information”, said committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, in a statement summarising the findings. She called the torture program “a stain on our values and on our history”.

“During the brutal interrogations the CIA was often unaware the information was fabricated.” She told the Senate the torture program was “morally, legally and administratively misguided” and “far more brutal than people were led to believe”.

The ineffectiveness of the torture may seem to make it even less defensible. But that would be a wrong direction for the argument to take. Three years ago, I felt obliged to admit my admiration for one of Britain’s leading spooks, Eliza Manningham Buller who had recently stepped down from the top post in the British MI5 security service. Here’s what I said about her then:

On the use of waterboarding by the United States, she said ‘torture is illegal in our national law and in international law. It is wrong and never justified.’

Like quite a few opponents of the use of torture, I’ve tended to argue that it doesn’t generate good intelligence. She on the other hand believes that it sometimes does, but points out that the argument that lifesaving intelligence was sometime obtained by it, “and I accept it was, still does not justify it. Torture should be utterly rejected even when it may offer the prospect of saving lives. I am proud my Service refused to turn to the torture of high-level German prisoners in the Second World War, when, in the early years, we stood alone and there was a high risk of our being invaded and becoming a Nazi province. So if not then, why should it be justified now?”

That’s the only wholly moral position to take. There are certain things that we decide, as societies based on rights and laws, never to do. We should never target civilians in war, even if we believe it might be effective, and the carpet bombing of German cities or the use of nuclear weapons against Japan simply cannot be justified. We should never target children and the relatives of enemy combatants, and the British use of concentration camps in the Boer War was indefensible. And we should never torture.

It’s that simple. We want to be better than our enemies. We should never stoop to using their weapons.

Whether or not they might advance our cause.

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