An exposé of some real terrorists

Karl Rove, the former advisor to George W. Bush, attracted much publicity yesterday when he expressed pride in the US Military for waterboarding terrorist suspects. In the article below, Justin Frewen traces the history of the anti-torture campaign through to the most vocal present-day advocates of torture.

As awareness of the horrific atrocities inflicted by Nazis on Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled filtered out after World War II, there was widespread international agreement that systems and structures should be put in place to prevent the recurrence of such barbarity. One pillar of these efforts was the establishment of the United Nations, armed with a mandate to prevent ‘aggressive war’, the ‘supreme crime’ according to judges at the Nuremberg Trials.

The ensuing decades gave birth to a range of treaties and declarations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the Geneva Convention and the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, all of which explicitly prohibited the practice of torture.

In the North*, torture was widely regarded as reprehensible. Indeed, the North frequently used to condemn the manner in which inhumane and undemocratic regimes in the South* used torture to stay in power.

The reality on the ground was far more complicated, however. States in the North were frequently complicit in the practice of torture either as an accessory or partner to non-democratic regimes in the South, or covertly within the North. In addition, several states in the North were involved in pioneering new forms of torture methods that left no trace on the victims.

But it was only after 9/11 and the Bush administration’s declaration of the ‘War on Terror’ that some commentators in the North were sufficiently emboldened to advocate for the reinstatement of torture as a weapon in the defence (or armoury) of democratic states.

At the forefront of the torture advocates were members of the Bush administration. Alberto Gonzalez, then White House Counsel and later US Attorney General, argued that Bush’s decision to not apply the Geneva Convention against coercive interrogation to the ‘unlawful combatants’ of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, rendered US interrogators less liable for prosecution. In December 2002, then Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld sanctioned interrogation techniques that entailed, inter alia, hooding, isolation, stress positions, sensory deprivation, 20-hour interrogations, dietary ‘adjustment’ as well as the use of dogs in Afghanistan and Guantanamo. The following April, Rumsfeld issued a memo in which he refused to rule out any interrogation method, allowing for the possibility of additional techniques being requested on a case by case basis.

The Bush administration’s readiness to promote and justify the use of torture was abhorrent, though perhaps understandable (from their perspective). But the ease with which liberal commentators leapt on the torture bandwagon has been arguably far more alarming.

One of the best known advocates of torture is the legal professor Alan Dershowitz. For Dershowitz, it is the ‘ticking bomb’ of potential terrorist atrocities that provides the moral justification to torture suspects, should they prove unwilling to divulge information voluntarily. Confronted with a situation where a captured terrorist has stubbornly refused to disclose information as to where a bomb has been planted, which might result in numerous fatalities, how should one act? Would it not be prudent and sensible, even moral, to torture the terrorist until he divulged his sordid secret so that we might prevent the loss of innocent life?

In defining his ‘ticking bomb’ in such a manner, Dershowitz presents his audience with an intellectual fait accompli. Although we risk damning ourselves morally to some degree by engaging in torture, a refusal to countenance so doing courts a far greater damnation as we risk becoming an accomplice in the murder of innocent people.

Indeed, Dershowitz goes on to argue that in certain instances interrogational torture should be legally sanctioned. After all, torture will doubtlessly be applied by concerned interrogators when faced with a ‘ticking bomb’ situation. Therefore, the least worst option would surely be to drop the “hypocritical pretence” of torture’s illegality and legalise it as needs dictate.

However, such linguistic mind games hardly provide a solid framework for deciding whether or not to introduce a legally sanctioned policy of torture. After all, as Professor of History Alfred McCoy has pointed out, the likelihood of catching a ‘terrorist’ we know has precise information regarding a bomb that will shortly explode at an unknown location and time, is so improbable that it would be a highly impractical foundation upon which to base a country’s law, diplomacy and national security.

Variants of Dershowitz’s position can be seen in the arguments of other commentators such as Richard Posner, Jean Bethke Elshtain and Henry Shue, who though in favour of the practice of torture in certain instances, do not believe it should be legalised.

Another important figure in this debate is Michael Ignatieff, the ex-head of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights and current leader of the Liberal opposition in Canada. In The Lesser Evil, Ignatieff holds that while torture should never be upheld as a general practice, strong arguments might be made in favour of the judicious application of coercive interrogation techniques in extraordinary circumstances, in order to protect western democracy from the greater evil without. For Ignatieff, the trick would lie in “identifying the justifying exceptions and defining what forms of duress stop short of absolute degradation of an interrogation subject”.

Although more restrained than Dershowitz, Ignatieff’s writings are none the less pernicious. Such moral ambiguity towards torture - or coercive interrogations - can help only to pave the way for its re-entry into mainstream practice.

Torture should be unequivocally and absolutely condemned in order that it is recognised by everyone, and most particularly those in positions where it might be seen as just another weapon in their arsenal against the enemy, as unacceptable. Indecision as to its permissibility in exceptional circumstances only serves to let the evil genie of torture out of its bottle.

As Ian Buruma has argued, it was the “morally degraded climate” generated by the Bush administration and its phalanx of lawyers that created an environment conducive for the practice of torture that took place in Abu Ghraib. It was such a “morally degraded climate” that led to individuals like Lynndie England abusing Iraqi prisoners and not any specific inherent character defect in the torturers themselves.

Living as we do at a historical moment where the epithet of evil has been widely and randomly applied as a rhetorical device to demonise and, by extension, dehumanise the enemy of choice, thus justifying the application of ever more repressive means against them, the threat to our moral inhibitions preventing the practice of torture has become ever more serious.

While the Bush administration may have ridden off into the sunset, the torture debate is far from resolved. Neither would its practice appear to be over. Despite the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate CIA prisoner abuse cases by Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder, the policy of rendition, whereby terrorist suspects are kidnapped and removed to more ‘torture friendly’ jurisdictions, continues to flourish.

Perhaps the ethical paucity of the current ‘lesser evil’ arguments advocating the reinstatement of torture, in one form or another, was best captured by the psychologist Erich Fromm who wrote almost 50 years ago that “[T]he principle of ‘the lesser evil’ is the principle of despair” and as such certainly not the right way for any society, particularly those that purport to be democratic, to defend themselves.

*The North-South Divide is a socio-economic and political division that exists between the wealthy developed countries, known collectively as "the North", and poorer developing countries, or "the South."

This is an edited version of an article originally published on The Irish Left Review website