By lex, on August 16th, 2006

Citing an unattributed south Asian newspaper, the UK Guardian today strongly hints that torture was used against a British citizen in Pakistan to help uncover the recent air terror plot:

Reports from Pakistan suggest that much of the intelligence that led to the raids came from that country and that some of it may have been obtained in ways entirely unacceptable here. In particular Rashid Rauf, a British citizen said to be a prime source of information leading to last week’s arrests, has been held without access to full consular or legal assistance. Disturbing reports in Pakistani papers that he had “broken” under interrogation have been echoed by local human rights bodies. The Guardian has quoted one, Asma Jehangir, of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who has no doubt about the meaning of broken. “I don’t deduce, I know – torture,” she said. “There is simply no doubt about that, no doubt at all.”

And thus is the celebration of lives saved somewhat dampened. The use of torture runs not only against the foundational sensibilities of civilized humanity, it is often counter-productive: Torture victims may say anything, implicate anyone at all just to make the pain stop. Having indicted other innocents, the tragedy of torturer’s already diminished moral standing is compounded by the time and energy he wastes on sequential innocents as the wrong path turns upon the blind alley before finally arriving at dead end.

It is tempting to ask of ourselves whether it is right to extend to a terrorist the protections of a civil society he intends to violently overthrow. While understandable, such sentiments are misdirected. We do not eschew torture out of sensitivity to such people’s feelings, but because, our society being a beacon of light in an often darkened world, we would not willingly stoop down to the level of the barbarians we fight. We decline to become what we behold. We are better.

Balanced against all that of course is the “ticking bomb” scenario – the theoretical reductio in which we have a terrorist whom we know has planted a bomb that will, if undetected, kill hundreds or thousands (or millions) of people. I suspect most people, even the most decent ones, would willingly avert their eyes – all other options being exhausted – to whatever lesser evil is employed against a guilty party to forestall an even greater crime committed against a multitude of innocents.

It is a fundamental duty for governments to protect their citizens against physical destruction – the people’s collective moral health falls somewhere lower on the hierarchy of responsibilities. And the dirty little secret about torture is, that when applied over time against someone with actual knowledge that they would decline to otherwise share, it works. Innocent victims will make up wild lies to make the pain stop, but the lesson of history – and the reason that torture has survived intact ever since mankind’s fall from grace – is that everyone else eventually breaks.

Framed this way, the question can become one not of “if” we should apply duress, but when and how. How do we “know” our suspect has the knowledge we seek? If we are relatively certain, does that alter the level of discomfort we can inflict? What constitutes permissible discomfort, and what impermissible inhumanity? Upon what scale do we balance the needs of physical security for the many against the rights of the individual?

These are profoundly difficult questions, and not least complicating is that we cannot even come to a definitional agreement of what does and does not constitute torture. To even raise the question is to invite scathing criticism, it is untouchable. And because we cannot talk about it, we leave it to those who are forced to operate in the dark corners and alleyways of the world to figure it out for themselves.

Especially now that we extend torture to mean “offenses against inherent human dignity.” If that’s how we judge torture, I’ve got quite a bone to pick not merely with the upperclass midshipmen from back “when I was a plebe,” I also believe I’ve got an actionable case against my S.E.R.E. school instructors – highly motivated gentlemen who introduced me to many of the “stress positions” and techniques we’ve lately heard so much about. Writing with respect to the detention center in Guantanamo, a recent UN commision stated that

the general conditions of detention, in particular the uncertainty about the length of detention and prolonged solitary confinement, amount to inhuman treatment and to a violation of the right to health as well as a violation of the right of detainees to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.

As a serially maimed Black Knight said to King Arthur in the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” I’ve had worse. Except that in this case, it’s true.

Bureaucratic bromides like these, while doubtless heartfelt and self-evidently well-intended reveal an inherent and profound lack of seriousness about the gravity of the issues at hand. Absolutes of every strain may smooth the ruffled feathers of a dovecote elite, but they also push hard against the well-worn fabric of the world in which we operate – a world containing many more shades of gray than black or white.

Every Saturday night, Agent Jack Bauer – the hero of the hit Fox TV show “24″ – violates the civil rights of one of the bad guys, sometimes shooting them in the legs, at other times holding a knife edge to their eye sockets, sometimes murdering them in cold blood, but all in the name of stopping some monstrous terror plot that would kill thousands. No one intends that the evidence thus obtained might be permissible in a court of law, and it usually doesn’t matter – like a 1950′s police show, crime never wins in Bauer’s world: It dies. The audience is secretly pleased at this recurring formulation, not just because the plot is revealed, evil gets a comeuppance and a massacre is averted, but also because, not saddled with his responsibilities, nor gifted with his talents, they nonetheless get to feel morally superior to Agent Bauer.

High irony then, that this is how we maintain our moral high ground: By silently imploring those who would protect us to do the necessary evil of which we disapprove, and for which we shall condemn them.

I wonder how many crimes have been committed in the name of the greater good?


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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Lex, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Torture

  1. Pingback: Index – The Best of Neptunus Lex | The Lexicans

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