Monday, January 02, 2006

Torture & justifications - obfuscations & shades of grey

Right, torture is always wrong. Right? Information received from it is always useless, right? Well, as DK points out, no. But it's still wrong. A few people have put forward rational justifications for the use of torture, or at least the acceptance of the use of torture acquired from elsewhere, notably Owen and Brian Barder. Except that, well, even those of us who find the idea of torture utterly reprehensible will use this argument. From, um, Craig Murray:
I am familiar with your argument. If you had an al-Qaida operative in front of you, who had planted a bomb about to go off, would you hit him until he told you it was about to go off. Of course you would - I would, anyway.
Recently, on BBC Radio 4's The Moral Maze, a representative of Amnesty was asked what he would do if he had a known bomber locked up and a known bomb planted. He (unfortunately) ducked the question directly, and simply asserted that the intelligence officer who conducted the 'interrogation' should still be charged afterwards, and the extenuating circumstances be taken into account.

That is, and remains, my position. Torture is wrong, and has to be illegal. But sometimes, if you have the proverbial bomb scenario, you break the rules, and get the job done, by whatever means are necessary. After the fact, investigations are made and charges are put.
  • Crime: torture known terrorist.
  • Extenuating circumstances: saved major city from nuclear (or whatever) attack.
Pretty sure I know what the judge is going to do with that one. But 100% certain I want the judge to make that decision. Back to Craig:
But real life isn't that clear cut. What we are talking about is completely different. In Uzbekistan thousands of people are tortured every year, and at least 99% of them are nothing to do with terrorism, as in completely innocent. And a fair number of those die under torture. Most of them are just religous Muslims.
There's a difference between extracting information from a known terrorist operative that you know can save lives, and using torture as a method of state control and repression.

Life isn't black and white. It's not "with us or against us". Some things are clearly wrong, but sometimes, well, you do what you must, and you face up to the consequences. Back to Craig, this time in a comment on Brian's blog linked above (emphasis mine):
in Uzbekistan the horror hits you in the face. The very nice old lady whose front gate was opposite mine, a member of a banned democratic opposition party, was attacked in the lane by the Uzbek intelligence services, not twenty metres from the Residence gate. They broke her legs, poured paint down her throat, and run her over in an army truck. She was my friend. (Fortunately she survived).

When I had dinner with the distinguished dissident Professor Mirsaidov in Samarkand, that same night his grandson was abducted and killed after many hours of appalling torture. The body was dumped outside the family home after I left. The Russian Ambassador told me, from his excellent sources, that this was intended as a warning to both dissidents and me not to meet each other.

My horror at all this and at the extent of US involvement strained my relationship with the office, and they asked me to resign
If we're supposed to be the 'good guys'. If the current justification for the removal of Saddam was that he was an evil nasty tyrant who tortured his citizens. Why were we knowingly supporting a regime that was, from what I can tell, just as bad?

Murray, again:
If the government had argued “Yes, we did accept a lot of information from the Uzbeks, knowing it might very probably come from torture, but we have to protect the UK”, (which I think is a fair summary of the line you argue above) I would not have released these documents. But the government has not been saying that. They have trotted out such obfuscations and circumlocutions, even in the face of direct parliamentary inquiry, that I think it now amounts to lying.
One last word. Some blogs and commenters have stated that Murray is nothing but a self-publicist, that he only seeks to sell his book. OK. That may, in fact, be true. But his book is telling the story of his experiences with an oppressive, nasty regime, and our govts complicity in keeping that regime in power. Even if he is only out for himself (which is not my reading), I don't care. I want that story to be told.

This isn't about torture as always wrong. This is about torture as an instrumentof state repression, and our Govts support of that repression.


Serf said...

Good point on the use of torture. Its pretty much what I always thought I would do. Beat the terrorist and then give myself in.

That way we can keep it illegal and only in a very extreme circumstance would it be used.

In the long term, supporting human rights abusing governments is bad for the UK's Interests as well as morally wrong.

Anonymous said...

If you haven't already done so, the Andrew Sullivan article on torture is a fantastic read, and takes in the point you make about committing the crime, then owning up to it. A kind of civil disobediance, but for torture.

chris said...

Personally I am against torture, even in such extreme circumstances. The reasons for torture are always the same, you know someone knows something and need to beat it out of them. But do you really know that they know it? There are more nutters and jokers out there than terrorists, and once you start torturing someone you ain't likely to stop until they tell you what you want to hear. Even if it is not the truth.

Doing it then owning up to face the consequences might be OK. But I think we all know that in reality it will simply be a case of 'better one person harmed than let a terrorist kill 50' each, increasingly frequent, time it happens or 'just doing my job' as they claim their dry cleaning bill on expenses.