Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Torture - always unacceptable?

Since the release of the photos from Abu Ghraib I've been thinking about torture and whether it's always wrong. Now, let me state up front that I don't think those pictures were actually depicting torture or at least not torture in the dictionary sense of causing severe pain or anguish. The pictures were cruel, pornographic and humiliating. The fact that there were pictures at all, never mind those happy, smiley American faces, tells me that this was not a serious business. If this were serious, information-gathering torture, there'd be no record whatsoever.

From what I can gather, most, if not all, of the prisoners who were subjected to these horrific humiliations were not high-value, "ticking bomb" type suspects, but rather some insurgents, everyday criminals and innocents.

But, this business has me wondering again if I would be willing to tolerate state-sponsored torture in any circumstances. And, the truth is, I might be.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11 I would have been quite happy to think that the CIA or some such body might torture a captured al Qaeda operative (preferably senior) if that was going to help prevent future attacks of similar scale or worse.

One thing I do know is that I don't like "blind eye" torture. You know, where the higher-ups demand results and claim they'll "turn a blind eye" to the methods, which in the end leads to people in the lower ranks paying the price. If we're going to have torture, we all, as a society, should face up to it. For that reason, I really admired Alan Dershowitz's proposed model for sanctioned torture. I can't say whether his proposal was the best possible model, but I admired his courage in even proposing anything along these lines.

I think Dershowitz's attempt to put a legal stamp on torture (in specific, limited circumstances, it has to be said) is better than William Buckley's declaration that to "attempt to describe legitimate reasons for torture breaks the spiritual back of the law" or that intelligence gathering is a work of art better left uncodified.

In January 2003 The Economist correctly identified the problem for those who are given the job of getting information from suspected terrorists.
A detailed account of American interrogation methods appeared recently in the Washington Post. The article quoted American officials who describe beatings and the withholding of medical treatment, as well as "stress and duress" techniques, such as sleep deprivation, hooding, and forcing prisoners to hold awkward positions for hours. The officials also say they sent alleged terrorists and lists of questions to countries known for far harsher interrogation techniques.

Although well documented, the account has produced official denials and only a desultory discussion among American commentators, who seem no keener to discuss the subject than the British and French were when the issue arose in Northern Ireland and Algiers. This is understandable. But to evade the question is hypocritical and irresponsible. By speaking anonymously about their interrogation methods, the officials seem to be asking for help: how far should they go in trying to elicit information to stave off another large-scale terrorist attack? They deserve an answer.
They absolutely do deserve an answer. Many believe that torture doesn't work, and if that's the case then those at the top need to ensure that there is no more "blind eye" use of it. But, if torture does have some potential value, then I think we all need to take a deep breath and speak up as to when we will consider it.