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Home > World

Shifting the goalposts: The only game in Baghdad

14 May 2004

Supporters of the war in Iraq keep shifting the goal posts. When they can't shift the goal posts any further, they claim we should be on a different playing field - perhaps one where there aren't any goalposts at all.

First it was WMD. That turned out not to mean very much at all, so it became 'regime change'. Regime change involved full-scale war followed by vicious guerrilla fighting and anarchy. So then it became 'bringing democracy to Iraq'. Presumably this will soon turn into 'autonomy for Iraq', which will really mean hasty withdrawal of American troops.

And now some people are trying to shift the goal posts on the issue of torture. Evidence is gradually emerging that Iraqis are being tortured by American troops and possibly Brits. What do the supporters of the war do? Ask us to define torture.

This week on Richard Littlejohn's dreadful Sky News opinion show, he enlisted the help of torture victim and SAS hardman Andy McNab. McNab made the valid point that humiliation of prisoners is different to torture.

(He then skirted the issue slightly by pointing out that torture doesn't work. 'Even the Nazis found that out in World War 2,' he said. This is bollocks - the idea that torture doesn't work arose because people who've been subjected to prolonged torture will eventually say anything to avoid more torture. But torture coupled with structured interrogation and the threat of permanent injury does work. Ask the French resistance.)

Technically, humiliating people isn't torture. Being stripped or scared witless isn't torture in the sense that having your fingernails pulled out is. But already you're in a moral fog. When, for example, does sleep deprivation become torture? Lengthy interrogations are accepted as necessary, but deprive someone of sleep for long enough and they will become ill (and eventually die).

Of course, if you can't redefine torture in such a way as to excuse it, you can always shift the goal posts on whether actual torture is acceptable in the first place. A significant minority of people in the US believe that torture is acceptable after September 11. Most Brits wouldn't agree with the electrode treatment, but quite a few think a good kicking might not be unreasonable if it's to extract information.

This is a crude, theoretical argument, which is basically: should you do something that is wrong to prevent a greater evil?

Superficially the answer is 'yes', but in real life wrongdoing in the name of a greater good isn't so simple. For a start, the greater good is subjective. Secondly, in a situation like Iraq, when allegations of torture emerge, it is guaranteed to lead to more violence.

And thirdly, what are supporters of torture arguing for? Regulated torture? You can beat someone up, but not enough for them to lose an eye? Electrodes on the genitals are OK, but rape isn't? The whole idea is ridiculous.

But the most compelling case against torture and brutality is that sometimes we have to set limits to what is acceptable behaviour, or we may as well give up on being moral agents at all. The boundaries of what of is acceptable may be disputed, they may even be wrong, but you've got to set them all the same.

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

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