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Home > Culture and Society

Torture: Not As Easy As It Sounds

12 December 2005

'We have seen what bleeding heart liberals have done to the West - created a soft environment where terrorists can act with impunity. Evil flourishes when good men do nothing, good men are now doing something.'
- Doug Pasmore, BBC Talking Points


When Condoleezza Rice backtracked on US-sponsored torture this week, admitting, grudgingly, that it might be a bad thing, what do you think really happened? Did she: A. Immediately issue instructions to the Pentagon instructing that all ‘extraordinary rendition’ operations should stop and people should no longer be sent to Syria to get their feet beaten to mush? Or was it: B. Say some vague, non-committal stuff about so-called ‘human rights’?

Clue: It wasn’t A.

But the torture debate is amazing simply because it’s taking place in the first place. Torture is one of the most ‘wrong’ things imaginable, along with murder, rape, paedophilia, genocide and other horrors. Despite this, torture remains popular. Despotic states use torture, not to get information, necessarily, but rather to break dissidents and scare the general population, or for the simple jobsworth reason that, hey, it’s how we’ve always done things. Nor is it any secret that liberal democracies have tacitly or explicitly supported torture, whether it’s the US and their chums in South America, the Brits in Northern Ireland (although in fairness it tended to be beatings rather than the electrode treatment) or the French in Algeria, who developed a genuine passion for torture.

(There’s a [true] story that French soldiers were so eager to torture that they zapped an Algerian terrorist with electric shocks for three days before realising that he had a piece of paper in his pocket with an address where fellow terrorists were building a bomb. When the house was finally raided, it was, oddly enough, deserted.)

In a child-like way, it’s really not too difficult to make a case for torture, without even having to be as specific as the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario promoted by the US government in the American media (a bomb is about to go off, a terrorist knows when and where, you have to torture them to prevent it, etc.) The argument is this: if someone, presumably a terrorist or supporter of terrorism, knows something that could avert a terrorist attack, then torturing that person clearly involves less suffering than a terrorist attack going ahead successfully.

It’s a simple utilitarian argument, and one with which most
people would agree at some level. Nor is it difficult to extend it to justify what the US already seems to have in place: an international interrogation network that uses harsh interrogation, some of which is clearly torture, because once you accept the basic argument, it doesn’t matter whether one person or 1,000 people are being tortured, so long as you keep preventing terrorist attacks.

Unfortunately, theory is different to practice. There are lots of arguments against torture: that it is simply morally wrong; torture victims will say anything to make the torture stop; it turns opinion against you; it dehumanises all involved and so on. But the overwhelming argument against torture in this instance is simply that there is no way that the US is likely to have good enough intelligence to avoid torturing thousands of innocent people.

Before you can even begin to justify torture, you have prove it’s useful. For torture to be useful against terrorists, you need three criteria to be met:

1) That your suspect is a genuine terrorist

2) That they actually have information that is useful

3) That those doing the torturing know whether information is

Are these criteria likely to be met by the blundering US military? Of course not. In 2004 a USA Today editorial reported that Iraqi terrorist suspects were not being treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention and that ‘70% to 90% of the Iraqis swept up for interrogation were arrested by mistake, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported.’ Let’s mull that over again. 70 to 90 per cent were arrested by mistake. This is barely anti-terrorism or law enforcement, it’s just mass round-ups.

Even if the US government could make a case for torture, none in their right mind would trust US security services to get the right people. And this incompetence means that one of the most morally repugnant things imaginable, the torture of innocent people, is going on right now. And thanks to Tony Blair’s unwillingness to upset our American Special Relatives, the British government is standing shoulder to shoulder with the torturers.

Evil flourishes when good men do nothing.

We couldn't agree more.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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