Thoughts on Torture

May 8, 2017 – 10:22 am

Christopher Hitchens has followed in the footsteps of Steve Harrigan and subjected himself to the process known as ‘waterboarding’ in order to be able to report more insightfully on just what it is that is the focus of so much controversy. He reports that it is clearly torture and that therefore it ought not to be practised. On the other hand the Americans say that they don’t torture, but that 3 persons were waterboarded in the early days after 9/11; from which we might conclude that they don’t consider it to be torture. In both cases, however, there is a fundamental agreement: torture is inadmissible under any circumstances.

One way that the argument might now go is to start disputing what is and is not torture. According to the UN it is “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.” (Plus some other conditions.) But according to the US memo… Any definition is going to have to distinguish between treatments that are merely unwelcome to the subject and things which are somehow more serious. And legal definitions need to be precise. There will then be borderline cases. Torture is as vague a concept as any.

Another obvious area of dispute is to whether we can mean what we say when we make torture inadmissible under any circumstances – and here we would start talking about ticking time bomb scenarios, Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, etc. 

But all that can be put to one side. What I want to know is why torture is impermissible. How do we go from  whatever definition of torture we adopt to a ban on its use?

Information is unreliable. That’s just not a very plausible position. Nazis used torture quite effectively to roll up resistance operations. The Americans say that a huge amount of usable (and used) information was obtained through waterboarding KSM and the two others. Witches under torture gave up the names of their friends and family – can one doubt that they would have given up the names of their fellow witches if there had been any? In any case that is not really why people would oppose it. Just ask yourself – if it could be shown that torture was reliable in 99% of cases in establishing the truth (and if we applied it to everything from parking tickets to murders I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that effective,) would that change our opposition to its use in (almost) any circumstances. I don’t think so. 

This is especially difficult for someone like myself who doesn’t any longer believe that there are such things as fundamental, inalienable, human rights.


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