Saturday, July 05, 2008

Hitchens tries waterboarding

One of the most controversial actions of the Bush Administration has been the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique at Guantanamo Bay for terrorism suspects.

Critics have described it as torture - and the use of torture by a liberal democracy is an abomination, it markedly weakens the moral position of those who wish to defend free secular society from the tyranny of dictatorships whether theocratic, nationalist, Marxist or otherwise. One of the dividing lines between civilisation and the barbarity of tyranny is the unwillingness of civilised states to inflict physical harm and pain upon those it incarcerates or to use the deliberate infliction of pain to seek confessions. It is not because it is always unreliable, at times it is not. Those enduring pain that would otherwise drive you mad are more likely to do what is necessary to avoid it continuing, than concoct some elaborate fantasy. Which is why some soldiers receive waterboarding as training to prepare in the event that they face the horrors of an enemy which wouldn't dare have this debate. The preparation is because of genuine fear that torture produces results.

However torture is wrong. Interrogations are not meant to be fun, they are harrowing, lengthy and can deprive the suspect of comfort and some sleep - but they should not cross the threshold of actually inflicting pain and suffering. To inflict such suffering upon one who may be innocent is simply sadism, to trust the evidence of one who confessed or revealed information under threat of pain is far more questionable than a confession given freely.

So what is waterboarding? Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens decided to find out first hand. His account is here. As far as he was concerned it was torture to go through with it, but he also gives the argument against it. He takes a considered view which gives me pause for thought, in both directions.

"a man who has been waterboarded may well emerge from the experience a bit shaky, but he is in a mood to surrender the relevant information and is unmarked and undamaged and indeed ready for another bout in quite a short time. When contrasted to actual torture, waterboarding is more like foreplay....On this analysis, any call to indict the United States for torture is therefore a lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilization and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out, and ultimately to bring it down. I myself do not trust anybody who does not clearly understand this viewpoint."

The counter is a number of arguments, but ones that I find most compelling:

"It may be a means of extracting information, but it is also a means of extracting junk information. ... To put it briefly, even the C.I.A. sources for the Washington Post story on waterboarding conceded that the information they got out of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was “not all of it reliable.”

It opens a door that cannot be closed. Once you have posed the notorious “ticking bomb” question, and once you assume that you are in the right, what will you not do? Waterboarding not getting results fast enough? The terrorist’s clock still ticking? Well, then, bring on the thumbscrews and the pincers and the electrodes and the rack."

If you could prove that a crime you had been accused of had been confessed by you because the Police tied you and shot water up your nostrils repeatedly, your confession would be meaningless. This is, of course, completely right and appropriate in our judicial system. However, even taking the argument that this is a form of war, the question of where you draw the line emerges.


"One used to be told—and surely with truth—that the lethal fanatics of al-Qaeda were schooled to lie, and instructed to claim that they had been tortured and maltreated whether they had been tortured and maltreated or not. Did we notice what a frontier we had crossed when we admitted and even proclaimed that their stories might in fact be true?"

Read for yourself, there is little doubt that waterboarding has helped extract information of value in the war against Islamist terrorism. However, the line that has been crossed is a dangerous one, and one that must be subject to full, free and frank debate. It is not a debate between those who want to be soft on Islamist terror and those who are sadistic fascists - it should be a debate about what constitutes that behaviour which is acceptable for the governments of Western free democracies to undertake. Waterboarding is, as Hitchens said, foreplay compared to how Al Qaeda operates, or Iran or North Korea or China, or indeed many other countries. The moral equivalency some on the left, including Amnesty International, applies to this is repulsive, but somewhat inevitable. I look forward to our friends on the left waging an orchestrated protest and campaign against Camp 22 in North Korea for example. However, a line has been crossed which gives reason to say the US engages in torture.

Hitchens is not soft on terrorism or Islamists, neither am I. I believe it slightly undermines the moral authority we have against Islamists who seek to portray Western secular societies as corrupt and cruel - yet it also may well have saved lives. Do the ends justify the means?


Will de Cleene said...

If it's not torture, why don't you give it a go too? If it changed Hitchens' mind, it would likely change yours too.

You can't spend arguments on moral equivalency when you're bankrupt.

libertyscott said...

Um I wasn't advocating waterboarding, I'm on balance convinced it is torture and shouldn't be undertaken. I said it crossed the line, simple as that.

George said...

The problem with torture, quite aside from the fact that it is disgusting and repugnant, and spreads like flies, is that it produces too many false positives. People talk under torture, but they tell you what they think will stop the torture, like that Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein are in cahoots. Also, if enemy combatants think they'll be tortured, they're often less likely to surrender.

Torture is disgusting and useless.

ZenTiger said...

As I said elsewhere:

Surely he first subjected himself to having his genitals cut off and stuffed down his throat, followed by his nails being torn off one by one, just for comparison’s sake?

Without debating the wrongs and more wrongs of torture, the widespread assumption that you get false positives isn't as clear cut. With a really good regime of psychological manipulation, deprivation techniques, etc and a long period of time, you can completely confuse your victim and correlate information in ways too cunning to mention here to sort the lies from the possible truths.

Anonymous said...

Is al-Qaeda a signatory of the Geneva Conventions? No? Then why grant its members the privileges or rights of an entity that is? Isn't it in the U.S.'s interest to render the legal status of a would-be terrorist as ambiguous and unappealing as possible? Or are we better off letting terrorists know that we'll coddle them after we catch them?