Moral consistency, torture and the Left

I read a very interesting book on the weekend, called “What’s Left?” by Nick Cohen. And then on Monday night I saw a documentary on Four Corners about torture, including the use of torture at Guantanamo Bay. This post is going to be a pastiche of my impressions of experiencing both of these things in a short amount of time. I was commenting on various threads, but found I was repeating myself, and wanted to go into things in more detail than I could manage in a comment.
As I have outlined, I tend to follow my own path, and I do not follow left wing or right wing orthodoxy blindly. It sounds like Cohen’s book arose out of the same process. I laughed with recognition when I read the following:

I still remember the sense of dislocation I felt at 13 when my English teacher told me he voted Conservative. As his announcement coincided with the shock of puberty, I was unlikely to forget it. I must have understood at some level that real Conservatives lived in Britain – there was a Conservative government at the time, so logic dictated that there had to be Conservative voters. But it was incredible to learn that my teacher was one of them when he gave every appearance of being a thoughtful and kind man. To be good you had to be on the Left.

When I was young, I briefly dated a guy who was much more right-wing than I, in a libertarian sort of way. He kept questioning why I believed as I did. “I think unions are good,” I would say naively and trustingly, and he’d say, “Why?” and then come out with all these reasons why unions could be negative. Then I’d have to try and justify my beliefs to him. I don’t think I’d ever thought about it before. I’d just presumed that my beliefs were the beliefs that all good and fair people had. Although I found it very confronting at the time to have my beliefs questioned, I am glad that I went through that process. It made me see that I hadn’t thought things through properly.

Cohen’s book essentially argues that the focus of left wing liberals should be the fight against totalitarianism, torture, sexism, homophobia and racism, but he feels that this has been forgotten by some on the left in recent years.

He notes that up until 1990, there was widespread left-wing support in Britain for the Kurds and Iraqis who were trying to fight the regime of Saddam Hussein. However, once Iraq became the enemy of America, the Kurds and the Iraqis found that the support dried up, and many left-wing groups concentrated on protesting about the American intervention in Iraq instead. In so doing, he argues that they sidelined the torture, intimidation, murder and genocide of the Iraqi people at the hands of Hussein.

This leads me on to a discussion of the Four Corners documentary about torture. The ABC website has the following description of its content:

Deliberately inflicting pain and humiliation on human beings is no longer something only Third World dictators do. The First World is starting to get its hands dirty.

In the war on terror, might it be justified?

Torture remains illegal worldwide. However the US has narrowly defined torture to allow a suite of coercive interrogation techniques, while giving immunity to interrogators and shutting redress for detainees. And with apparent acquiescence of other western powers, it has spirited terror suspects to third countries where they have been repeatedly tortured and questioned.

Thus far, the documentary looked a little at torture in general, but focused on the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay by the US. On a few of the blogs I read, there has been a bit of a debate about whether this shows an anti-American bias.

Cohen explores this very phenomenon. He says:

God and the devil dwell together in the detail of great crimes. The more you know about monstrosities the more likely you are to make a commitment to fight them. For it is one thing to hear the screaming paranoia in the speeches of a dictator and realize that life in his country must be grim, quite another to know the names of the camps and of the torturers and the details of what they do to the camps’ captives.

He continues:

‘For every nugget of truth some wretch lies dead on the scrapheap,’ said H. L. Mencken. In his extravagant way, he had it right. Getting uncomfortable facts on to the record is the toughest struggle for journalists in democracies…

Consider how much tougher it is to get to the truth in a dictatorship where the penalty for saying a word out of turn is death. Asymmetries in access to information have the paradoxical effect of making it easier to expose the abuses of power in open societies than dictatorships. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, came up with ‘Moynihan’s Law’ to encapsulate the distorted vision that follows. It holds that the number of complaints about a nation’s violation of human rights is in inverse proportion to its actual violation of them. To put it another way, you can find out what is happening in America’s prison cells in Guantanamo Bay if you work very hard, but not in Kim Il-Sung’s prison cells in Pyongyang.

So the documentary concentrated on the US because, however flawed its practices may be, it is still a liberal democracy and there has to be some kind of scrutiny of its behaviour. Lawyers have to pass opinions on whether its practices are legal, the press has to be allowed at least some access to the detention facility, there have to be agreed detainee interview protocols and the like. Furthermore, people are free to comment adversely against the US processes without being killed. I have no time for Bush Jr, but on the positive side, he hasn’t sent his cousin to gas villages of people or ordered anyone’s tongue nailed to a post for speaking to the media. Okay, that’s not much of a positive, but it’s something.

However, what of al Qaeda or other jihadist movements, for example? Well, Four Corners would not be able to talk to Al Qaeda lawyers. There would be none. Nor could they talk to Al Qaeda interrogators or film captured Al Qaeda prisoners. Any journalists who tried to infiltrate it for information might be killed or kidnapped. Such organisations do not care whether torture is illegal. They do not care about UN conventions.

Hence the focus on the US. You can get information out of the government, and some good interviews and pictures. Furthermore, the US professes to respect human rights and to be “the” premier liberal democracy in the world, so its position on torture is, in my opinion, hypocritical. Everyone loves to point out hypocrisy. But Cohen’s book reminds us that by focusing on this issue, we on the liberal left may also become hypocritical.

Personally, I think that any torture should be condemned. It doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator is the US government, a totalitarian regime or a terrorist group. It is important to scrutinise the US, because it upholds ideals and should be made to keep to them. I don’t want to apologise for the US. And at least with public pressure such practices can be stamped out, and Bush can be voted out. So it is important to keep up the pressure.


We have to remember that there are authoritarian regimes where the perpetrators can’t be voted out and we can’t easily see what kind of torture is going on. What to do then? Do we ignore the question and focus on the wrongs of our own leaders, demonising them? Or do we face up to the issue and try to support people who want to find a way of deposing authoritarian rulers who torture their citizens? I prefer the latter option. It’s the hard option, not the easy option, but who said life was easy?

The next question, then, is: what is torture? Article 1 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment states:

…”[T]orture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

I think that this definition provides a good starting point. Clearly hanging people from beams by the arms, beating them, putting pins into them etc to obtain confessions is torture. Clearly, also, although it is undoubtedly unpleasant, incarcerating someone for committing a crime is not torture. It is a lawful sanction which society agrees is appropriate for the protection of other members of society, for the punishment and rehabilitation of the perpetrator and in order that the victim or the victim’s family feels that there has been just retribution.

However, to my mind, there is no doubt that sensory deprivation, waterboarding, locking people in coffin-shaped boxes, making people stand hooded with arms outstretched for hours and the like is torture. Just because there are no marks on the person’s body doesn’t mean it isn’t torture. It sends a person mad, and creates great mental suffering. Personally, I’d almost prefer needles to my flesh than being put in a coffin-shaped box and left there. Hopefully I will never be confronted with that choice.

What about shouting loudly? Or putting underpants on a person’s head? Or telling a person they are a pig when the interrogator knows that the person hates pigs? I think this kind of conduct is totally inappropriate, but I would not go so far as to say it was torture. There is a fine dividing line – for example, if someone threatened to harm a family member of a detainee, that is torture. Or if someone has a terrible fear of spiders, and the interrogators cover him in spiders? That is also torture. (Ugh. I’m having a moment of attercoppaphobia.)

There is an unpleasant feeling of vengeance about the use of torture against Guantanamo detainees. Sure, most of them are probably horrible people who would have shed no tears if we were all blown up by terrorist bombs. But the important thing is to distinguish ourselves from these people by our humanity, not to stoop to their level. Many of them have been incarcerated for years, and could hardly produce any up-to-date information anyway.

Further, as one of the CIA operatives was explaining, torture is notoriously unreliable. On a pragmatic level, one may as well administer truth telling drugs. According to that font of knowledge, Wikipedia, they aren’t very reliable either, but they’re just as likely to produce results as torture. If there is a desperate emergency and peoples’ lives hang in the balance, I think that this would be a better course of action.

Portions of the works that are quoted and/or reproduced above are “fair dealing for the purpose of criticism or review” (Section 41 of the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth)).

The Leunig cartoon is reproduced to illustrate the kind of left-winger I think Cohen is talking about. I’m not saying all left-wingers are like that. I’m not!


Filed under book review, George W Bush, good and evil, human rights, Iraq, Leunig, morality, politics, Saddam Hussein, terrorism, torture, USA, war

37 responses to “Moral consistency, torture and the Left

  1. fairlane

    I think torture is such a Catch-22 or maybe a Catch-23.

    On one hand it lowers us to the level of those we abhor, and it goes against everything the U.S. is supposed to represent. (Of course so does our President, but that’s an entirely different problem).

    But what if the terrorist has some vital information? What if one of those “Doomsday Scenarios” the Bush administration uses to justify torture actually arises? What if a terrorist knew about a nuclear device that was about to be used?

    However, all the data I’ve read says one thing, “Torture is completely ineffective as a means for extracting information.” People will say anything when they are being tortured, even if they are lying. They just want the torture to stop and will say whatever they think their captors want to hear.

    Also, experts say these “Doomsday Scenarios” are very unlikely to occur. Terrorists work in cells operating independently from one another and rarely does one person, even the leader, know everything. The only way we could know “what they know” is to torture them, which means we’d essentially have to torture everyone we capture. And of course this creates another paradox because we know torture is ineffective and the information is unreliable.

    Lastly, many of the moral dilemmas we now face are self-inflicted. We’re not fighting a war against “Terror”, we’re refereeing a civil war that we started by occupying Iraq.

  2. Aside from all moral questions, there is plenty of evidence that people who are tortured will say whatever is necessary to stop being tortured, whether it’s true, false, or just nonsense. So even from a practical point of view it is not a viable tool for information gathering – only for intimidation and control through terror (as it is being used in Iraq by the insurgents).

    The quotes and your comments about why we focus on the US so much are interesting. I have always thought it is obvious – “we” (the West, the Anglosphere, liberal democracies, whichever permutation you prefer) are responsible for our own actions. We are not responsible for China’s actions, or the insurgency’s actions in Iraq. But we vote for, and hold accountable, our own governments. Therefore, Guantanamo Bay should provoke much more outcry in the West than, say, human rights abuses under Hussein in the old Iraq.

  3. Fairlane and Paul,

    What should we do about situations where a particular group of people are suffering under the regime of a tyrannical despot? The Iraqis had no opportunity to vote for and hold Saddam accountable for his actions. We are lucky to have that option with our government.

    As you say, Paul, it’s natural that Guantanamo abuses provoke more response than torture under Hussein. We have never had to live with that kind of regime, and I cannot even imagine what it was like. Whereas Guantanamo feels like something that is more immediate and controllable.

    But the question is – should the West just sit back and let totalitarian governments treat their constituents appallingly? Or should we support those who rebel against them? If so, how do we support them? Through military action? Or in other ways? The UN has shown itself to be ineffective in preventing genocide – it tends to shut the gate after the horse has bolted. This is one of the reasons why I found human rights law depressing – it tends to be ex post facto rather than stopping things from happening in the first place. 😦

    Obviously the war in Iraq has not turned out in a way which has fixed the problem for the Iraqi people. It has unseated a totalitarian leader, but unleashed a civil war for which the US and its allies were unprepared. Like Yugoslavia, it was a situation where a totalitarian leader kept the lid on ethnic/religious tensions by ruling with a rod of iron, and once he was removed, it was all on for young and old.

    I actually think Bush Snr didn’t do the job properly in the first Gulf War. I believe that some Iraqis tried to overthrow Saddam after that war, but got no support and were massacred.


  4. fairlane

    I think getting involved in another country’s affairs is a bad idea.

    The U.S. supported the Contras in Nicaragua who were involved in drug trafficking, and many of their drugs ended up on American soil. We supported the Shah of Iran who was a ruthless dictator. We supported Pinochet. We supported Manuel Noriega (a known drug trafficker). The CIA has been implicated in the assassination or attempted assassination of several leaders and officials worldwide. We even tried to assassinate Castro.

    These things rarely work out, and I think ultimately it has little to do with “freedom” considering we have supported numerous despots as long as economically they’re on our page. In fact, we armed, financed, and supported Saddam, and Bin Laden in the 1980’s.

    The other moral conundrum is how do you rid the world of “oppressive governments” without becoming oppressive yourself? There is no Utopia because Utopia always leads to totalitarianism.

    The West, specifically the U.S., helped create this mess in the Middle East with our constant intrusion and meddling. Even the Shah of Iran condemned the U.S.’s economic policies toward the Middle East.

    Let’s be honest, I’m not saying this war is only about oil, but if Iraq, and the Middle East in general, didn’t have oil the West would have about as much interest in that region as we do Africa.

  5. Fairlane,

    I think that you are right. No one is doing anything about Zimbabwe, Dafur or places like that in Africa. Realistically speaking, Iraq wasn’t invaded because Saddam was a totalitarian psycho. If that was the case, there’d be hundreds of countries the US would have to invade.

    And as I’ve said in another post, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. If someone is trying to overthrow an established government, even if it is a totalitarian government, does that make them a terrorist? And if we support them, does that make us terrorists?

    All interesting questions. It’s not cut and dried.

    I still think I’d find it very difficult to look someone in the eye who had been tortured under an unfair regime and say, “Sorry, we can’t help you”.


  6. I must say I disagree somewhat with fairlane.

    To me the tragedy of Iraq is that it was a (possibly unique) opportunity for the liberal democracies of the world to do something which is inherently unpalatable to them – democratise the world through the use of threatened or applied force. I am certainly what you would call ‘left wing’ or progressive/liberal (I border on libertarian in some respects) and I would have been quite supportive of the war IF I believed it had anything to do with freedom and democracy and was part of a broader, multilateral push to rid the world of horrible regimes.

    But it wasn’t. Look at Zimbabwe or the Sudan, for example. Two parts of the world where even 20,000 well-used troops could turn a humanitarian disaster of the worst possible kind into something better. But what are we doing? Nothing whatsoever.

    I believe that liberal democracies do have an obligation to free the rest of the the peoples of the world. However our governments behave in a manner which is totally inconsistent with this. Where it suits us, or where they are powerful, we trade with terrible regimes (China, Russia). Where it would involve substantial risk and no tangible reward other than liberation, we ignore the situation (Zimbabwe, Sudan, swathes of Asia). Where it’s risky and dangerous we just pretend things are fine (Pakistan).

    The UN process is flawed. The US and its allies should come back to the table with a new proposal for a genuine multilateral body that operates like a UN minus the dicatators and which has the power to deploy troops who can use actual force, not just ‘keep the peace’ (remember the Yugoslav farce?).

    Aargh, I could go on all day. It makes me so angry that half a million people have been murdered, often in brutal and terrible ways, in Sudan and we could stop it instantly with minimal force – yet we do nothing.

  7. Paul, I think I agree more with your point of view. But I see the points Fairlane is making.

    The Sudan situation is terrible.


  8. However, once Iraq became the enemy of America, the Kurds and the Iraqis found that the support dried up, and many left-wing groups concentrated on protesting about the American intervention in Iraq instead. In so doing, he argues that they sidelined the torture, intimidation, murder and genocide of the Iraqi people at the hands of Hussein.

    I believe this to be a bifurcation. I don’t think there is any reason why it is impossible for anyone (left or otherwise) to oppose unilateralism (and poor strategy) at the same time as supporting the Kurds. The only things “the left” have lost are the appearance of not opposing Saddam, concrete goals and political momentum on the topic.

    I think Cohen is also making a bit of a false assumption about the Kurds and their support from “the right”. The right dropped the Kurds like a hot potato back during Gulf War I and you don’t hear a peep out of the Right when it comes to Kurd territory annexed by Turkey.

    I think “the left” could capitalise (no pun intended) on this by re-affirming it’s support for the Kurds, and the establishment of a new Kurdistan (along with the reversal of the annexation of northern Cyprus amongst other goals). This would all have to be done through the multilateral aegis of a reformed UN (power of veto being an example of an area for reform).

    “The left” isn’t doing this of course.

  9. PS. Other goals involve human rights issues that the UN has been weak with; Sudan and other African coflicts, the Balkans etc.

  10. PS. “Other goals” include human rights issues that the UN has been weak with; Sudan and other African coflicts, the Balkans etc.

  11. Ahhh bum…. sorry about the double-post… didn’t think the first one got through. 😦

  12. fairlane

    The problem is this, even if we stop mass murder here, it pops up there, and then there, and on and on. There is no way to create paradise. The Russians tried, the Chinese tried, and so have many other countries. It always results in Tyranny. The very idea of Utopia, is Tyranny.

    The West has a very arrogant view of the world, as if everything would be fine if they’d just live as we do. But imagine if instead of one United States of America there were 10-15 of them. We’d last about another month.

    I’m not saying I don’t want it to be different or wish it was different. But I just don’t see how we stop it. We can’t even stop criminals from killing within our own countries. Evil, at best, can be contained, but the world will never rid itself of it.

  13. GavinM

    In recent times the UN has been pretty much impotent in dealing with peace-keeping issues due to, I believe, the many nations with varying vested interests that vote on any UN actions, during my time serving in the French military (Foreign Legion), I spent a lot of time in Africa and elsewhere on behalf of both France and the U.N, — Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, The Congo, Chad, Somalia and Rwanda twice, as well as Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Gulf War 1, so I got to see a fair bit of how the UN operates it’s interventions.

    In almost every UN peacekeeping mission I was involved with, the troops were hamstrung by debilitating “rules of engagement”, imposed by the U.N., the worst of which were applied in Rwanda, Somalia, Sarajevo and Bosnia — these rules effectively not only prevented the peace-keeping troops from protecting innocent civilians, but also made it difficult to defend ourselves. For example in Rwanda and Somalia we weren’t allowed to fire on opponents unless they fired first and in Bosnia and Sarajevo, we were faced with the extremely baffling rule that when we were in a combat situation, we were only allowed to respond with a force equal to or lesser than that of our opponents — (I’d love to meet the genius who came up with that one..!).

    Incidentally Sudan is an oil-rich country, and therefore, if oil was a real incentive for the West’s intervention in other nations, I would expect that they would not hesitate to become involved there.

    As to the issue of torture, this is a very difficult area…Moral issues aside, sometimes it is a quick and effective means of getting information…and here I will confess that I and my comrades did use torture to extract information from captured combattants in some instances, I won’t make any excuses for doing so, however, I will say that when you see children as young as 2 and 3 years old walking around with their eyes gouged out, ears and/or lips and noses cut off, hands and/or feet cut off, it does tend to harden your attitude towards those who have perpetrated those atrocities and makes you determined to eliminate them, whatever it takes.

    I will also add that the longer it takes to extract information through torture, the less likely it is that that information will be reliable….The true “value” of torture is it’s shock effect and once that shock wears off, so the effectiveness of the method deteriorates, and that’s when you will find the subject being tortured just saying anything to make it stop.

  14. Gavin,

    Thank you for sharing that experience. It’s all very well for me to sit here in my comfortable computer chair and theorise, but I’ve never actually had to deal with the kind of situations which you would have faced in Bosnia and Africa.

    If I had a person in my custody whom I suspected had gouged out the eyes of a toddler, or raped young women, or killed innocent civilians, would I torture them to find out information which, if I acted on it quickly, could stop that person and their comrades from doing it again? I suspect I couldn’t, but to be honest, I don’t know. I’m the kind of person who can’t hurt a fly (seriously, I can’t) but I’ve never been in that situation.

    Perhaps, too, it’s different in the heat of battle? During conflict, there may be an immediate and pressing need to get information quickly to save the lives of innocent civilians. By contrast, I think there is absolutely no place for torture in obtaining information for judicial processes. That is torture in “cold blood”, as it were.

    It must have been extraordinarily frustrating to be a solider in situations where you were not allowed to fight back unless attacked. I noticed the other day that some survivors from the Srebrenica massacre are suing the UN and the Dutch soldiers who were supposedly maintaining a “safe haven”.

    I wish there were a way in which the international community could deal with these matters better.


  15. GavinM

    Hello LE

    Yes, I do agree with you that torture should never be used in judicial processes, and would like to stress that we used it only as a last resort in the field, when, due to the nature of the enemy…(Which was usually bands of armed thugs numbering anything from 50 – 500 strong roaming a large area and massacring unarmed people whenever they found them), meant that we had to find and eliminate them as quickly as possible. Having said that, I would like to say although I’m certainly not proud of the methods we used, and certainly didn’t enjoy it, given the situation we were in I really believe we had no option and would do the same again.

    Certainly my experiences in Africa, starting with a clandestine involvement in Sierra Leone in the latter part of 1981 when I was 18, were a real eye-opener for a youngster fresh out of the sheltered world of a private school here in Melbourne’s outer suburbs.

    Interesting situation regarding the survivors suing the UN and the Dutch soldiers…It’s really unfortuneate for those troops because they found themselves in a hopeless, no-win situation due to a combination of the confused circumstances in the early part of the Srebenica debacle and also because of the rules of engagement imposed on them by the U.N….If you want my personal opinion, I’d say the survivors have every right to go after the U.N. but blaming the Dutch soldiers is not really fair. I think Kofi Annan really has a lot to answer for regarding the performance of the UN under his leadership.

    Whilst in Bosnia I had the misfortune of seeing the prison camps at Logor Trnopolje, Omarska and Kereterm and their inmates, which had been set up by the Serbs to hold Bosnian Muslims. It’s interesting that since the war there have been a number of attempts by different people to deny that these were concentration camps at all, and I’m not really qualified to say either way, but one thing I can say is that the conditions inside them and the state of the inmates that they held, reminded me very much of those old Nazi file films from Auschwitz, with the emaciated, starving prisoners…I think the survivors of those camps possibly have a case against the UN as well.

    As to not being able to shoot first, you’re right it was extremely frustrating, unfortuneately it was also extremely dangerous…When someone opens up at you with an AK-47 you often don’t get a chance to shoot back — because you’re dead — In Somalia I had 2 very good friends killed, and was wounded myself in Sarajevo, because of this ruling.

  16. A good analysis.

    There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy in the current round of torture condemnations in the media. It focuses exclusively on allegations that the Bush Administration has resorted to torture (by sending prisoners to overseas prisons for ‘softening up’) while ignoring the fact that the Clinton Administration probably did just the same thing.

    They also seem to be extending their definitions of torture: sleep deprivation, for instance, seems to be viewed now as a form of torture. No clear distinction is made between interrogation techniques and torture.

    So to a certain extent, I think the current concern about torture reflects the partisan politics of left-wingers who oppose the Bush Administration. When another Democrat Administration is in power, I expect a great deal of the media focus on this subject to fade away.

    So while it’s good that the subject is getting a hearing, I’d say a lot of the media attention at the moment may be counterproductive.

  17. The problem is this, even if we stop mass murder here, it pops up there, and then there, and on and on. There is no way to create paradise. The Russians tried, the Chinese tried, and so have many other countries. It always results in Tyranny. The very idea of Utopia, is Tyranny.

    The West has a very arrogant view of the world, as if everything would be fine if they’d just live as we do. But imagine if instead of one United States of America there were 10-15 of them. We’d last about another month.

    This kind of relativism is very dangerous. You may never eliminate mass murder, but you can consistently answer it with force and thereby minimise it. I do not believe it is valid to say that any attempt to resolve humanitarian disasters is doomed by principles of politics.

    The trick is to do it like the police (through multilateralism), not like a bunch of crazed vigilantes (the current approach).

    And as for doing everything the way we do it – no, that would not solve the world’s problems. But there is a difference between “everyone must have this or that cultural attitude” and “everyone must abstain from torture and murder and must give each individual the right to vote in democratic elections.” To me the latter are not ‘western’, thay are inalienable rights of all humans.

  18. “To me the latter are not ‘western’, they are inalienable rights of all humans.”

    Just so.

    The utilitarian argument for torture – that the suffering of one is worth it for the salvation of many – is often used to justify the chilling behaviours that we observed on Four Corners. But even the utilitarian argument falls down. If there were children who had information, for example, children being put blindfolded on boxes with fake electrodes attached to their arms, and their heads hooded, there simply wouldn’t be the justification that is given. There would be no argument, no debate, at least, not in mainstream discussion.

    So what’s the difference? It’s the value we place on the humanity of the subject of the “utilitarianism”. It’s not actually about utilitarianism, but about dehumanisation. We find it easier to argue about the utilitarian value of torture as a society, to give space to the debate, because we have already dehumanised the victims of torture. Mamdouh Habib has a sufficiently foreign name to dehumanise his treatment. David Hicks was caricatured to such an extent, and then committed the sin of becoming “one of them” so that his treatment too (though we perhaps will never know if he was truly tortured) became less compelling to us.

    The measure of what is torture, and what is not torture, ought to at least give a nod to what we would be prepared to have sanctioned against our own flesh and blood in similar situations. If we wouldn’t sanction it for members of our own community, for people we know and love, as a mode of justice, then what we are espousing is not utilitarianism or pragmatism at all.

  19. They also seem to be extending their definitions of torture: sleep deprivation, for instance, seems to be viewed now as a form of torture. No clear distinction is made between interrogation techniques and torture.

    Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Believe it or not you can actually die from lack of sleep; in addition, the methods of keeping people awake generally involve severe physical discomfort – very loud noises or very bright light, or both. In any event, whatever your definition of that particular word, any confession or other evidence obtained by coercion of any kind, whether ‘torture’ or not, is inadmissible in a real criminal court. It is inherently unsafe to convict people on evidence which has been obtained through violence, pain, severe discomfort or the threat thereof.

    Please provide evidence about torture under the Clinton administration. There is ample evidence about what has taken place under Bush II.

    GavinM, thanks for a fascinating account. The restrictions on UN forces tend to be a consequence of the bureaucratic processes which must take place under the current system to get a politically acceptable compromise for deployment. It seems clear that the definition of “peacekeeping” must now be extended and modified to invoke “active peacekeeping”, whereby UN troops are a fighting force with the mission of identifying and disarming or otherwise suppressing other militias by whatever means they deem necessary.

    Unfortunately fear of ‘world government’ seems to stop many people (particularly from the right) who would probably otherwise support this from even considering it.

    It is interesting that the US continues to oppose the development of a standing EU army. Such a force would be an excellent counterbalance/partner to the US military, and would create greater flexibility in terms of how the international community deals with peacekeeping.

  20. fairlane

    “While ignoring the fact that the Clinton Administration probably did just the same thing.”

    The “fact” he “probably” did it? Contradictory. And Clinton isn’t President. Hasn’t been for almost 7 years.

    As for the “relativism” comment. No, it’s called realism.

    “Everyone must abstain from torture and murder and must give each individual the right to vote in democratic elections.”

    You use the word “Must” twice. That is a command. How can you command others countries to adhere to rules that we don’t follow ourselves? This was a voluntary war. Iraq did nothing, had nothing etc. We despise their use of torture, yet we torture. We despise them killing, yet we kill. And let’s make something crystal clear.

    When Saddam was gassing the Iranians and his own people, he was on the West’s payroll.

    The only way you can maintain “World Order, World Peace” is to impose a “MUST” on others, which is Tyranny. You can label me all day long, but I’m still right.

  21. Under the control of Richard Clarke, the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) had established a specal bin Laden unit in 1996, and by 1998 had over one hundred case officers and intelligence analysts.

    ” With the help of the CTC, forty terrorists from the former Yugoslavia were captured and turned over to Arab governments, usually Egypt. Egyptian security is believed to have tortured, tried, and executed many of them. In this way, al Qaeda cells were quickly smashed in Albania, Bosnia, and elsewhere.”

    — Losing Bin Laden, by Richard Miniter

  22. A couple of points:

    1. I found this article on torture in Slate, which is an unpleasant read, but informative.

    2. I think sleep deprivation could be torture, depending on the circumstances. As someone who suffers from bouts of insomnia, has had to work jobs with long hours, and has a young child, I know that lack of sleep can send you a little bit crazy sometimes. Sleep deprivation has been proven to change the way in which the brain functions

    3. In relation to Fairlane’s point about tyranny, it’s not good if you force everyone to behave like carbon copies, taking no account of different culture or traditions.

    To an extent, we do require everyone who lives in Australia or the US to keep to certain basic laws. Is this tyranny? Or just something that is needed to prevent us from breaking down into anarchy? I think that the international community is no different – just replace people with nations. No, we don’t want to force everyone to be exactly “like us”. But do we want to let anarchy rule if it leads to deaths, torture, starvation and the like? I think that there should be certain basic rules, with a bit of leeway in them for different cultures – but in anyone’s understanding, genocide, rape, the deliberate killing of innocents etc are Bad Things. Many religions and traditions have similar principles (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) even though they come from different areas of the world. I don’t care what your culture or tradition is. It’s just not acceptable to kill a specific group of people based on race, sexuality, politics. Nor is it acceptable for a government to sanction rape, torture and the like (as in Iraq). As I’ve said in a previous post, in this respect, I think I’m a “natural lawyer” – I believe that there are certain things which are illegal in all cultures. Perhaps, Fairlane, you are a “positivist lawyer” – you believe that as long as it is legally enacted according to the customs and laws of the country, a law is fine and we shouldn’t mess with it?

    Like all things, it’s a matter of degree – I wouldn’t want to meddle in another country’s affairs unless it was absolutely necessary. I have my positivist aspects, but a core of natural law at the centre…

  23. resistor

    A strange post. Nick Cohen supports torture and Guantanamo Bay – check his articles for the Guardian and New Statesman.

  24. Pingback: Club Troppo » Thursday's Missing Link on Friday (again...)

  25. Resistor, Nick Cohen might support torture and Guantanamo Bay, but I don’t. Nevertheless, I find the ideas expressed in his book interesting.

    Why not apply his analysis but in my own way? As I said, I follow my own path, not anyone else’s…

  26. Care to provide some links Resistor?

  27. resistor

    For those too lazy to Google,,1939959,00.html

  28. Resistor
    Having read the piece you link to I don’t think that it justifies your condemnation of Cohen as some one who” supports Torture and Guantanamo bay”
    The piece in question poses a couple of pertinent questions about the ethics of coercion as a tool of interrogation and considers the use of a fear of torture as a legal excuse to avoid deportation. What Cohen demonstrates is that this is not an easy question to answer and as has been demonstrated by the likes Gavin M it is very easy to be high and mighty when you are not on the frontline but when you are faced by the actual choice of balancing the idea of greater and lesser evils then on does not always have the luxury to pontificate as you would like.
    Oh and given that Nick Cohen is a professional writer with many thousands of words to his name it is entirely reasonable that I should ask you to provide specific examples to support your contention that he “supports torture and Guantanamo bay”.

  29. Good piece LE

    Haven’t had time to read all the comments but I would be very surprised if Nick Cohen supported torture.

    I think Cohen’s books and the use of torture etc. are culturally linked. One of Cohen’s themes is that the Left, confronted with the success of a social agenda and the failure of an economic one found themselves without any agenda and started to define themselves by opposition. Given that the Left is, almost by definition, anti-establishment it’s an easy trap for them to fall into. But obviously when elements of the Left start supporting reactionary theo-fascists out of some simple anti-American impulse it’s become Pythonesque. Time to ask that question…what have the Romans ever done for us?

    That said the Right don’t get off so easy. There’s been a lot of chest beating re. the wonderful, amazing, glorious thing that is Western Culture (tah dah!!!). But culture isn’t a series of patriotic slogans it’s a bunch of practises. The good things about Western Culture are celebrated: stuff like the rule of law, free speech, social freedom. Funny thing about the Right (elements of) is that in celebrating them they’re kinda ignoring the fact that Dubya et al via the Patriot Act, Gitmo etcetera are actually violating these same good things.

    As Alexei Sayle liked to say: It’s a funny ol’ world innit?

  30. I don’t think that Cohen was supporting torture in that Guardian article.

    He was exploring the moral conundrums with which governments are faced. There is a strange situation that a harmless guy can be summarily deported for driving an illegal minicab, but a suspected Islamist terrorist can’t be deported. The argument is that the suspected terrorist may face torture. But Cohen seems to be saying that it’s a balancing act – what is worse? – the prospect that someone may face torture or the prospect that they kill many innocent people? I think these are fair questions to ask. There are no easy answers.

    Adrien: Couldn’t have said it better myself. 😀

  31. resistor

    To quote Cohen, ‘This is why Lord Bingham, the senior law lord, said last year that he was ‘startled, even a little dismayed’ that ministers thought they could use evidence in British courts which may have been obtained by torture in the Middle East. Despite his open incredulity, torture will be all over the news in the coming weeks and, as in the Daschner affair, I suspect it is going to be hard to say automatically that what the authorities want to do is wrong.’

    This comes after Cohen promotes the discredited ‘smoking gun’ excuse for torture. If this isn’t supporting the use of torture, what is it?

    Secondly, Cohen explicitly supports the extradition of suspects on the say-so of the intelligence services without evidence or judicial review. He knows that they will end up in the process of extraordinary rendition and Guantanamo prison coditions.

    Cohen has come in for a lot of flak for his support of torture e.g.
    but he has refused to either retract or defend his position. The man is a liar, a smear merchant and a coward.

  32. As I said above, it’s not material to my post whether Cohen does or does not sanction torture, whether implicitly or explicitly. If he does, that’s his choice. I disagree with it, but no matter. It doesn’t mean I have to write off other arguments he makes on other topics.

    Personally, I don’t support torture in most circumstances, nor would I ever support it as a means of extracting confessions. That being said, I do recognise that difficult circumstances can arise where there’s no easy answer.

  33. resistor

    You don’t support torture in ‘most’ situations? Therefore you do support it in some situations as does Cohen. Could you enlighten us as to which situations and which torture techniques you would be in favour of. Then perhaps people like you, Hitchens, Cohen, et al could drop any pretense to be ‘liberals’ with any moral standing to criticise a left that is consistent in opposition to Imperialism, war and torture.

  34. Resistor
    You are beginning to show just how two dimensional your thinking is. This would be fine if we lived in a two dimensional world. Sadly I have to inform you that we do not.
    You sound like just the sort of bitter and twisted leftist who defines himself (or herself) by what they oppose rather than by what they propose. Through out her post LE has been making the point that this is not a simple question, which has a simple answer. And that is the same point that Cohen has been making .So rather than demands that LE define aspects of torture how about you tell us how we can achieve the correct balance.

  35. Resistor,

    I said that I don’t support torture in most situations because it depends how broadly or narrowly you define “torture”. It irritates people to high heaven that lawyers can’t make definitive statements, but we know that there are often exceptions to every rule. 😉

    Consider incarceration in prison. On a broad definition, this could be “torture”. Look at the way in which Paris Hilton has reacted to it. I think I’d also cry if I had to go to prison. I’d almost prefer 20 lashes to 10 months in prison away from my family.

    We take someone and lock them away from society. Human beings are social animals. To keep them from society is a harsh punishment. And to lock them in a cell, alone, sometimes for many years… Is this torture? Or is it lawful?

    I think this is a situation where something that could be considered “torture” is justified. Every society (whether left wing or right wing) imprisons people who are found to have committed crimes. And Article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture makes an exception for lawful imprisonment.

    What say you to that?


  36. FYI, an account of the impact of torture on perpetrators and victims by a former perpetrator from Guantanamo.

  37. Pingback: Torture and Martin Bryant « Iain Hall

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