Torture should be investigated, but within context

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December 21, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

There have been some very interesting articles through the last week on the moral judgement of the use of torture. This has followed the release by the US intelligence committee report on it. Some of these articles are nuance-less denouncement of the practice of torturing anyone in the pursuit of information that might possibly save thousands of lives. Some of these articles are nuance-less justifications of the practice of torturing people, sometimes totally innocent people with no information, leaving them scarred for the rest of their lives. My personal view, like many, is that torture is wrong, but I think it is extremely important to try to understand the context within which it was used before rushing to a complete and final judgement.

Context is everything. For instance, the report, which covers the years of Republican rule, was released only by the Democrat members of the committee. The Republican members published their own minority report. The Democrats described the torture techniques carried out by the CIA and argued that these techniques were not effective in gaining new information or cooperation from detainees. They argued that torture puts us on the same or worse moral ground than those who seek to harm us, or worse, given we claim to be functioning democracies.

The Republicans argued that the Democrats’ report was an example of political cherry-picking of facts, prone to sloppiness and exaggeration. That they presented unsupported and ambiguous evidence as fact. Worse, they didn’t interview a single CIA operative. Not one. Which means the Democrats’ report was simply an outline of the case for the prosecution, as opposed to a proper investigation. The report has since been used as a stick to beat the CIA, the 2000-2008 Republican government, and, by association, the British government who provided airbases for transfer (rendition) of detainees, knowing they were headed for torture.

My view is that the report is an example of what makes democracies special, the ability to look at ourselves and criticise our behaviour, and behaviour of people who rule us and try to protect us. It is no small irony that if a committee was formed to do this in many countries in the world, the members might end up being…tortured.

Which is where one has to try and look at the context of what has been called torture. It can be argued that there is a difference between torture when it is used to try to extract information that might save innocent lives and torture when it is used to coerce, intimidate or silence those who have dared to question the way the government of their own country is doing their job.

To look at the use of torture during the period that the Intelligence Committee report covers, one has to go back to the days after 9/11. Those attacks were a massive failure of intelligence and brought fear and mass death to US soil in a way the population had never thought would happen.

Al-Qaeda is a new kind of enemy: It is one for which international laws on how it can can be countered are out of date. Al-Qaeda disguises itself as civilians, and it launches surprise attacks, targeting the innocent to try and make their point. They have no limit to the number of people they will kill and no limit to how heinous the methods they will use to kill those people. We in the democratic west are in engaged in a global conflict that will last for year with radical Islamist groupings all over the world, ready and willing to inflict any damage they can against the infidel. If there was a chemical that could kill all non-believers in unspeakable agony, they would use it.

These jihadists killed more than 5,000 people last month. What do those who are so loudly speaking out against torture and calling for prosecutions have to say about that? What answers to they have to the problem our democratic governments have to terrorists whose brutality and disregard for human life knows few bounds? When terrorist atrocities happen aren’t the same people who are demanding action against torture also those who want inquiries about why our intelligence agencies didn’t stop it?

Well, yes, they probably are. One of the reasons for that is because torture has not been proven effective. Trickery and subterfuge works a lot better. Torture may produce short-term gains but tends to do so at the expense of long-term achievements.

Public opinion is important too. Torture means that people stop being on our side. Especially those people who are susceptible to argue that “we” are not so wonderful and that “they” are just misunderstood.

What would be good – should there be the “judge-led public inquiry” that has been mooted in the UK, after the Intelligence and Security Committee has scrutinised the Americans’ report – is if this inquiry can concentrate on answers. Let us not pretend that there is an ideal way to prosecute a war against terrorism. Let us not pretend there are simple answers. Let us continue to learn.

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