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January 2, 2010

Tough on torture

One of the major early decisions of the Obama presidency in America—a decision intended to establish a sharp break with the Bush regime’s way of working—was the resolution to shut down the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay by January 2010. This site has been one of the key locations, along with the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, that has led to the debilitation of the United States’ moral standing in the world, and has created a general derision at the purported aims of the “war on terror”.

As the world’s first democracy and, even today, the first among democracies, the United States has a certain responsibility, no matter how awesome its power, towards democratic norms. But as the philosopher and historian of ideas, Tzvetan Todorov, argues in his new book, Torture and the War on Terror, not only is the Bushian phrase “war on terror” a vague, dubious and scaremongering idea, it has succeeded, in contravention of generally accepted norms in the civilised world, in sanctioning unspeakable human rights violations upon detainees in the interest of “security”.

Mr Todorov is concerned, like many other commentators, about the Bush administration’s tactic of introducing euphemisms such as “illegal enemy combatant” and “enhanced interrogation techniques” to work its way around prevailing strictures against the use of torture to extract information from suspects (as glimpsed, for instance, in the line taken by the infamous “torture memo” of 2002). He is also worried about the support extended to such practices by other governments in the free world. But he is distressed, most of all, by the recent change in the moral climate that has made ordinary citizens of democracies, like you and me, believe that torture is a worthwhile way of ensuring that our safety is defended.

A common hypothetical situation put forth by those who say torture is under some circumstances justified (and there are many “hawks” among democratic thinkers who subscribe to such views) is the “ticking bomb scenario”. A terrorist has been arrested; it is known he has planted a bomb somewhere. There is only one hour to find out where. The lives of thousands of citizens are at stake. In such a situation, would you not use the harshest methods to get the necessary information out of the detainee? If you say “no”, all too often you are assumed to be an unreasonable and lily-livered bleeding-heart.

But, argues Mr Todorov, the situation involving most detainees on a charge of terrorism is far more prosaic than this cooked-up situation of high drama, and usually our own knowledge of what they may have plotted amounts to no more than a strong suspicion. Further, nothing proves that the information obtained under torture is actually true. As the third-degree methods used by policemen in India often prove, prisoners under duress will confess to pretty much anything you accuse them of. Intelligence obtained by subjecting a man or woman to intense stress or degradation is often not, to use the catchphrase, “actionable intelligence”.

Too often, torture is about nothing but the exercise of absolute power of one human being over another. Lastly, even if torture allows, in a small number of cases, the resolution of a short-term crisis, in the long run it does incalculable damage to the moral standing of nations, inflames hostility among adversaries, and makes the population of neutral countries unsympathetic to the cause. As the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat has written, “Torture aims for a single goal— obtaining information—but it achieves a slew of others.”

Citizens of democracies, notes Mr Todorov, often criticise sharply the human rights violations of totalitarian regimes. But we should look closer home too, to see if we are not, by degrees, being turned into the very brutes that we so abhor. Even if we are not actually at fault ourselves, barbarous acts are being committed by governments we have elected, that claim to be acting in our interest. “institutionalised torture is even worse than individual torture,” writes Mr Todorov, “because it subverts the very foundation of the idea of justice and law. If the state itself becomes the torturer, how can we believe in the civil order that it claims to bring or to sanction?” There are no good reasons for torture, either on the count of utility or of morality. Mr Todorov’s short, trenchant book is a reminder that we cannot be tough on terror without also, paradoxically, being tough on torture.

Mr Todorov’s points also have great relevance closer to home. As India debates its own Prevention of Torture Bill, it is pertinent to note that custodial deaths in India are among the highest in any of the world’s democracies—a sign of how far we have to go on respecting the rights of individuals and the rule of law.


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