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25 August 2009

What if torture works?

Would we then be OK with it?

By Mehdi Hasan

More depressing revelations of torture carried out by US agents during the Bush era:

The US attorney general has appointed special prosecutor John Durham to investigate allegations of abuse of terror suspects. The appointment was made after an internal CIA report released yesterday revealed new allegations of abuse against detainees in Guantanamo Bay and at other secret prisons around the world.

The report outlined treatment of prisoners as ‘unauthorised, improvised, inhumane and undocumented’. Interrogators reportedly used a power drill and handgun during questioning and staged mock executions in adjoining cells to terror suspects. They also made aggressive threats to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man behind the September 11 attacks, claiming ‘we’re going to kill your children’ and threatening another key suspect that his mother would be sexually abused in front of him.

The report also outlined a separate incident in July 2002 where an unnamed agent pressed his fingers into a detainee’s neck, causing him to pass out, and then shaking him awake repeatedly to continue questioning.

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Torture, as we are often told, does not work. It leads to innocent people admitting to horrendous crimes they did not commit, simply in order to stop the pain. It even leads to guilty people confessing to more crimes than they actually committed: al-Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed confessed to having been behind 30 other terrorist plots and attacks in addition to 9/11. It’s no wonder that KSM (as he is often referred to), having been waterboarded by the CIA, didn’t also own up to being the lone gunman on the grassy knoll in Dallas in 1963, or to plotting the murder of Michael Jackson.

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But as the Guardian reports today in its coverage of the latest CIA revelations:

Some of the techniques were judged to have been a failure, with the mock execution described as ‘transparently a ruse, and no benefit was derived from it’. But the document says valuable intelligence was gained on various plots round the world, including one to hijack aircraft to fly into Heathrow Airport.

This raises the intriguing yet disturbing question: what if torture, on the odd, rare occasion, works? What if usable, valuable and accurate intelligence is gleaned from detainees that prevents actual terror attacks, or helps disrupt a terrorist plot, or leads to the arrest and detention of wanted terrorists? Does it then become permissible or defensible?

These are important questions that are often too quickly ignored, or are glossed over by those of us who oppose torture. Indeed, we proudly proclaim that we are opposed to torture under any circumstances, but when confronted with, say, the ticking time bomb scenario — where you have a man in your custody who knows the whereabouts of a bomb that is about to go off and the only way to get that information out of him is to torture him — the average person cannot help but equivocate. After all, goes the argument, who wants to be responsible for hundreds of innocent deaths in a terrorist attack, simply in order to protect a cold-blooded killer from being roughed up?

The ticking time bomb scenario is, of course, a fantasy. As Professor Jon Weiner pointed out in the Huffington Post last year:

Historians say the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario advanced by the show, and the Bush administration, is purely fictional — it’s never happened that terrorists with knowledge of an imminent attack were in custody.

Such lazy and ahistorical arguments have long been props used by the pro-torture right to justify the unjustifiable.

But again, I revert almost automatically to knee-jerk, liberal language. The bigger issue is: why is it “unjustifiable”? There are, of course, countless familiar and obvious moral objections that revolve around human rights, dignity, autonomy, and so on. As Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, for example, has argued:

[Torture] dehumanises people by treating them as pawns to be manipulated through their pain.

Or, in the powerfully apt words of the Nation’s Jonathan Schell:

Torture is not wrong because someone else thinks it is wrong or because others, in retaliation for torture by Americans, may torture Americans. It is the torture that is wrong. Torture is wrong because it inflicts unspeakable pain upon the body of a fellow human being who is entirely at our mercy.

Unsurprisingly, I wholeheartedly concur with Messrs Roth and Schell.

However, there is often one vital argument against torture that gets overlooked: even if torture is shown to work, even if 24‘s Jack Bauer seems to get results through a combination of simulated drowning and actual beatings, what kind of human being willingly and consciously engages in torture, whether legal or illegal? To practise torture corrodes and debases not just our collective moral character as a nation, but also the individual who is expected to carry out the torture on behalf of the state. Do we really want to be employing, enabling and legitimising the sadists, psychopaths, deviants and criminals who would be needed to implement even the mildest forms of legalised torture? (It is not for no reason that the odious and amoral hangman was such an unpopular, unpleasant and despised figure during the Victorian era.)

There is no place in our society for torture; there is no place in our society for torturers. The argument over whether torture “works” or not thereby becomes secondary.

On a side note, I remain troubled by a rather powerful point made by the Ian Cobain, who has been investigating British complicity in torture for the Guardian:

But it remains to be seen to what extent the growing evidence of Britain’s involvement in torture will result in real public pressure on the government. How many people are really troubled that their fellow citizens are being tortured, when they suspect those victims to be terrorists?

But that’s a subject for another blog on another day . . .