defence of torture ?
May 12, 2004
LONDON - Who
in extremis could put his hand on his heart and say he
would not sanction torture if he knew the detainee
possessed information that could save thousand of lives?
This has been the central conundrum of the long debate on
the morality of torture.
In 1979, nearly two decades after
the revelations of torture during the war of Algerian
independence against colonial France, the commanding
general of the French forces during the Battle of
Algiers, Jacques Massu, published his memoirs defending
its policy. The man who in his family life tried to make
amends by adopting two Algerian orphans made the argument
that torturers may be responsible servants of the state
in times of extreme crisis.
Three years ago another top French
general, Paul Aussaresses, went public with his memoirs.
"The first time I tortured someone", he wrote, "it was
useless: the fellow died without saying a thing. I had no
regrets over his death. If I had any regrets it was
because he did not talk." But Massu, then in his
nineties, commented that he had become convinced that
torture is "not indispensable in time of war, we should
have found another way- but how?"
That is indeed the question and
society at large prefers to skirt around it. We have
labeled it a sin, but in extraordinary situations we
tolerate it. When in 1998 the Chilean former head of
state General Augusto Pinochet was detained in London and
accused of torture his lawyer argued quite correctly,
"there is torture everywhere, including in Britain and
How else to explain the eerie
silence that greeted the detailed revelations made in the
Washington Post sixteen months ago? With no shortage of
testimonials, the reports revealed that U.S. intelligence
agents had been torturing terrorist suspects in Bagram
air base outside Kabul and in Diego Garcia, a U.S. base
beyond the reach of American courts. Other suspects were
handed over to the intelligence services of Jordon, Egypt
and Morocco which did the job U.S. officials were perhaps
nervous about doing.
It appeared to the reporters that
wrote the story that a number of officials directly
involved wanted the subject aired. Aware of the moral and
legal ambiguities involved they wanted to know what
public opinion considered were the limits. They got only
an indirect answer. Most of the rest of the media gave
the story only cursory attention, Congress ignored it and
the Administration brushed it off.
Timing, of course, is everything.
When the U.S. was doing well in Afghanistan and hopes
were high it would repeat its success in Iraq very few
wanted to quibble about such things. But with the U.S. on
the psychological run, if not yet on a military one,
together with the fact that the evidence is now
photographic, the urge to jump on the moral high horse is
irresistible. But all this does is to point up the
ambiguities of human nature even more starkly.
And these particular ambiguities go
back a long time. Rome tortured the early Christians and
the Church, repelled by what had happened, for a thousand
years after used its influence to ensure that torture was
abolished in Europe. But then under pressure at the time
of the Inquisition it brought it back. Then in the
seventeenth century torture started to die out again. In
1640 it was abolished in England- except for "witches".
In France and Italy Voltaire and Beccaria wrote
passionately against it and after the revolution of 1789
it was made a capital offence.
Torture returned with vengeance
during the twentieth century- in Stalin's Soviet Union,
in Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain-
and always, if not continuously, in British-ruled
In 1972 a young Amnesty
International opened a campaign for a UN Anti-Torture
Convention. In 1981 it won the support of Sweden, the
first country to take up the cause. In 1984 the UN
finally approved a legally binding treaty against
torture. Quite soon after the treaty was ratified by most
members of the UN, including by the U.S. of Ronald Reagan
and the Britain of Margaret Thatcher. Once again the tide
had appeared to turn against torture. In 1999, in the
House of Lords, for the first time anywhere a high court
decided that sovereign immunity must not become sovereign
impunity and that under the Convention Pinochet
could be prosecuted.
Yet still, says Amnesty, torture
continues to be practiced by most countries.
Nevertheless, the evidence is that rarely does torture
successfully elicit the truth- at best only part of it.
More often it is used as a tool of oppression, to
intimidate and humiliate. It certainly corrupts the souls
of the torturers, as many have later testified. And
probably it deeply corrupts the countries who tolerate
it. What cannot be doubted it compromises their
reputation, undermines their credibility and weakens
their ability to win the changes they want. For America
and Britain this time round the use of torture clearly
seems to have irredeemably lost them the battle for the
hearts and minds of the Muslim world.
I can be reached by phone +44
7785 351172 and e-mail: JonatPower@aol.com
Copyright © 2004 By
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