On Torture, certainty, and humanity

Growing up in the 1970s, during the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear Armageddon, and when a colour TV or a fridge freezer was a luxury, a comforting certainty was that ‘we’ (the UK and America) were ‘the good guys’.  Our opponents, the Soviet Union, like the SS three decades earlier, were obviously evil because they tortured people.  Even during the worst slaughter of mechanised war, our ethos was essentially chivalrous, or so we believed.

9/11 seemed to change that.  In a unipolar world, with no need to be morally better than ‘the other guys’, the west fell out of love with individual rights, due process, and chivalry.  In came ‘getting the job done’, and ‘whatever works’.   Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo bay, and CIA ‘black sites’.  Tony Blair’s government even dragged someone off a Hong Kong Plan and sent them and their children to Libya to visit Gadaffi’s torture chambers.  Outsourcing was convenient, but maintaining the appearance of ‘clean hands’ was a low priority: Gina Haspell was promoted to running the CIA on the back of having run a ‘black site’ and then destroying evidence.  President Trump came up with the most pro-torture platform imaginable: 'Even if it doesn't work they deserve it'.  And its not confined to a frightened state reeling from terrorism, torture has become routine in US ‘law enforcement’.  George Floyd was famously choked to death by officer Chauvin.  Usually the torture is not fatal, but deliberately inflicting pain on suspects, and on prisoners, is commonplace.

Without a strong ethos proscribing torture, it is likely to proliferate.  The Stanford prison experiment showed that ‘guards’ need little enough incentive to inflict pain on a subject, and in that experiment there was no suggestion that the subject was guilty of terrorism or any heinous crime.  Only absolute clarity that an officer/agent is letting their own side down, and betraying its fundamental values, has any hope of overcoming the inevitable ‘us’ Vs  ‘them’ mentality that pushes comrades facing deadly danger together to excuse colleagues that mistreat ‘the enemy’.   Popular culture from Dirty Harry, to Mad Max, to Homeland, and Twenty Four, lionises the torturer: Eleanor of Aquitaine’s notions of chivalry and the Geneva Convention’s prohibition on torture don’t have the same box office appeal.  And we are poorer for it.

While torture tends to be practiced by deranged sadists, the problem is less with them (they can be outnumbered) than with the intellectuals and ‘practical men’ who justify torture.  The justification is usually utilitarian: they claim that torture of some people is needed to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.    The claims tend to rest on a beguiling pretence that we know what we will achieve by torture, and on framing the question in such a way as to de-humanise the person to be tortured.

“Would you torture Hitler’s child if you knew that it would stop his genocide/WW2?”  It seems like an easy choice.  Save a holocaust of 6million, including many children, and 70 million total deaths, for one child?  This is the devil’s standard modus operandi: to suggest that a good outcome can be achieved by an evil deed.  We know torturing the child is wrong, but are invited to believe that this is more than offset by the good of averting war.  But the devil lies.  As when Voldomort tempts Harry to join him, promising to restore Harry’s parents of he does so, the Devil says whatever is needed to get the action he wants, but will not deliver.  The only thing that you guarantee is that you become a torturer of a child.

“What if there was a bomb in a shopping centre where your children and family were present, and the only way to locate it and stop it killing your family was to torture the suspected bomber?”.   This scenario conveniently paints loved family members as the ones at risk if torture is not used, and leaves the proposed torture victim as an anonymous ‘bad person’.  But, if we give a green light to torture, the reality is that it will be used against anyone chosen by the authorities, rather than those that we deem bad enough.  Strip aside the smoke and mirrors, and the question is not ‘under what circumstances would you torture someone to save your family?’, but, rather, ‘are you prepared to give the government the power to torture family members and loved ones?’.    Thankfully, the days of torture being a punishment meted out to those found guilty of terrible crimes passed hundreds of years ago, since 1791, the eighth amendment to the US constitution has prohibited ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ :  that means the utilitarian-expedience arguments for Torture are about torturing those that have not been convicted of a crime.  The argument will be that, notwithstanding the lack of legal process, the authorities ‘know’ the person is guilty.  But we know that governments get things wrong. After the London bombings in 2005, the metropolitan police shot and killed Jean Charles de Menezes who was ‘wrongly deemed to be one of the fugitives involved in the bombing attempts’.  After the shooting, rather than begin by admitting they had made a mistake, the met tried to tarnish the victim’s name by suggesting he was a criminal.  Do we want a country where everyone is just a police identification mistake away from being tortured?   And, how often will a ‘mistake’ be deliberate?  Sarah Everard was raped and murdered by police officer Wayne Couzens, whose colleagues then proceeded to beat up and arrest many of the women who were peacefully and quietly protesting against her murder.

The essential goodness of most people means that we are horrified by the idea of torture, and instinctively reject it.   Torture advocates try to get us to overcome our innate resistance to the idea, by conjuring up the spectre of doing good, and by encouraging us to see the proposed victims as less than fully human, or as less important than those that will ‘benefit’.  We must reject their siren song.  We know that advocates of torture set themselves against the teachings of Jesus, of Buddha, and of Mohammed.  Prohibiting torture is morally right.   It is also the only way that we can be sure of protecting our families, friends, countrymen, and guests, from the possibility of being tortured in our name.

As the spectre of WWIII looms, what is it that defines us and makes it morally right (as opposed to just personally/nationally convenient) that we prevail?   If we are to be ‘the good guys’ that requires actually, you know, being good.

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