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Justifying garden-variety torture


Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky'The use of torture is anathema to a civilised society. We decry the Spanish Inquisition yet tacitly accept or ignore the use of torture, both physical and psychological, in many of our closest trading partners. Do the panellists follow the rule that the ends justify the means?' Trevor Robey, Q&A audience member

Greg Sheridan's work as a journalist is impressive; a veteran of 30 years in the field, he has written five books, hundreds of articles, and regularly comments on television and radio. He is also a man of culture; in the first few minutes of an episode of Q&A this year he revealed he 'loves' Jane Austen, is reading George Eliot, and likes to cite Henry James on the importance of love.

He also allows, with vague qualifications, the use of torture.

None of this would matter very much if he were not also, at least in the judgment of Newscorp, Australia's 'most influential foreign affairs analyst'. 

Like other intellectuals in politics he must accommodate his views to his (Catholic) religious convictions. He'd be aware that Pope Benedict xv1, in December 2005, condemned torture in the war against terrorism and that eminent legal scholars, including natural law philosopher John Finnis, believe the right to be free from torture in the Universal Declaration of Rights is categorical  — it is not qualified by limitations which apply to other rights to meet the 'just requirements of morality, public order, and the general welfare in a democratic society'.

One might imagine he is also conversant with the Russian classics and Dostoyevsky's famous question, posed by Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, on the nature of evil:

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth?

With the possible exception of Kant, no philosophical theory has put a more forceful case against torture; certainly none has put a more eloquent argument against the 'serpentine wanderings of the happiness theory', and the idea that the end justifies the means.   

Perhaps so, but what has this to do with the fact that Australia's most influential foreign affairs writer refuses to exclude the use of torture? He is entitled to his opinion no less than Kant, Finnis and Dostoevsky. The answer is that it may explain a deep ambivalence in this support, which leads Sheridan to begin his reply to a question from the Q&A audience (as quoted above) about the merits of torture with a hedged denunciation: 

Well, no, I'm against torture under any circumstances ... But I tell you this: I do think you ... confront a much more disturbing, difficult, interesting moral dilemma when you construct a case where torture does work and might save many innocent lives.

Now I don't think that justifies out and out torture but I don't think it's absolutely black and white. I don't think you're obliged to give the Taliban that you capture on the battlefield a slice of apple pie and a cup of tea and a warm environment. I think you are allowed to be pretty robust in your questioning.

Host Tony Jones tried robust questioning: 'Can I just ask, what is the limitation you put on this because we know that American Republicans at very senior levels talk about enhanced interrogation techniques?'

Sheridan: Well I think, you know, there have got to be rules and the CIA, as I understand it, asked for proper legal guidance all the time and found it very difficult to get legal guidance.

Jones: But they ended up doing a lot of water boarding, for example. So just to sort of test you here, do you think water boarding is legitimate?

Sheridan: Well ... there are other authors with similar knowledge who argue that enhanced interrogation techniques did provide lifesaving information. Now, it seems to me if the ...

Jones persists: So just to get back to my question, would you condone water boarding?

Sheridan: Well, I'm getting, in my crab like way, to an answer, Tony. If the technique doesn't leave any lasting physical damage whatsoever or any lasting psychological damage then I think you have to examine whether, in an extreme case, it might be allowed. But I wouldn't have a blanket policy saying, yes, you can water board, but I wouldn't absolutely rule out things which are pretty stressful in the interrogation.

Jones: Isn't this exactly why policemen used to use rubber hoses and hit people with telephone books so it didn't leave a mark?

Sheridan: Yeah, but I just don't think you can just blanket whitewash everything and say you can't do anything that's stressful to a prisoner under any circumstances, no matter what because that's not the reality of any battlefield.

In the end he did answer: in 'extreme' cases 'you must examine whether it might be allowed'. So in special cases the government will have a duty to consider torture, a formula which is broad and fuzzy enough to justify the official abuses by US authorities at both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Having got this far by enhanced interrogation we need to pause, because any serious discussion of the morality of torture must distinguish two kinds of justification.

The first is for philosophers searching for the perfect moral theory. Its concern is with cases so exotic and so catastrophic they have nothing to do with the ordinary affairs of mankind, such as the nuclear bomb ticking away in a New York basement, with incontrovertible proof the suspect put it there.

This is not a moral argument but a rhetorical device to justify excesses in US foreign policy.

By contrast, a real-life justification must justify a wide range of common garden cases, beginning with the torture of innocent people and suspects in the hope of finding information which might be useful to national security interests. This is the formulation required if we wish to justify the abuse and enhanced interrogation of Guantanamo detainees, mostly soldiers who fought to defend the Taliban regime against a US-led invasion.

What 'enhanced' means is detailed in a November 2008 report by the US Senate Committee on Armed Services; it means the use of methods

... based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions, including stripping ... of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures. It can also include face and body slaps and until recently, for some who attended the Navy's SERE school, it included waterboarding.

Former CIA torturer Glenn Carle, a fellow panelist on the same show as Sheridan, explained why:

Fundamentally they are designed to ... psychologically dislocate the detainee ... you make the person half crazy ... you have sound at an almost deafening level nonstop and the sounds are designed to create stress ... you hear silence and the silence is deafening and frightening because there's been nonstop sound and then you don't let someone sleep for 17 hours and you let them sleep for eight minutes and you tell them it was eight hours and you completely mess them up and it's very quick.

US military intelligence added a further refinement after Guantanamo director Major General Geoffrey Miller visited Abu Ghraib in the summer of 2003. The new methods were designed to inflict a profound sense of religious shame, using forced masturbation, naked human pyramids and faked menstrual blood. This alternated with the use of vicious attack dogs to intimidate prisoners during interrogation.

We now know from the authoritative Denbeaux Study on Guantanamo by US Law Professor Mark Denbeaux of Seton Hall Law School, based on US Government files obtained under freedom of information laws, that ordinary Afghan citizens were detained as terrorists if found to be wearing olive drab clothing or a Casio watch.

We know that 92 per cent had never fought for al Quaeda and that only 5 per cent were captured by US troops — the rest having been purchased from Pakistani and Northern Alliance forces for amounts up to US$5000. Given the Alliance had just lost a savage civil war against the Taliban, and the high local value of US currency, its motives and claims were always dubious.

So much so that after nine years, of the more than 770 detainees in Guantanamo, only a handful were tried and convicted; over 700 were quietly repatriated without charge — but also without apology and without compensation, most after years of imprisonment and 'harsh techniques' of interrogation.

This is what the abuse of rights and torture means in real-life cases (as opposed to fascinating puzzles for philosophers); it helps explain Sheridan's equivocation when asked to clarify what he had in mind. This admirer of George Eliot and Edmund James could not say what kind of torture he would use or when he would use it. It is the same evasiveness — to the point of dissembling — displayed by John Yoo, co-author of the infamous 'torture memos', before an outraged US House Judiciary Committee in June 2008.

If we now ask what this has to do with the general debate on torture, the answer is obvious. If the Guantanamo cases are, in Sheridan's words, 'extreme', it means there are no meaningful constraints on the use of torture as a tool of foreign policy; but if they exceed the scope of legitimate torture he has a clear duty to say so.

But if he speaks his mind he will lose the access to US power he commanded as an influential supporter of US policies during the Iraq War when, in April 2004, he enjoyed a private interview with Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defence, who he saw as 'chief intellectual architect of the Iraq invasion and high priest of the neo-conservatives'.

This is important to any writer on US defence policies and to the proprietor of a national broadsheet which strongly supports them — if he is not welcome in Washington he will quickly be replaced as Australia's most influential foreign affairs analyst.

All moral and political argument relies on the difference between exceptions and inconsistencies. When someone puts a controversial claim that torture may be used in certain cases, they have a responsibility to do so with articulate consistency. When Tony Jones — within the limits of the show's format — sought this, Sheridan did not know what to say. It was clear he could not reconcile his special cases with his claim that torture is wrong, and the more he tried to do so the less articulate he became.

The incoherence goes deeper; justification presupposes a personal commitment, and commitment to a moral position is as much an affair of the heart as the mind. We test our judgments against our moral intuition and confirm this intuition by reason. We often rely, as elsewhere in the social sciences, on a method some philosophers have described as a process of 'reflective equilibrium', seen in the idea that we learn about ourselves by studying others, and about others by studying ourselves. 

Is it unreasonable to conclude that this experienced journalist could not, as a decent and civilised human being, bring himself to do what the US had been doing for years, but was simply unwilling to criticise it in public?

Max AtkinsonMax Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania. His main areas of interest are in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. 

Topic tags: Max Atkinson, Greg Sheridan, torture, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib



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Existing comments

The Neo-Cons have much to answer for. Torture is wrong but many countries like Israel, China, United States, her enemies and many others resort to it in their quest for greed, power and dominion of others. The Social Reign of Our Lord, Jesus Christ is openly attacked by the leaders of most nations. They will have to answer to God for all of their evil machinations.

Trent | 12 July 2012  

Another chapter amongst the many that are currently being written describing the moral bankruptcy of Western Civilisation, led by the cartoon society known as the USA.Terribly sad, by frighteningly true.I find it extraordinary that The Guantanamo study found 'that 92% of detained terrorists had never fought for al Quaeda' and that 95% had been purchased by the US from Pakistani and Northern Alliance sources for up to $5000.00 each! What a brilliant way to get rid of an enemy (the Taliban, who had just dished out a bit of a hiding to the Northern Alliance). Not even the most bizarre of Hollywood could have dreamed up this blockbuster! God love America!! The moral decline of this nation is legendary. I suppose that God might well "love America" as he loved the lost sheep.

john frawley | 12 July 2012  

Thanks for this. Torture is appalling, and the fact that the U.S. and other nations on 'our side' have indulged in it, shames and weakens us all. And, on a purely practical, commonsense level, we must ask to what extent this torture has justified and fed the anger and hatred of the Al Quaeda militants that 'we' are still fighting in the War Against Terror? To some extent, certainly, like the drone attacks that do seem to kill some of the 'enemy', but also kill many expendable others, living next door or just passing by. It is illogical and foolish to insist that these behaviours do not nurture and justify hatred and motivate action. So why are we doing it, or at least acquiescing? Is there some motivation that we're not even looking at? This is a compelling question in view of the fact that 'information' and 'confessions' obtained by torture are worthless. Who among us would not give the required answer if subjected to any of the kinds of torture alluded to in Max Anderson's article? I am as self-deluded as the best of them. I could self-delude at Olumpic level, but I know I could not stand up under torture. I would tell them whatever they wanted to hear. And that confessiion would be useful, whether it was true or not.

Kate Ahearne | 12 July 2012  

Another often overlooked political dilemma was the situation in Chile where a US-backed military coup by staunchly Catholic Pinochet and it's consequent brutal 11-year dictatorship which exterminated or suppressed left-wing sympathisers. Greg Sheridan is on record for having praised the Pinochet regime for creating an economic miracle in Chile (taken advantage of by Alan Bond's teleco investments) - all the while failing to inform that the regime had toppled a democratically elected President Allende. If you can use economic rationalism to justify human slaughter and oppression, then I'm sure a little dabble in torture is no big deal. Human rights are fine as well as the money keeps rolling in.

AURELIUS | 14 July 2012  

Readers may be interested to learn that US celebrity attorney and Yale Law Professor Alan Dershowitz is probably the best-known advocate of torture. He advocates a system whereby national security authorities can get judicial warrants on grounds of urgent necessity. His torture of choice is to push sterilized needles under fingernails, ensuring great pain without permanent disability.

His thesis is that, since torture is used by determined men in desperate situations, it is better to recognise this fact and provide a system of oversight by the courts. This will ensure it is used properly (hence sterile needles and white coats) and only as necessary, and with a doctor on hand. See his 'Tortured Reasoning,' in S. Levinson (ed.) Torture: A Collection (OUP 2004); his article is freely available on the internet.

max atkinson | 16 July 2012  

With all the expositions of torture mentioned, no one has touched on the torture of men within the church and not so historically long ago. Men who gave their lives to the church as children studied in their fields of expertise for years and admired amongst their peers only to be cut off at the knees. Deep spiritual torture is as delibating as the physical and worst of all like the makeover over of Judas Iscariot, the church now classes him at least, "a living host". No man has that right,. A little like the pope ligitimizing a child he had no role in creating. Teilhard De Chardin always comes to mind. Too bad

L Newington | 18 July 2012