To torture, or not to torture?

The debate with respect to torture should not be about if it is “good” or “bad”, but if it is “moral” or “immoral”.

Opponents of torture have vigorously been embracing the notion that torture produces false intelligence [AFP]

To torture or not to torture, why is this question being asked in America? The answer you will receive is different depending on who you speak to. 

Proponents of torture, such as Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz, argued in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that there is a need in “exceptional circumstances” to resort to “legal torture”.

Citing the ticking bomb scenario, Dershowitz argues that a “torture warrant” can be issued by a judge after being presented with “compelling evidence” that a suspect holds vital information that, if not disclosed to policing agencies on time, could lead to catastrophic consequences.

Pro-torture arguments, made by Dershowitz and others since 9/11, shaped the thinking of many US administration officials for years, and may be for decades, to come. The infamous Torture  Memos that were prepared for former US President George Bush by John Yoo, then Deputy Assistant Attorney General, didn’t exist in vacuum; they were simply the end result of a few years of misleading, and often poisoned, intellectual and academic debate on the subject.

Torture proponents believe that unless intelligence agencies are granted extended powers, they will not be able to fight terrorism effectively. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” – marketing name for torture – like waterboarding and sleep deprivation became must-have tools in the arsenal of intelligence agents.

Fantasised utility of torture

Hollywood recently endorsed this notion by producing films that glorify the use of torture. For instance, Zero Dark Thirty, a recently released movie, focuses on the fantasised utility of torture; in this case, on information derived by torturing Ammar, a terrorism detainee. This intelligence, we are told, eventually led to the capture of Osama bin Laden. 


 Inside Story Americas – Has torture
become acceptable?

If it were not for the fact that properly obtained intelligence led to the discovery of the precise location of al-Qaeda leader, torture proponents would have scored a point. Time and again, those advocating the use of torture in the legal, academic, government and entertainment industries go to great lengths to convince us that torture works and ends up saving lives (as if we have already forgotten that the invasion of Iraq was mainly based on false intelligence that was derived through torture).

What Zero Dark Thirty obviously omitted to show is that the CIA agent Maya, the central character in the film, was the same agent who was behind misidentifying El-Masri as a terror suspect.  

Those who don’t know about the El-Masri case, he’s a Lebanese-German Muslim who was kidnapped by the CIA in Macedonia. With the covert assistance of Macedonian authorities, he was held in incommunicado and harshly interrogated for over three weeks. He was then flown to Afghanistan where he was repeatedly tortured for five months.

When the CIA realised he was the wrong person, the agency dumped him back on a desolate street in Albania.

He has since been fighting legal and public relations battles with the US government. Recently, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in his favour, corroborating every single detail of his abduction and torture.

His legal fight in the US came to an end in 2007 after the Supreme Court refused to hear his case (after the US government had successfully argued in lower courts to dismiss his lawsuit based on national security grounds).

Opponents of torture have vigorously been embracing the notion that torture produces false intelligence. This implicitly leaves the door open for the possibility of endorsing torture if it were proven to produce sound intelligence.

I believe the whole debate with respect to whether torture produces “bad” or “good” information, or whether it is practised on “good guys” or “bad guys”, leads us to a dangerous cliff.

One is, for instance, left with the impression that it is just fine to torture the “bad guys”, as if guilt or innocence decides whether a particular suspect deserves to be tortured or not.

Accepting this notion is tantamount to accepting a policeman torturing a suspect after arriving on a crime scene simply because he believed the suspect was the perpetrator of the crime.

Clearly, the policeman would, in this case, be charged with a crime. In fact, the US and international laws are clear on this point, leaving no ambiguity with respect to the illegality of torture under “any circumstances”.

Conditioned to accept torture

Now, one may ask why have our societies become conditioned to accept torture, or at least view it as “understandable” in certain situations? The main reason is that intelligence agencies and politicians have mastered the “art” of demonising terror suspects by leaking unsubstantiated allegations about them to the media.

Take the case of Guantanamo detainees for example: despite the fact that many former US administration officials had repeatedly said that the majority of Guantanamo detainees had nothing to do with terrorism, these detainees were always vilified in the media as “bad apples”, “worst of the worst”, and recently described as “crazy bastards“. 

“Torture can never be an instrument to fight terror, for torture is an instrument of terror.”

– Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General

This explains why no public or media uproar is expressed when Adnan Abdul Latif, a long-time Guantanamo detainee, dies in ambiguous circumstances.

Obama’s stand on torture has been disappointing, to say the least. Not only he reneged on his promises to hold people who authorised and practised torture accountable, he, in fact, shielded them from any future accountability. Obama’s main argument was that it was about time to “look forward” and not “look backward”. 

One can only scratch his head on why Obama didn’t apply this same argument to shield CIA torture whistleblower John Kiriakou from prosecution. Kiriakou was sent to jail for two years for revealing details to a reporter with respect to the CIA’s torture programme.

One can reasonably conclude that Obama, contrary to the public image he has been trying to project, helped normalise the use of torture. Obama’s actions also reveal that there is “good torture” – one we inflict on others for a good cause – and then there is “bad torture” – one that others inflict on others (or on us) for a bad cause.

The debate with respect to torture should not be about whether torture produces “sound” or “false” intelligence, or whether torture is “bad” or “good” depending on who is practising it: the debate should be about whether torture is moral or immoral.

It is about time our governments realise that torture inflicts moral damage on our society, as severe as the pain felt by the people who are physically and psychologically tortured. Our reputation has been stained and tarnished enough.

Lastly, torture is not the way to fight terror, or as wonderfully put in the words of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan: “Torture can never be an instrument to fight terror, for torture is an instrument of terror.”

Maher Arar is a human rights activist, and the publisher of Prism Magazine, who first came to public attention after he was rendered by US authorities to Syria, his native country where he was subjected to physical and psychological torture. A public inquiry in Canada later cleared his name. His commentary has appeared in publications such as The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, The Huffington Post among others.

Follow him on Twitter: @ArarMaher