Saturday, March 14, 2009

On Torture

I don't like writing about this stuff, but I need to get it out of my system. I shall sneak it out on a weekend while nobody's about. I was midway through writing a post on a not unconnected subject when Binyam Mohamed accused UK secret services with participation in his alleged torture. Ugh.

Most human rights have slight conditions attached. For example, we have a right to free movement, but there are conditions under which the state or our fellow citizens are allowed to imprison us. The right to life is fundamental but the forces of the state or our fellow citizens are allowed to kill us if we pose a direct threat to the life, liberty or physical integrity of another person.

There are a handful of things that nobody is ever allowed to do to us. Things which can never ever be justified under any circumstance. These are all to do with our physical integrity. Like rape. There is never any circumstance where it makes moral sense to rape a person, whoever they are, whatever they've done. A rapist overrides the absolute minimum amount of respect which it is necessary to have for one another in order to co-exist. I don't have to argue this.

Performing medical experiments or unnecessary surgical procedures on people without their consent – this, again, can never be justified. Whatever good might come from medical developments, even if we performed these experiments on the worst sort of criminals, that kind of cruelty is simply unacceptable.

And then there's torture. Despite what some very powerful people have said in recent years, torture is really easy to define. To put someone in extreme discomfort, through physical or sensory assault in or to make their existence completely unbearable. Since unbearable suffering is the objective, it doesn't really matter how this is achieved, whether it leaves a mark or not.

The argument made in favour of torture has been the same forever; the lesser of two evils. A while back, it was about saving souls - torture a confession out of the heretic before killing her and she could go straight to heaven. These days it is all about terrorism and saving hypothetical lives.
“Torture is a bad thing but if it prevents lots of innocent people being killed, then it is justified.”
There are a couple of problems with what is sometimes described as the ticking time-bomb scenario. The idea is that there is a ticking time-bomb, the bomber has the power to halt detonation and you have that bomber in your custody. You need him to give you the information which will stop the bomb going off, so what do you do?

The first problem is a small empirical point. Lots of people argue against torture on the grounds that it doesn't work at all, but this is a little naive - if torture was completely ineffective, no authority would waste their time with it. Torture and the ongoing threat of torture does help to intimidate people – totalitarian states use it for this purpose. And people do frequently crack under great physical and psychological strain. Unfortunately, a person desperate to relieve their own suffering will say anything, give whatever information they think their tormentors want to hear, regardless of its truth. Under torture, innocent people confess, implicate other innocent people and make stuff up. Guilty people – or knowledgeable people – frequently elaborate their knowledge in order to make it more convincing or satisfactory to their tormentors. Others just won't crack, particularly those who consider their cause worth dying for.

So it is incredibly hit and miss. In the very unlikely event of having the one person upon which everything hinged in custody and knowing exactly what their role was, the ticking time-bomb scenario could still end in a bang. And then what? A consequentialist argument whereby torture is justified as a means to an end falls down when that end is totally uncertain.

And anyway, this never happens and as far as any of us know this has never happened. Whatever Binyam Mohamed was up to when he was arrested, there was no ticking timebomb. If there had been, it would have taken less than seven years to find some crime with which to charge him.

By far the biggest problem is this ridiculous idea of torture as the lesser of two evils. Sometimes this argument is presented in the very emotive way;
“If someone had your child held prisoner, then you would be prepared to do whatever it takes to get them to tell you where you child was.”
Whatever it takes is a real problem. If we go down that path, then we have to go far beyond simulated drowning or anything else that didn't leave a mark. We have to mess them up pretty badly. And then here's a problem; say they don't care for their own suffering, but they have their own kid. So how about torturing their child in front of them? This is your kid's life we're talking about, so why not? It's not like we're going to kill the child – wheres your child may die if we don't do this.

This is not a slippery slope argument – if it genuinely is a matter of the lesser of two evils then chances are that torturing the families of terrorist suspects would be far more effective than torturing them and therefore the lesser of two evils. And you'd probably only have to electrocute a handful of small children in order to perhaps save thousands of lives. Perhaps, of course – all these arguments are based on a perhaps because never in the history of mankind can it be demonstrated than any life has been saved by torturers.

Probably the most depressing aspect of Binyam Mohammed's story is the kind of comment made by ordinary folk who believe that the guy deserved what happened to him. Paul Canning wrote about this, and there's a BBC Have Your Say forum filled with comments along the lines of
"The guy was traveling on a false passport so what did he expect? He has probably made all this up in order to claim compensation. He wasn't born here so send him back to where he came from."
As with rape, a common response to torture, particularly by our side, is to pretend it hasn't happened or that if it did, it was somehow deserved. It isn't clear what happened to Binyam Mohammed – maybe he really wasn't tortured. But we know that he was held prisoner, illegally, for seven years. So what, if he was up to no good? That only means that he ought to have been arrested, charged and tried for his offenses. As it is, he has lost seven years of his life without having been convicted of any crime. Nobody deserves that.

I think it is absolutely vital to maintain this minimum respect for every other human being. That whatever happens, you are not prepared to degrade them in this way. Lock 'em up. Kill them when you're completely out of options. But never to do that. Jesus is supposed to have said “That you do unto the least of men, you do unto me.” (or words to that effect). I would broaden that out; the way we treat the very worst kinds of people reflects on our attitude towards all of humankind, including ourselves, our nearest and dearest. The torture of just one of us makes all of us less precious.

This is how the world felt in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest spells in our history, the Second World War when they first drew up Human Rights legislation. At that time people knew all about what was at stake, perhaps far better than we do, and yet they still believed in drawing that line.

Edit: I edited this the next day, took out some of the more stomach-turning language. Upsetting subject.


seahorse said...

Upsetting yes but argued with great clarity and humanity.


I agree with you. And the moral cowardice that's been passing as policy is truly dangerous. I hope the pendulum of tolerance for this crap is swinging back to truth, like you're telling it.