Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland until I return to the Murcia region of Spain in the Autumn for a month or so
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Sunday, 20 March 2005

Torture - is it ever justified?

For me the answer is very clear and simple. No prevarication. No dissimulation. No hiding behind lengthy [pseudo-]moral arguments. The answer is:

No!

Torture is never justified.

Ever.


I was incredibly disturbed yesterday when I read Tim Worstall's post entitled Deliberately Painful Executions, which he rather lamely concluded by saying: "As at the top, I don’t accept the contention that there are crimes that deserve the death penalty, so fortunately I don’t have to accept the latter part of the argument either." This strikes me as not exactly a cop out, but rather a glossing over what, to me, is so simple. I, too, am against capital punishment. However, not all instances of torture necessarily end in death for the person upon whom it is inflicted. In fact it may be part of the plan NOT to kill the person, simply to carry out torture, so that it can be remembered for the rest of the person's life. The two issues are quite separate and need to be looked at square-on and separately. Tim was, of course, commenting on a post by Eugene Volokh (a blog I read occasionally, but not regularly) where, for me, the most pertinent 'snippet' is this "This is a question that defenders of the death penalty must ask themselves. (I doubt that the death penalty as currently administered has much of a deterrent effect; I think it's justified because some people deserve to die, and it's unfair to their victims and the victims' families not to execute those people.) It's likewise the question with regard to deliberately painful death penalty." where he seems to indicate that certain crimes merit, or at least justify, torture.

Frankly when I read Tim's and Eugene's posts yesterday I wondered if I had gone to sleep and re-awakened in some post-apocalyptic world where orthodox western morals had been completely turned on their heads. Of course we had a former Home Secretary (David Blunkett) asking, only semi-rhetorically and quite recently, whether one could really justify not using intelligence gained as a result of torture, not obtained by us directly, of course (we want to keep our hands clean), but by some other nation acting as our proxy. This is alleged to be the practice of the US, for example. The sanctioned methods being used at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and in US military custody in Afghanistan and Iraq (excluding the excesses which have hit the headlines) cannot be excluded from this, either, in my view. The simple fact, Mr Blunkett, is that you either believe that torture is never justified, or not. If you believe it is never justified, as I do, then any use of intelligence obtained by such methods is equally reprehensible.

Why is it reprehensible, though? Isn't it right to inflict retribution or revenge upon miscreants, specially if the payback is allegedly the prevention of a terrorist outrage? I think the purpose of [the threat of] punishment is to deter those who might wish to commit an offence, or to endeavour to rehabilitate those who do. It is not to take revenge by inflicting pain by doing the same or similar back to the person against whom action is being taken. In other words I do not believe in 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth' and this is even more true if the crime has not yet even been committed (in the case of trying to extract intelligence from those believed to have knowledge of a future planned crime).

I was relieved to read this morning that the moral debate against torture still rages and that those who seek to justify it under certain circumstances are being faced up to with robust argumentation. Ezra Klein links to an article by Justin Logan in which his overall judgement on Volokh's conclusion is: "I just find that hubristic and disgusting." So do I.

Justin Logan links to two other articles, though, expressing different sides of the argument. First to Kevin Drum, in the Washington Monthly, who writes:

"These are all punishments that have been commonly accepted at various times and places in human history, but aren't any longer by anyone we consider civilized. And this gets to the heart of the moral intuition question. Aside from material advances, the primary achievement of human civilization — slow and spotty as it's been — has been moral progress: we don't keep slaves anymore, we don't execute heretics, and we don't allow eight-year-olds to work 12-hour days in front of power looms.

But this progress has been tenuous and halting, with our inner demons never far from the surface — and accepting a reversal in our slow march toward moral improvement is playing with fire: as both recent history and current history demonstrate, the veneer of civilization continues to be mighty thin. We should be working to build up the veneer that protects us from our demons, Eugene, not sand it back down."

- you can read the whole article to get a flavour of what that 'These are all punishments' bit is all about. This really is the crux of this issue. Are we to allow the thin veneer of civilised behaviour which we have developed slowly and painfully over several hundred years, and which protects us from parts of our past which were cruel and unspeakably awful, to be weakened by resorting to such barbaric techniques with the aim, allegedly, of protecting these self-same civilised standards? For me, the danger of subverting our own civilised standards is just too great.

Kevin Drum is also quite correct in concluding that Eugene Volokh has not resiled from his earlier position (unlike Matthew Yglesias, who does buy this argument) out of any acceptance that it was wrong, but merely that it was not politically feasible. Quite repugnant!

I repeat, and make no apology, indeed I trumpet it from the rooftops:

No!

Torture is never justified.

Ever.


UPDATE: (Friday 25MAR05 09.10 GMT) A parliamentary foreign affairs committee's human rights report alleges that the government has declined to 'come clean' about whether the British government has made use of information gained under torture, even thought it condemns the use of such methods and says it does not encourage or instigate them in others.

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