Let’s be realistic about torture
Legitimising the practice would allow it to be used more honestly and effectively, says ASH Smyth
Torture is, unequivocally, bad news. It inflicts lasting physical and mental damage. It dehumanises the victim, and also the torturer. It stiffens enemy resolve. It is illegal under 'international law'. And the use of torture, as Philippe Sands QC discusses in his new book, The Torture Team, is rot in the very roots of a democratic nation.
What's more, information gathered is often dubious. Some suspects hold out; some will say anything. In short, torture doesn't work.
Except that it does. Sometimes.
With characteristic forthrightness, the French used torture to win the battle for Algiers in 1957. In the mid-1960s, the British tortured insurgents in Aden, in the process uncovering arms caches and arresting terrorists. Even now former US Defence Intelligence Agency staff are on record (in Sands's book, no less) as saying that threatening to throw someone off a roof can yield results.
Any moral justification for torture is, of course, highly dependent on its efficacy. (After all, torture has a long enough history to suggest it might have been known to serve its purpose on occasion.) So sensitive souls are hugely consoled by the simplistic mantra that torture 'doesn't work': it saves them from confronting reality.
In 'intelligence wars' - where information is paramount and the enemy hides among civilians - torture is inevitable. There is no nation, however democratic, that will not resort to it. But because the political repercussions of torture so increase the risk of winning the battle (Algiers in 1957) and losing the war (Algeria gained independence in 1962), its use must be strictly limited.
Torture is a short-term option, only for use in the most extreme circumstances. Furthermore, it must be reserved as a police method of interrogation; once it becomes a military tactic the war is already lost.
The head of French intelligence in Algiers, General Paul Aussaresses, justified the widespread use of torture on the grounds that the law wasn't up to the task: "The judicial system was not suited for such drastic situations". Cue Alan Dershowitz, the chief proponent of judicial torture today.
In Dershowitz's 'ticking bomb scenario', judges would grant domestic (and only domestic) 'torture warrants' to extract 'preventive intelligence' concerning imminent attacks. The subsequent torture, it is suggested, could involve needles pushed under the fingernails: excruciating, but clearly non-lethal.
Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, is held to be one of America's foremost civil libertarians. Though he has no wish to see torture employed, he is aware that it may sometimes be necessary. Moreover, he says, entrenched squeamishness on the part of an out-dated legal system is actually facilitating the creation of places precisely like Guantanamo, and processes such as 'extraordinary rendition'.
By legalising Dershowitz's solution, the "deception, cruelty and compromise of law" that concern Sands would be avoided, and instances of torture possibly reduced.
Judicial torture is politically honest, too. Despite signatures on countless Human Rights conventions, it is quite clear that torture happens anyway in the West. It is totally hypocritical to accept the benefits of torture while pretending it doesn't occur (or, worse, dissembling about the terminology).
Morally and legally, it is essential that we learn to call a spade a spade - no doubt precisely the reason this particular idea has never been put to the vote.
"It's never happened," says Sands of the hypothetical ticking bomb. But he misses the point that this is no reason not to prepare for it - ethically, legally and tactically. Furthermore, Sands and the rest of the 'moral high ground' brigade would have us believe that they wouldn't resort to torturing a terrorist suspect even if their own children were attached to the aforementioned ticking bomb.
I doubt this is true, but it doesn't really matter. If that's their idea of morality, I'm glad to discover I simply can't agree. ·
Comments are now closed on this article