Alex Massie

Torture: You Know It When You See It

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I watched Tunes of Glory again last night. It's one of my favourite films*. During it, Basil Barrow, the newly-arrived Colonel of the battalion, played by John Mills, mentions his experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War:

Oh they gave me time, all right. Again and again. When I was in the prison camp, they nearly drowned me, then they brought me round. Then they put a wet cloth over my mouth and kept it wet until I nearly drowned again. And the only thing that pulled me through was the thought that one day I'd come back and sit in the middle of that table as colonel of this battalion, like my grandfather and his father before him. Only I was going to be the best of the lot.

In other words, he was waterboarded. You may complain that even though the Japanese did waterboard prisoners, this is a fictional example. Then again, many of the pro-waterboarding brigade these days seem to derive their moral compass from episodes of 24. The point is that, once upon a time, if you had said the United States would willingly, openly and proudly embrace techniques used by the Japanese and, later, the Khmer Rouge, people might have thought you were either barking mad or (and?) a member of some leftist cult.

That is, appallingly, no longer the case. The question of what is, and what is not, torture is pretty simple. If you would consider it torture if it were done to one of our guys then it's torture if we do it to one of theirs.

Some commenters responding to this post argue that they managed to survive "enhanced interrogation techniques" during their own military training. Therefore, they suggest, there can't be anything wrong with using the same techniques upon our own prisoners. This argument has been dealt with elsewhere many times, but we might as well have it out here too.

There is all the difference in the world between a training course and the real-life, no end in sight, experience of these "techniques". The former is a training exercise, the latter is not. More to the point: a SERE course, or its equivalents, is designed to help soldiers, in the event they are captured, cope with and survive being mistreated. Arguing that we should treat prisoners in the same way that we expect, or fear, our enemies will treat their prisoners is, pretty much by definition, to lower ourselves to their level and to abandon our own principles and the values that we're supposed to be fighting for.

Commenter Salamantis also weighs in, addressing the "ticking time-bomb" hypothetical. He (or she?) argues:

"Let me get this straight; if [1] Khalid Sheikh Muhammed had been captured on 9/10 and [if 2] we knew that a massive terrorist attack was in the very near offing and [if we knew 3] that he knew enough about it for us to be able to prevent it if [4] we got the information he had by the end of the day but [if we 5] didn't know enough to stop it WITHOUT that intelligence and the decision as to what to do about the situation was yours to make, you'd rather let thousands of innocents die than waterboard a single genocidal terrorist mastermind; right?

As you can see, the brackets number the hypotheticals piled on top of one another in this doomsday scenario. There are at least five. In other words, this combination of hypothetical events is so unlikely that it cannot possibly be a sensible basis upon which to base the ordinary, day-to-day regulations covering the interrogation and treatment of prisoners. The worst case scenario, as unlikely, improbable or unrealistic as it may be, cannot, or should not, be the default presumption governing how we organise these matters. Such a scenario is beyond extremely hypothetical. Satisfying it is extremely improbable. 

In the all-but-vanishingly-unlikely circumstance that it were met, however, I think one may make a case for ill-treatment but that those responsible for dishing out that treatment would have to be held responsible for their actions and, quite probably, take their chances in a court of law. But you cannot give carte blanche to the CIA or army or whoever to treat any prisoner in such fashion just on the off-chance that a single one of these hypotheticals, let alone all five, might apply. The law is not designed for extreme cases, but for the general rule. And that's how it should be.

Because, in the end, this is a matter of civilisation. It is not good enough to say that well we don't cut people's heads off. Our bar must be higher than that, otherwise we are guilty of measuring ourselves by the standards of the enemy, not our own. Sadly, there seem to be plenty of people around who are quite happy to do so. But, again, if we use techniques favoured by the Japanese or the Khmer Rouge or the Gestapo or the KGB do we not reduce ourselves, in some rather important ways, to their level?

And are we not supposed to be better than that?

Of course I could be wrong and Salamantis might be correct to suppose that opposing the use of torture means I have "forfeited all claims to morality and human decency."

*Also one of my favourite novels. And one of Alec Guinness's greatest performances. One of the best from John Mills too. I don't know why it slipped my mind when I compiled a list of favourite movies.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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