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Torture: from regress to redress

Neal Ascherson
1 March 2006

There was once a Religion of Progress. Can there be a Religion of Regress? I can't find another word to describe this strange sensation of sliding backwards which must afflict anyone with a middle-aged memory. It's like sitting in a train which begins to move in the wrong direction, and seeing again through the window landscapes and buildings passed long ago on the onward journey.

Here once more are orthodox "bankers' economics", which had been discredited seventy years ago. Through the window reappears the notion of the poor as physically degenerate, whose breeding should be discouraged. Here again comes charity, as the proper way to help the less fortunate, and the right of the rich to buy better education, and the warnings that public services undermine virtuous self-reliance. And here we unbelievably are, settling down to discuss the morality of torture as if we lived in the 18th century.

Neal Ascherson is discussing the book by Kenneth Roth & Minky Worden (eds.), Torture: Does It Make Us Safer? Is it Ever O.K.?: A Human Rights Perspective (New Press/ Human Rights Watch, 2006)

How on earth, after so many international conventions outlawing physical or mental torture in all circumstances, did we get back to this? The answer is that White House and Pentagon jihadists raised this issue from the grave. As James Ross writes in this book, "the September 11th attacks on the United States and the resulting 'war on terrorism' have resurrected the previously unthinkable topic of the legitimacy of state torture".

Of course, the conventions did not remove torture from the world scene. It is still practised by interrogators and police in dozens of countries, as heartbreaking survivors recount in Human Rights Watch's new book. The "regress" is that societies which are not tyrannies but stable democracies can now begin a solemn debate on torture's rights and wrongs. A few years ago, there would have seemed to be nothing here worth debating. And yet today, a state's wish to inflict agony, terror and spiritual devastation on its prisoners is presentable enough to be admitted into our moral maze.

Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and "extraordinary rendition" all proceed from the distortion of human-rights doctrine to suit administration policies. Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch elaborates Ross's remark. "Suddenly … torture and related mistreatment have become serious policy options for the United States … Overly clever US government lawyers have tried to define away laws against torture. The Bush Administration claims latitude to abuse detainees that its predecessors would never have dared. To their great surprise, many Americans thus find themselves looking for guidance on the fundamental issues surrounding torture. What constitutes torture? Does it ever work? Is it ever morally acceptable?"

Not only Americans are surprised. But if these questions are being asked again, then the answers must be found again. Torture in Europe, for instance, used to be employed in criminal investigation by church and state, went out of fashion and was then revived in the 20th century in the cause of state security. Once torture was principally used to extract confessions, always blatantly unreliable and now seldom its main object. More effectively, torture is now used to obtain "intelligence" in the form of denunciations: the names of other witches, conspirators, "anti-state elements" or terrorists.

Also in openDemocracy on the "return" of torture:

Isabel Hilton, "Torture: who gives the orders? " (May 2004)

Mariano Aguirre, "Exporting democracy, revising torture: the complex missions of Michael Ignatieff"
(July 2005)

Clive Stafford Smith, "Torture: an idea for our time" (August 2005)

Isabel Hilton, "Guantánamo: the United States's torture" (November 2005)

States and morals

The United Nations Convention Against Torture of 1984 defined torture as "the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental…". Surprisingly, the United States Senate, in ratifying the convention a good seven years before 9/11, was already trying to draw a distinction between torture and coercive but lawful interrogation. This opened a fateful wriggle-room which the Bush administration was to enlarge, arguing (in an August 2002 memorandum, superseded in December 2004 after revelations from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo) that torture was the infliction of "pain equivalent to serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death". Anything below that line was merely "coercive interrogation".

In a bleak but lucid contribution to this book, Michael Ignatieff takes a close look at this distinction. Human-rights activists, he says, want to deny it, classifying coercive interrogation and torture as a single practice which should be banned. Ignatieff is not so sure. They are different, at least for the victim, in that not all "coercive" techniques are outrageously cruel. "I could envisage withholding sleep, but not…radical sleep deprivation. I could envisage interrogations that disorient and isolate subjects, but I cannot envisage accepting ones that bombard subjects with painful noise or that withhold from them all contact with medical or legal personnel."

But Ignatieff ends by admitting that in practice, above all when a state – like the United States - can detain in secret and at its pleasure, the distinction becomes academic. "I cannot see any clear way to manage coercive interrogation institutionally so that it does not degenerate into torture … So I end up supporting an absolute and unconditional ban on both torture and those forms of coercive interrogation that involve both stress and distress…"

Anyone who opposes torturing terrorist suspects has to face the "ticking-bomb" argument. What if the captive knows where the bomb is, probably in a crowded building, and the timer-clock is running? Isn't the pain of one human being justified by the saving of the innocent many? Many contributors to this book take this challenge head-on. All deny that – even in such extremity – "torture can be OK".

Ignatieff warns that "moral prohibition comes at a price". He would not inflict suffering, even in a "ticking-bomb" case. But he recognises that most people would probably not agree. "Following another terrorist attack that might have been prevented by the use of coercive interrogation, the price of my scruple might simply seem too high. That is a risk I am prepared to take … Abstaining from the evil of torture is itself an exercise in moral hazard.."

Eitan Felner is less hesitant. In Israel, he recalls, the "ticking bomb" argument induced the Landau commission in 1987 to legitimise "moderate physical pressure". The result was that torture (what was "moderate" supposed to mean?) became routine for thousands of Palestinian detainees until the Israeli supreme court banned it in 1999.

Anyway, so Felner argues, the scenario is unreal. How often can an interrogator be certain that there really is a bomb, that it will explode if not defused in time, that the suspect is not part of a team out there who could be moving or altering the bomb, and so on? Without knowing all that and more, the moral licence for torture can't even be constructed. Juan Mendez, a survivor of torture during Argentina's "dirty war", confirms Felner's argument. "Since (the security forces) are not in a position to know which of the people they hold knows where the supposed bomb is placed, they end up torturing many in the off-chance that at least one will give up some useful information".

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. He was for many years a foreign correspondent for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The Struggles for Poland (1988), Black Sea (1996), and Stone Voices: the search for Scotland (Granta, 2003).

Also by Neal Ascherson in openDemocracy:

"From multiculturalism to where?"
(August 2004)

"Pope John Paul II and democracy"
(April 2005)

"Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (July 2005)

"The victory and defeat of Solidarność" (September 2005)

"Poland's interregnum" (September 2005)

"Victory's lost sister – the wreck of the Implacable"
(October 2005)

"A carnival of stupidity" (February 2006)

"Good Night, and Good Luck" (February 2006)

This book ranges widely. Cherie Booth writes eloquently about rape and sexual violence against women, and describes how the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia came to recognise rape as a crime against humanity (a detailed definition is now in the statue of the International Criminal Court, which has been asked by the United Nations Security Council to address the systematic rapes in Darfur by the janjaweed).

Marie-Monique Robin suggests that American methods in the "war on terror" can be traced back to French doctrines of counterinsurgency war – permitting the routine use of torture – developed in the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria. She establishes a link. But I would suggest that French and American thinking both have roots in the old German concept of Partisanenkrieg. Elaborated by Nazi jurists with genocidal results, this defined a form of conflict in which "illegal combatants" were considered to have none of the protections of the Geneva Convention. This is precisely the "Rumsfeld language" of today.

A spreading toxin

The core of the book's case, though, is its aching sense of betrayal by United States policies. "Once the leading governmental defender of human rights around the world, the US government has become the most influential abuser" (Kenneth Roth). A devastating three-page table assembled by Tom Malinowski lists "torture techniques approved by the United States while condemned in other countries". Nine out of the ten detailed items include the words: "Rumsfeld approved…". The tenth, forcible submersion by "waterboarding", is "alleged to have been approved by the Central Intelligence Agency".

And this abuse is an example, a toxin, which spreads. In a final chapter Kenneth Roth points to the failure of the European Union to "fill the leadership void left by Washington's embrace of coercive interrogation". Indeed, Britain is only one of many EU members who have been complicit in American rendition to "torture states", and in their own ways have begun to copy it.

The Bush administration, says Roth, must accept that abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere have been largely caused by official government policies. An independent commission should be set up to investigate what went wrong in interrogation, and to prescribe a return to international human-rights standards.

"The torture and abuse of prisoners is an affront to the most basic American values". Yes, but who would have believed that a people with so deep a faith in progress would tolerate its government's slithering regress into one of the darkest regions of the past? That regress must halt, and America must move forward again. But who will halt it, and when, we do not yet know.

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