Category Archives: terrorism

Fitna

The other day, I watched the film Fitna on YouTube, a film about Islam by Dutch right wing politician Geert Wilders.  I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I had read some interesting reviews by Skepticlawyer at Catallaxy, Pommygranate at Australian Libertarian Society Blog and Saint at Dogfight At Bankstown.

I must say that I felt considerable ambivalence about it. I’ve waited over a week to write on it.

On the one hand, I support freedom of speech. Furthermore, there is no denying the fact that there are extremist Muslims who in the world who advocate terrorism or jihad (as I’ve argued previously). I think this kind of behaviour is unacceptable from anyone of any religion, and should be condemned.

But on the other hand, I wonder what this film will really achieve other than deepening the divide between the West and Islam. Among other things, it extracts news, film and photographs of all the worst instances of Islamist extremism and terrorism, and juxtaposes them against sura from the Qu’ran. It has a scaremongering feel which I do not like at all – it makes broadbrush generalisations and depicts the worst of a particular group. As I have said in a previous post, I find scaremongering propaganda to be problematic, regardless of whether it is on the Left or the Right, or from the West or Islam. It makes people behave in an irrational manner.

As Pommygranate noted in a post at the Australian Libertarian Society Blog, there is a rather odd dichotomy in this film – Wilders preaches Western values of tolerance and free speech, but he is essentially calling for intolerance of a certain religion. Pommy says:

He [Wilders] is essentially a hypocrite as on the one hand he champions Holland’s proud history of tolerance and freedom, yet on the other, seeks to introduce discrimination back into the Constitution (by banning further immigration of Muslims), wishes to ban the Koran as a fascist book comparable to Mein Kampf, and wants a complete ban on the wearing of the headscarf. 

The ironic thing, as with the Danish cartoons, is the way in which various Islamic groups and countries are claiming that the film is offensive and inaccurate for saying their religion is intrinsically violent and intolerant, but radical Muslims are also making death threats against LiveLeaks for posting the video… Don’t those guys who make the death threats have any sense of irony whatsoever? Any violent retaliation against Wilders will prove his point rather nicely.

The film makes me think of a book by Chester Porter called The Gentle Art of Persuasion. He argues that using fear to get your point across is not an intelligent way to put an argument. I concur. The central message I got from the film was “Muslims are terrorists, intolerant people, anti-Semites, bashers of homosexuals, genital mutilators and oppressors of women’s freedom.” But I am still wondering: what was the point? How are people (Muslim, Dutch and others) meant to respond to that message? How does this film fix anything?

If this film’s central message is that Muslims need to rethink the violent and unpleasant aspects of their religion, which is one of the film’s claims, then I don’t think a vehicle such as this would be the way to achieve it. It would immediately make even a moderate Muslim defensive of his or her religion, rather than open to reasonable criticism.

I suspect there were two responses Wilders wanted – to provoke a backlash among Dutch people to Islam (or at least, some extreme practices of some Islamic groups), and to make a point that the response to films or writings which criticise Islam is often violence (although I note that the Dutch Muslim population seems to have sensibly decided that the best response is to be moderate).

I’ve noticed in blog comments threads that a common response to the film is that “Christianity is just as bad” (see for example the comment thread which has developed at Iain Hall’s post). Yes, one could do the same with Christianity and find some nutbag Bible bashers who wanted to stone homosexuals or whatever, and intersperse it with Biblical quotes (particularly chapters like Leviticus). But I think that misses the point of the film. As Skepticlawyer has indicated in her post at Catallaxy, I think one of the particular concerns Wilders is focussing on is the interaction between Muslim immigrants in Holland and the mainstream Dutch culture, which is tolerant of homosexuality, prostitution, drug-use etc. Thus, it’s obviously not relevant for him to make a film on the shortcomings of Christianity, because the Dutch Christian attitude is generally tolerant; or at least, most Dutch Christians turn a blind eye to those things in Dutch culture which they disagree with. If a whole slew of US Southern Baptists emigrated to Holland and started questioning Dutch values, it would obviously be relevant to question Christianity, but that’s not the particular conflict he has in mind.

And ultimately, so what if you can do the same with Christianity? It doesn’t make the conduct of Islamists who espouse the same views right. It cannot be denied that there are a proportion of radical Islamists who believe many or all of the things in this movie. A plague on all the houses of those who seek to convert by the sword, kill and persecute those of different religions or oppress and use religion to justify violence towards women and homosexuals.

What is the best thing to do about Islamist terrorism and intolerance? I’m just not sure that this movie is a constructive solution to the problem: it may just make things worse. Yes, it is important to be honest about the problems of Islamist extremism, but it is also important to find ways to solve those problems rather than to inflame them.

Postscript

Incidentally, I heartly agree with Skepticlawyer that many Muslim commentators, politicians and imams need to get over calling anyone who disagrees with Islam’s tenets “Zionist”. A Jordanian media coalition described Wilders as “extremist and Zionist deputy Geert Wilders” in a press release. Wilders is not Jewish, and I don’t know if he supports the establishment and/or expansion of the State of Israel or not. Even if he does, that wasn’t the point of the film anyway. As soon as I hear insane frothing at the mouth about Zionists such as this, I start to doubt the credibility and sanity of the source.

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Filed under blasphemy, christianity, freedom of speech, islam, judaism, politics, racism, society, terrorism, tolerance

“You have to die, so that I can live.”

Last night, I watched a rather depressing documentary on SBS called The Anatomy of Evil. It was about people who perpetrate genocide. I’ve been morbidly fascinated with this question for a while now, as I’ve explained in an earlier post. I’ve never quite been able to fathom how people could shoot/gas/blow up an innocent civilian.

This documentary consisted mainly of interviews with former members of the Einsatzgruppen and Serb paramilitaries, each of whom conducted ethnic cleansing of villages by lining up people and shooting them at point blank range. Some interviewees were unrepentant, and said they’d “do it again if it was necessary”. Some still regarded the people whom they had shot as sub-human. A few regretted their actions and felt less than human.

The director, Ove Nyholm, concludes that the trigger which compels ordinary people to behave like this is anxiety and fear of a threat. In such circumstances, people put aside normal feelings and become ruthless. This is a survival mechanism, and can actually be a positive thing. People can survive in terrible circumstances through sheer willpower. But in the scenario where a group of people who live alongside you are identified as the threat, there is a risk that you will become ruthless towards those people and cease to see them as human. Add to that a wartime context where violence and killing is condoned and people are forced to follow orders, and the results can be deadly. And there’s the notion of retaliating for past wrongs. One of the most unpleasant interviewees featured in the documentary cited the fact that his family had been driven from Kosovo by Albanians in the past, and that he felt satisfied and a sense of righteous revenge when killing villagers and burning down their houses. Another interviewee said that he became a member of the paramilitary group after his own parents had been brutally killed.

It occurred to me too that this analysis can also help explain other wars and ethnic and religious conflicts which do not involve genocide as such, but where innocent civilians are killed.

Take, for example, terrorist attacks. The way in which terrorists become galvanised to kill innocent people is by considering wrongs done to their own people, and desiring to take revenge. I recall that during the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, someone forwarded a Powerpoint slide of dead Lebanese civilians, including a young boy. The purpose was obviously to provoke outrage against Israel. If I was a radical Hezbollah supporter, I am sure that such pictures would be used to whip me into a state of righteous indignation and revenge. And I am sure that an Israeli defending the incursion into Lebanon would ask me to consider Israeli civilians injured or killed by Hezbollah rockets, or Hezbollah terrorist bombs. They might also point to the suffering of Jewish people in the past in Europe as a reason as to why Israeli territory should be staunchly defended. Personally, I consider the loss of life on both sides to be tragic. Neither side can be said to be blameless, but by the same token, the natural human propensity for revenge makes the outraged response of each side understandable. This is why I am so reluctant to “take sides” in discussions on the Middle East, although I am a firm believer that the State of Israel has a right to exist in its original boundaries.

Conflict is fuelled by the notion that the other group represents a threat to the way of life or security of the group. Sometimes, as in Israel, Northern Ireland or Cyprus there are settlers and occupying forces. Sometimes there are competing claims to the same piece of land, or the same holy site (as with some mosques which are targeted by Hindu militants in India). Sometimes the particular ethnic group wants to be separate from the rest of the country, as with Basques in Spain, Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere and Tamils in Sri Lanka, because they feel that their way of life and culture is not adequately represented by the government of the particular country of which they are a part. Sometimes, the victimised group is a minority who have been made a scapegoat for a nation’s ills (as with Jews and Gypsies in Nazi Germany, who were targeted because they were different).

When terrorist attacks are mounted, there are retaliatory attacks, often by armed forces. So the US felt justified in attacking Afghanistan because its innocent citizens had been killed by a terrorist plot which had been planned from Afghan territory. One can understand this. The perpetrators had been sheltered by the Taliban regime. But the problem with attacking terrorist or guerilla groups with military force is that they tend to blend back into the normal population, so when you attack them, there is a risk of killing and wounding innocent civilians, which further fuels the fires of righteous outrage.

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, I just know that we should be wary of those trying to whip up moral outrage, whatever side they are on. Take the Cronulla riots in Sydney. Those organising the rally whipped up moral outrage against young men of Middle Eastern background who had been harrassing beachgoers. Yes, it’s true, harrassing innocent people at the beach is a bad thing. As a result of the rally/riot, several people “of Middle Eastern appearance” were beaten and attacked. Bashing people who happen to look like they come from the Middle East is also a bad thing. Then young men in Lakemba whipped up moral outrage to fuel a retaliatory attack. Attacking the houses and cars of people in Maroubra is another bad thing. The thing is that it’s all bad, and it’s mostly innocent people on both sides who suffer.

Perhaps it’s just instinctive that the “ruthless” switch is tripped when we feel that our safety, territory or way of life is under threat. Perhaps we need to recognise that it’s all just part of the way we’re hardwired. Of course one is outraged by injustice suffered by one’s family, friends or compatriots. How much worse would it be if someone in your family or friendship group is killed by a particular group? I’m not sure how I would cope in those circumstances. As Nyholm said in the documentary, he had to acknowledge that he had doubt as to how he would behave. I don’t know either. I’ve never known how I would behave if I were in the Milgram experiment, although I hope that I’m ornery enough to disobey orders. I do hope that if my “ruthlessness” switch was tripped, I would be able to recover my reason and morality. As one of the interviewees said, the scary thing is not that man becomes a beast, but how long he remains a beast.

Perhaps we need to consider that old piece of Klingon wisdom: “Revenge is a dish best served cold”. (Seriously, its first recorded use in that form is in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan…the things you learn from Wikipedia!) When our moral outrage switch is tripped, perhaps we need to be aware that our “ruthlessness” switch may also be switched on at the same time, and guard against taking out our anger against anyone who is or may be associated with the group who is said to be morally outrageous. It is difficult to look into the heart of human darkness, but I am glad that I had the courage to watch this documentary.

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Filed under Cronulla riots, good and evil, human rights, Iraq, middle east, morality, Political, politics, psychology, religion, terrorism, tolerance, torture, Uncategorized, USA, war

Limits on executive power

I venture into questions of migration law and executive power somewhat tentatively. They are far from my “comfort zone”. But I couldn’t help having a curious look at the case of Haneef v Minister for Immigration [2007] FCA 1273.

The primary question in this decision is the interpretation of s 501(6)(b) of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth). Section 501 (3) provides that the Minister can cancel a person’s visa if the Minister suspects that a person does not pass the “character test” and the Minister believes the cancellation is in the national interest. Section 501(6)(b) says that person will not pass the character test if the person “an association with someone else, or with a group or organisation, whom the Minister reasonably suspects has been or is involved in criminal conduct”. The question for the consideration of the Court was the test to be applied in deciding whether a person has an “association” with a group or organisation which was involved in criminal conduct.

The facts of the Haneef case are well known (and discussed in a previous post here). Dr Haneef, a doctor working in a Gold Coast hospital, apparently loaned his SIM card to his second cousins, Kafeel and Sabeel Ahmed, who went on to make attempted suicide bombing attacks in London and Glasgow. He was charged with recklessly providing resources to a terrorist organisation. After the magistrate granted bail to Dr Haneef, the Minister for Immigration, Kevin Andrews, immediately revoked his visa, meaning that the government would be entitled to detain him under its immigration powers.

The Minister argued that he was entitled to judge Dr Haneef as failing the character test because of his association with Kabeel and Sabeel Ahmed. It did not matter whether the association was innocent or not, or whether Dr Haneef had any knowledge of his second cousins’ plans – any association was enough (applying MIMA v Wai Kuen Chan [2001] FCA 1552). Spender J said that Chan was incorrect, and that accordingly, the Minister had not applied the correct test and the decision was a nullity. However, it is important to note that his Honour was of the opinion that the Minister could have been entitled to cancel Dr Haneef’s visa if he had applied the proper test. The proper test would have taken into account the fact that UK Police had advised the AFP that Dr Haneef was a person of interest to their investigation through his association with the Ahmed brothers, and that Dr Haneef had been charged with a criminal offence pursuant to the Criminal Code, and found that there was more than just any association.

His Honour made a number of pertinent comments about the rule of law. He found that the breadth of the test in Chan allowed the administrative arm of the government free rein. A woman who was battered by her husband could be said to have an association with a criminal by reason of the fact that a crime had been committed against her. There had to be some limits to the way in which the administrative arm of government could exercise its powers.

The decision of Minister Andrews to revoke Dr Haneef’s visa makes me deeply uncomfortable. It seems to me that if the court was satisfied that he should be let out on bail on strict conditions, then that was enough. Of course the administrative arm of government should be allowed to intervene in matters of national security, but they should not have carte blanche to do as they wish. The fall-out of the Haneef affair establishes why this is so. The government should have put all relevant facts before the magistrate who heard the bail application, and should not have tried to get around the exercise of independent judicial power which has been delegated to the courts.

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Filed under Federal Court, immigration, law, politics, terrorism

The thought police are listening

It seems pretty ridiculous that Dr Haneef has been charged with supporting a terrorist organisation by leaving his SIM card with his second cousins in Glasgow. I was wondering how they could charge him, and decided to look at the terrorism offences. I’m not a criminal lawyer, let alone one acquainted with the Federal jurisdiction. I found it interesting to check out these provisions.

Section 102.7 of the Criminal Code makes it an offence to possess things connected with terrorist acts. The relevant offences are in 102.7(1) and 102.7(2):

102.7 Providing support to a terrorist organisation

(1) A person commits an offence if:

(a) the person intentionally provides to an organisation support or resources that would help the organisation engage in an activity described in paragraph (a) of the definition of terrorist organisation in this Division; and

(b) the organisation is a terrorist organisation; and

(c) the person knows the organisation is a terrorist organisation.

Penalty: Imprisonment for 25 years.

(2) A person commits an offence if:

(a) the person intentionally provides to an organisation support or resources that would help the organisation engage in an activity described in paragraph (a) of the definition of terrorist organisation in this Division; and

(b) the organisation is a terrorist organisation; and

(c) the person is reckless as to whether the organisation is a terrorist organisation.

Penalty: Imprisonment for 15 years.

So I presume that the police are saying that the SIM card is a thing connected with the planning of the Glasgow bombings, that Dr Haneef supplied it to his second cousins and was reckless to the possibility that it might be used for a terrorist act. Still, it seems like the AFP are drawing a long bow, charging him just so that he has been charged with something. I don’t know if there’s further intelligence as to whether he helped his second cousins in the plot, or whether he got out of the country because he knew about it but didn’t want to be involved. It’s hard to make a judgment without knowing all the facts.

But it seems to me that this kind of charge represents a worrying trend. Isn’t this the very thing the Western world should be against – a charge for the sake of it?

Check out Marcellous’ post on the topic for more insightful legal commentary.

Update

I was looking at the wrong section, as Marcellous has pointed out. Now amended to Section 102.7. Told you I’m no criminal law expert. Especially criminal law involving statutes. Well, I guess that’s all of it…

Update 2

It seems the government has revoked Dr Haneef’s visa. Again, I suspect that there’s more to this guy’s actions that we’re hearing in the press. I don’t know the full evidence on which the Minister made his decision.

But if the Magistrate was satisfied with imposing strict bail conditions on Dr Haneef, why wasn’t that enough? It seems as though the government is using immigration detention as a method of imposing a punitive gaol sanction where the courts have decided that the suspect should be released. Doesn’t seem like due process to me.

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Filed under Australia, courts, criminal law, islam, law, religion, terrorism

How can they do it?

Jane from Diversion Cubed was wondering how on earth people who had sworn the Hippocratic oath to heal other human beings could allegedly become involved with suicide bombing plots. I can’t fathom it myself. How can you work all day trying to heal people and help people, and then wish to wreak death and injury on innocent civilians?

In that context, I found this article by Shiv Malik on the London 7/7 bombers very interesting (hat tip to Larvatus Prodeo). Malik spoke with the family of bomber Mohamed Sidique Khan and others who lived in Beeston, Leeds. He found that the impetus to become radical is more complicated than one would think:

Khan may have felt indignant about western foreign policy, as many anti-war campaigners do, but that wasn’t the reason he led a cell of young men to kill themselves and 52 London commuters. At the heart of this tragedy is a conflict between the first and subsequent generations of British Pakistanis—with many young people using Islamism as a kind of liberation theology to assert their right to choose how to live. It is a conflict between tradition and individuality, culture and religion, tribalism and universalism, passivity and action.

When it is stated like this, the problem of Islamic extremism looks depressingly intractable. The government’s first reaction following 7/7 was to consult with a wide range of Muslim opinion, including the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and similar bodies. The government now argues that the MCB and some of its affiliates are as much part of the problem as of the solution, and the new initiatives to tackle radicalism stress the promotion of British values at a grassroots level and working more closely with the few liberal modernisers in Britain’s Muslim community. But maybe all that we can do now is remain vigilant and wait for the tide in the battle for Islam’s soul to turn in the west’s favour.

Malik explores the fact that many first-generation Pakistanis in Britain have a very traditional approach to life – one in which Islam is important, but so too are tribal values. It is expected, for example, that young Pakistanis will marry according to their parents’ wishes, often to a cousin or relative within the larger tribe. Radical Islamism offers an escape from arranged marriages. Malik explains:

So while traditionalist mosques carry on recruiting imams from back home, keep their sermons in Urdu and other Asian languages and neglect to publish material to engage new members, the Wahhabis and the Islamists give their sermons in English and take their recruitment on to the streets of Pakistani or Bangladeshi ghettos such as Beeston Hill. They have also encouraged the schooling of British-born imams, have learned to use the internet and have generally come to understand what makes the second generation tick. The Wahhabis and Islamists win new members by contrasting their galvanising message of world Islamic justice with the inactivity and irrationality of the first-generation traditionalists. (Among those who turn to violence, such as Khan, their beliefs are often a mix of fundamentalism and Islamism.) And by arguing that the traditionalists—with their saint worship, mysticism and forced marriages—have been corrupted by weakness and Hinduism, they provide useful arguments to those Pakistani and Bangladeshi youths who want to cling on to Islam but throw off their parents’ constraints.

Part of what pushed Khan towards fundamentalist Islamism was his desire to marry for love, not to marry the bride whom his parents had arranged for him.

Furthermore, in poor areas such as Beeston Hill in Leeds (where three of the four 7/7 bombers lived) there was an increasing problem with drug use. Traditional parents had no response for this problem. It was not within their ken. Malik continues:

Ali told me that the older generation didn’t know how to deal with the drug problem. They were largely illiterate and didn’t know the system, so they would sooner move out than try to fight the dealers. The only people who seemed to do anything about the drug-taking were a group of second-generation Pakistanis called the “Mullah boys.” This was a fluid group of 15 to 20 members that formed in the mid-1990s, initially as a response to the drugs issue. Mohammad Sidique Khan was a leading member. Ali told me that on several occasions, the group kidnapped young Pakistani drug addicts and, with the consent of their families, held them in a flat near the Wahhabi-inclined mosque on Stratford Street—and forcibly cleansed them of their drug habits.

What we learned from Ali was later corroborated by an ex-drug user called Asim Suleman. He had been cold-turkeyed by the Mullah boys in 1996, and Sidique Khan, Khan’s friend Naveed Fiaz and Tafazal Mohammed, Khan’s line manager in his youth worker job, had asked Suleman back to help with another round in 2001. Following 9/11, the Mullah boys had become increasingly religious. Initially, this new-found godliness was welcomed by the older generation in Beeston—until the group began marrying people of their choice.

I had wondered how men who had grown up in the UK could do this. Malik’s analysis makes sense. The second generation did not want to live like their parents. They wanted to marry whom they wanted, they wanted to escape narrow tribal restrictions and they wanted to do something constructive about social problems in their community, such as drug use. But they did not feel part of the broader British community either. There were two paths for young disaffected men – either to embrace violence and drug use, or to embrace radical Islamism. The latter seemed more honourable. It offered an escape to the conundrum of trying to fit in with traditional Pakistani or English social norms – reject both, embrace Islam, then you’ll feel part of society. Paradoxically, the radical Islamist movement is in some ways more akin to a radical political group from the West than it is to traditional Islam.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the background of radical Sydney cleric Sheikh Feiz Mohammed resonates with this analysis. Sheikh Feiz was a street kid who drank and took drugs in his youth. He saw radical Islam as the pathway out of despair.

A more nuanced understanding of what drives these young men might help a more nuanced response to the issue. An analysis which simply concludes that Islam is evil or that the West is corrupt and decadent misses the mark. As always, it’s more complicated than that. Radical Islamism is a child of a terrible congruence of both Western and Islamic values.

Update

An interesting piece in The Guardian by Hassan Butt, a former member of the British Jihadi network.

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Filed under England, good and evil, islam, morality, politics, terrorism, war

Illiberalism

I was very surprised to read that US Judge Richard Posner advocates secret trials for terrorists. Obviously, attendees at the Australian Bar Association were surprised too. I don’t agree with Posner’s view: it is vital that trials take place in public, with due process. I had always thought Posner was a libertarian at heart. He is, of course, the doyen of the Law and Economics field.

As I have said before, I once briefly dated a guy who was a libertarian with a law and economics bent. As I argued back then, the problem I have with law and economics is that it presumes people are rational and will act in ways which are self-interested. I think human beings are much more complicated than that. We don’t always behave in rational ways. If we did, society would be much easier to fix, but life would be much more boring.

Funnily enough, that guy later got into New Age stuff…thus proving my point. I believe he does work with crystals (or something like that) these days. On the odd occasions I see him (about once a year), I’m tempted to question him on how he reconciles his ultra-rational past with his ultra-irrational present, but in the end, meh, live and let live.

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Filed under Economics, judges, law, terrorism, USA

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.

But…

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!

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