Torture Is Torture – Regardless of Who Does It

On Tuesday, December 9, 2014, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released the executive summary and portions of an as yet unpublished report into the torture undertaken by the CIA. In the following days, much was revealed about American programmes of ‘enhanced interrogation’. We had all heard of ‘waterboarding’, of course, but this was different. In scale, intensity and variety, the programmes of torture as described in the report eclipse the expectations of all but the most seasoned and pessimistic of observers.

Some of these horrors make agonising reading – but it is incorrect to say that they defy description. In the cold, expressionless language of the Senate report, even blunt, mechanical phrases can contain the key to understanding a world of pain. ‘Rectal feeding’ is one, ‘Stress position’ another. Through reams of inert prose, an appalling picture of abuse was built up and solidified.

There is one small, meek defence to all of this: a defence not in and of itself, but one which begs comparison. ‘Other countries do it too,’ this line of thought goes, ‘but only America has the guts to say it.’ This is true for many secretive nations; and tyrannies and theocracies partake in torture just as much as, if not more than, the Americans. But this truth is a hardly a mitigating factor; it does not excuse the brutality, and it does not excuse the futility.

Much is made of the following hypothetical, the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario. There is, we are told, an imminent attack; terrorists are threatening to kill a vast number of innocent, blameless civilians in a public place; and the only way we can get hold of the intelligence necessary to avert this catastrophe is by torturing another, captured terrorist into telling us. The situation is horrifying, but it is also neat. Too neat. The moral calculation is placed before us as if it were a simple numerical exercise: One person against hundreds, possibly thousands; an awful individual, engaged in nefarious acts, is pitted against a moral mass of the innocent. Quite simple, really; it is almost utilitarianism in action. But that is not the whole story. An essential, shocking part of the equation has been entirely removed. In this scenario, and in all of the others which populate the messy, eternally complicated world of security and defence, we don’t even know if it’s going to work. And we never know; not until it’s underway or over. And it probably won’t work: this torture produced ‘false confessions and fabricated information, [and] no useful intelligence’. Brutality was condoned and even encouraged by the CIA, and for almost no gain.

Knowing this, the inescapable conclusion is the following: if we engage in state-sanctioned torture, we will not be able to know if our actions of inhumanity are justified until after they have taken place. Morally, I think, there is only one place to be, and it is not alongside the professional sadists employed to threaten to murder the mothers of captives, or to leave detainees to freeze to death in a hidden prison camp, days after subjecting them to ‘48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, a cold shower and rough treatment’.

There is, of course, a little hitch in my own thinking. I do not pretend otherwise. I am very happy, as a rule, for those in the employ of my country to kill, or to maim, or to brutalise those agents of terror who threaten the innocent. Bomb them in their hiding places; kill them on the battlefield; vaporise them with drones – I can handle that. But when the battle is over, when these men are stripped of their weapons, their offensive capacity, and even in some cases their clothes, by the agents of democracy – that’s when I start to get a little squeamish. Perhaps it’s the indefinite confinement. Perhaps it’s the transportation to secretive facilities across the world. It’s certainly got something to do with the torture.

One of the most vehement defences of inhumane and illegal conduct is the rallying cry of pragmatism. I have outlined it above. This is war, the argument goes, and sometimes bad things have to happen in order to protect that which we hold most dear. But this sentiment has two major flaws: in engaging in torture, there is no guarantee of protecting that which we value most; and by doing so, we are participating in the self-destruction of our own morality, something I imagine most would like their governments at least to bear in mind.

This is war, and some acknowledgement of the situation must be made. Killing terrorists and fascists ‘legitimately’ – on the battlefield, from the air, with the assistance of drones – is my own concession to the imperfect world in which we live. Such methods are flawed, and do not always achieve the desired result; but at least they are not predicated on the false hope of averting imaginary massacres, and at least they do not challenge the very core of what makes Western civilisation worth defending.

A version of this essay has been seen publication elsewhere.