Category Archives: torture

“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.


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

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