Congress’s definition of torture in those laws – the infliction of severe mental or physical pain – leaves room for interrogation methods that go beyond polite conversation. John Yoo
Shamefully we now learn that Saddam’s torture chambers reopened under new management, U.S. management. Edward Kennedy
Last month, “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau wrote a letter to the CIA offering to assist the agency in producing more sophisticated compilations for the systematic dehumanization of detainees, but he has reportedly not yet received a response. Nation’s Music Snobs Protest Predictable Use Of Metallica, Pantera To Torture Prisoners — from The Onion
I have to confess I have never seen the Fox series 24, which aired from 2001 to 2010. I’ve been told it makes compelling viewing. In its first five seasons there were no fewer than 67 scenes of torture, as the hero of the series, Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer, beats, electrocutes, drugs and suffocates the unfortunate suspects. He even shot one interrogee in the leg. Of course all this coercion is in a good cause; all these suspects have real secrets, and thanks to Bauer, they truthfully reveal this information. This was a series designed to entertain and it would seem torture is back in vogue. Torture has many guises. There were those medieval classics such as the breaking wheel and the thumbscrew. The invention of electricity gave the torturer new ways of facilitating dialogue. And recently we have seen a new sport, waterboarding and the use of Barney the Purple Dinosaur songs at Abu Ghraib. The term “torture lite” has now become part of the public discourse.
The semantics of torture has been a source of linguistic creativity in the wake of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Enhanced interrogation techniques, stress and duress tactics, rendition – a whole new lexicon has been invented. The linguist Geoff Nunberg pointed out that in one speech George W. Bush used the word professionals 26 times. This served to promote the view that the interrogators knew what they were doing. But it was also to distance what was going on from any suggestion that they were actually enjoying it. That would have been very disturbing.
Throughout history, torture has frequently been used to interrogate, punish and coerce. In Orwell’s 1984 Room 101 was used for political re-education. Winston Smith had to feel love. If the party said 2+2=5, he had to repeat it and believe it. In this post I want to concentrate on state-sponsored torture. I am not going to look at those sadistic killers who get pleasure from inflicting pain on others, even if the line between the two can be very blurred.
In Ancient Greece and Rome a slave’s testimony was admissible only if it had been extracted by torture; they believed that slaves could not be trusted to reveal the truth voluntarily. If one thinks of torture, the Middle Ages are an essential point of reference. One characteristic of this period was trial by ordeal – a judicial practice by which the guilt or innocence of the accused is decided by subjecting them to a harrowing, usually dangerous experience. In some cases, the accused were declared innocent if they survived the test, or if their injuries healed. However, at other times, only death was considered proof of innocence. Their reward for being innocent was a place in paradise in the afterlife. Torture was seen as legitimate way of obtaining a confession. When they were trying to extract information, it was usually conducted in secret, in underground dungeons. But there were also torturous executions such as hanging, drawing and quartering and burning at the stake, which inflicted intense pain on the prisoners and drew large crowds of spectators.
The twentieth century was a terrible wake-up call for those who believed that this kind of brutality was a thing of the past. Sadistic investigators such as the infamous Nazi, Doctor Mengele, carried out experiments on prisoners – he had a particular fixation on identical twins and dwarfs. The experiments involved hurting a twin to measure the other twin’s reaction, removing body parts to test the survival time of the patient and measuring the pain response of the human body in freezing water. In the Soviet Union psychiatry was used as a form of torture. Thousands of political prisoners were locked up in psychiatric hospitals to discredit their ideas, and break them physically and mentally. In more recent times torture was employed by the British during the Troubles in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1994. Tactics that were employed included wall-standing, hooding, subjection to noise, and sleep deprivation.
We have seen that torture has been used throughout history. Yet, a Martian arriving here now could be fooled into thinking that it was the Americans who invented torture. Coming after the horrors of the twentieth century, this seems to lack any sense of historical perspective.
I now want to focus on the ethics of torture. The ticking time bomb scenario is a thought experiment that has been used in the ethical debate over whether torture can ever be justified. The thought experiment posits a situation in which you have a terrorist in custody. He knows the location of a bomb. Do you torture him in order to get this information that will save millions of lives? There are variations on this theme. What about torturing his innocent son if that will help save lives?
This type of situation prompted Alan Dershowitz, a criminal appellate lawyer and Harvard law professor, to suggest that torture warrants be issued. Dershowitz is a renowned civil rights advocate who has defended high-profile clients as Claus von Bülow, O.J. Simpson, Michael Milken, Mike Tyson and most recently Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Dershowitz believes that torture is a reality. He argues that as it already goes on, it is better to regulate it. It’s a pragmatic take but it caused outrage..
Perhaps there is an alternative to resorting to torture. One fascinating story I found while researching this piece was a place known as Camp 020, an ugly Victorian mansion surrounded by barbed wire on the edge of Ham Common in London. The camp was not designed for prisoners of war (POWs), but rather for captured civilian agents (spies).During the Second World War 500 enemy spies from 44 countries sojourned here; the majority of these were interrogated by Colonel Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens, the commander of the wartime spy prison and interrogation centre. Very few resisted. What techniques did Stephens use? Beatings and physical violence? Electric shocks to the genitals? None of the above. Stephens was a master of psychological intimidation. He would use every trick in the book to get what he wanted: threats, drugs, drink and deceit. But he didn’t resort to physical violence. Camp 020 was not a health spa and it was not that Stephens had any moral qualms about using torture, but he just felt that it wasn’t very effective:
“Never strike a man. It is unintelligent, for the spy will give an answer to please, an answer to escape punishment. And having given a false answer, all else depends upon the false premise.”
Stephens was able to achieve extraordinary results. Feeling safe from physical punishment, many prisoners would open up. Some even became double agents feeding false information to Germany. This bore fruit in the misinformation over the D-Day landings; the Germans were successfully fooled into believing Britain would attack in the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy.
When the war was over, Stephens was posted to occupied Germany, where he was put in charge of a new interrogation centre based at Bad Nenndorf, where many of Hitler’s most notorious henchmen were being held. Stephens struggled to run the camp effectively. The situation at Bad Nenndorf caused a public scandal, both in Britain and Germany. The camp was compared to the Nazis’ ‘concentration camps’ As commanding officer, Stephens faced four counts of professional negligence and disgraceful conduct. In the end he was cleared of all these charges.
Those who argue that torture is indefensible tend to one of these two strategies:
1) It is always wrong no matter what the circumstances – it is a moral line you cannot cross.
2) Torture may be morally justified in certain extreme situations.. but if you allow it will inevitably be used when it should not be.
Faced with a ticking bomb scenario, few politicians could avoid the temptation to authorise the use of torture. If there were 10,000 victims that could have been prevented, the political fallout for a leader would be enormous. It would seem like moral self-indulgence. Torture seems to be ineffective. The type of information you get is just not reliable. This conclusion may be unsatisfactory to many. The notion that torture should not be used because it doesn’t work is rather unsettling. It suggests another question. If it were effective, would it then be justified? It would be nice to give black and white answers but the reality is unfortunately more complex.