Here follows an email debate in response to this blog. First the email to me, then my response, then (apologies for the length) his/her response, then my response, etc.
Please, if you’re interested in the arguments, post a comment.
I’ve taken a look at the blog and regret to say that, although I am in sympathy with the aims and views of Amnesty International, I find the uncritical prejudices expressed in your blog are no substitute for rational argumentation, and believe that your efforts, though they may appeal to some sympathisers (but what is the point of preaching to the converted?) actually help subvert the enterprise of achieving a more just and humane world. I won’t give you an extended defence of what I’ve just said, but will simply raise three questions that you may like to think about, for I think that such reflection will give you second thoughts about the simplistic answers to extremely difficult issues that you seem to favour. Of course, you may not have time to think about these questions and that’s fair enough — nobody can do everything they would like to do. But, if you do decide to think about them, I urge you to think hard and with an open mind. I am not suggesting that I have all the answers.
1) I read the other day about some youths who had set fire to a pony. Is it absolutely clear that mindless, dangerous thugs themselves have a right to life?
2) In Iraqi prisons when Saddam was in power, sadistic jailers would dress up in animal masks while torturing prisoners, frequently torturing them to death. The screams of the prisoners were recorded and played at loud volume throughout each night in the crowded cells of prisoners awaiting torture. The images of Abu Ghraib were truly shocking but there is a difference between the abuse and humiliation handed out by some of the the American guards and the systematic regime of state-approved torture and killing of political enemies presided over by the likes of Saddam and Ceaucescu and Pinochet. There are some (not all) inmates in Guantanamo who approve of all this, who wish to exterminate all apostates and Christians and Jews, who, in the name of religion, will decapitate co-religionists who subscribe to a different version of their faith, who will stone to death adulterers and homosexuals, who will throw acid in the faces of women who refused to be demeaned by dressing in full length black sacks with a slit as a peephole on the world. Who know of networks to which fellow fanatics belong. Who will, if released, kill large numbers of innocent people. What would you do with them?
3) If, GOD FORBID, someone kidnapped your own child, was threatening to sexually abuse and then kill your child, and that somehow you found that person. Would *you yourself* resort to torture in order to extract information about the whereabouts of your child so that you could save her life?
Best wishes, (name anonymised)
Dear name anonymised,
1. “Is it absolutely clear that mindless, dangerous thugs themselves have a right to life?”
Are you suggesting the death penalty for animal abuse? I’m afraid we’d have to nuke half of Spain this afternoon were that idea enforced.
If your question is simply, ‘are there circumstances where the death penalty should be applied?’, then we’re dealing with an enormous moral debate that affects, for example, different states of the US.
You remove the criminal forever from the possibility of committing another crime.
You deliver the ultimate form of justice for the crime he or she committed.
You send a warning to others who may consider committing such a crime.
You save huge sums of the taxpayers’ money in not incarcerating the criminal for a large duration.
Incarceration also (in theory) removes the criminal from crime.
The ultimate justice can never, ever, be reversed. A miscarriage of justice cannot be compensated. The life has been removed. Innocents, as history has shown, have been executed.
If the warning were truly effective, then in the state of Texas there would be no murder. There is. Lots.
More money is spent on the prisoner on death row, which can often be as long as a conventional prison sentence, plus the cost of appeals and investigations.
Personally, I believe the arguments against outweigh the arguments in favour. It is, as you know, far more complicated than that, because, in effect, all states do uphold the death penalty, when it comes to warfare, shoot-outs with the police, immediate security risk (apprehension of a fugitive bomber in an airport, for example), etc. Therefore the arguments above are themselves related only to court processes involving judge or jury. When the two areas are mixed, then problems arise. This was the situation when Rumsfeld said that the Gitmo detainees ‘were the ones the bombs missed’, which effectively delivers the verdict of execution upon them prior to their incarceration, and as such, they have no rights as they shouldn’t, in fact, be alive.
2. “The images of Abu Ghraib were truly shocking but there is a difference between the abuse and humiliation handed out by some of the American guards and the systematic regime of state-approved torture and killing of political enemies presided over by the likes of Saddam and Ceaucescu and Pinochet.”
The utter brutality of the Saddam regime is widely known and widely abhorred, as is the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, the Nazis, etc. That this historical reality can be used to mitigate systematic abuse of another ‘liberator’ system holds no water.
Bob stole £10 from Gavin. I steal £5 from Bob. Therefore a) I’m delivering justice to Gavin and b) my robbery is ok because it’s not as much as Bob’s.
Furthermore, assuming that the abuse was handed out only by some of the American guards firstly shows a scant reading of the sheer volume of detainees held without charge and abused throughout scores of CIA detention facilities around the world, and overlooks the shocking paper trail that leads to the White House and Pentagon lawyers (Yoo, Gonzales, etc.) who tweaked legal documents to allow for precisely the systematic abuse that has taken place under the Bush administration. As Philippe Sands, in Torture Team, suggests, it really, really is not just ‘a few bad apples’.
If there are Gitmo detainees (and I’m sure there are) “who wish to exterminate all apostates and Christians and Jews, who, in the name of religion, will decapitate co-religionists who subscribe to a different version of their faith” etc., what is possibly achieved by banging them up in a now widely publicized prison, alongside numerous innocents, having contravened international laws and treaties of extradition, abuse, Geneva Conventions, habeas corpus, etc.? What is achieved aside from hardening the detainees’ resolve, making them into martyrs, and converting more to their cause in the name of their own justice?
“Who will, if released, kill large numbers of innocent people.” To detain people preemptively is highly problematic. The whole brouhaha about how many days a terror-suspect can be held in Britain hung precisely on this concept. If there is no evidence, but only suspicion, then justice effectively becomes a process of divination. If there is evidence, then there are criminal courts a-plenty that are more than equipped to try and to convict the criminal. As with so many problematic issues here, there is also the question of a precedent. If you detain someone without trial and indefinitely on suspicion, then clearly they are not going to commit a criminal act. So the operation is successful and self-fulfilling. So let’s make it more domestic. Perhaps I am planning to buy some heroin. Should I be detained? (Bad example – I’d probably be able to buy heroin far easier in detention!). I might, whilst driving, park on a double-yellow line. Should I be prevented from driving? This is not a facetious argument. If justice related to ‘terror’ is considered an exception to the justice system of the UK and the US, then, as we’ve already seen, the margin for what constitutes terror (or incitement to terror) can be widened and widened and widened…
3. You and I discussed a few months ago the relationship between philosophy as an intellectual exercise, and as a pragmatic application upon reality. Your last point is the brother of the ‘ticking bomb scenario’ and is equally fraught with complications. I’m quite certain that if I had my hands on the man who had kidnapped my child, I’d want to gouge his frigging eyes out and stomp on his head. It might, indeed, give me some satisfaction. However, so many predicates would need to be fulfilled for the situation that you outline to arise.
I must know beyond doubt that he is the captor, and therefore I must know that he knows the whereabouts of my captive child. I must know that the police have investigated and have not found the child. I must know that police interrogators, who are trained to extract information, have failed to make the bugger talk. I must, therefore, have police approval for my form of interrogation, (or, a la Bruce Willis, I must be operating ‘outside the law, a lone maverick intent on revealing the truth and delivering justice’). I must restrain myself so that my treatment of him is not simply revenge, but is strategic in order to extract the information. Therefore I must be trained in the act of harsh interrogation techniques. I must, I assume, have a doctor on hand who can keep check on the fella so that I don’t beat him senseless or cause organ failure (dead men, alas, don’t talk).
Lastly, who’s to say that this treatment would make him talk?
I’m not being pernickety, but really the situation you describe is highly improbable. And if it were to arise, and all those predicates are met, and I do give the man the thumb-screws, and he does talk, and I do rescue my child, a) the case is unlike any of the cases of detention that I describe in the blog, and b) it is not and cannot become systematic.
Therefore, aside from the animal satisfaction of revenge or sadism, I am unable to find a single justifying argument for the use of torture. Indeed, I find powerful and compelling evidence to suggest that the use of torture has so many negative attributes as to constitute a boon for the enemy.
Thanks for your very detailed reply. My worry about your blog is that comes over as blinkered and glib and a bit gung-ho, and someone not antecedently sympathetic to your position would not be moved. My view is that, as academics, we have a duty to try and convert people to a better way of thinking and a more humane moral outlook (a big ask, I know) and what’s required for that is not the parading of one’s own prejudices, but careful argument — of exactly the sort you have provided in your reply. I’m not entirely in agreement with your response and have indicated as such with asterisked comments, below.
Best wishes, (name anonymised)
Hi (name anonymised),
May I just respond to a couple of your comments?
The blog as ‘blinkered, glib and a bit gung-ho’ and a space ‘parading of one’s own prejudices’
The last matter first. Is it a prejudice to assert that torture is wrong? If so, fine. On the majority of the posts, I attempt to analyse the cases in which torture is proposed as being justifiable, and attempt to counter the arguments. The prejudice part of this is that I have an a priori verdict and attempt to justify it through my argument. Point taken. I am, however, perfectly prepared to find a convincing argument that would have me change this opinion. Am I prejudiced on other matters? I’ll answer that below.
Glib. I take glib to mean making cheap and throwaway comments. I have tried to work through the arguments in order to arrive at a conclusion. I am, as you’ve seen, perfectly prepared to debate the arguments and the conclusions. In fact, I attempt to argue against comments that others make that I deem to be glib.
Gung-ho. I have no idea what you’re referring to here.
The Rumsfeld comment.
I agree, “Rumsfeld is in no position to deliver a judicial verdict”.
He has delivered such verdicts though, repeatedly, and this has had an enormous impact on the status of the detainees. And I quite agree, the fact that folk assumed OJ guilty shouldn’t take away any of his rights. Detainees in numerous detention camps have scarcely any internationally recognized rights. It seems we are in perfect agreement on this one.
The issue of relative punishment. I also agree, and state as such.
“Every legal system with which I’m familiar recognizes differences in magnitude”.
My example was that the coalition intervention was to ‘liberate’ the Iraqis from the dictator, and only achieved this at an enormous, highly punitive, and grossly destructive cost. Just yesterday (Sunday) morning a Radio 4 reporter from Baghdad was commenting on the utter destruction of the entire Iraqi infrastructure, the stagnant recovery, the poverty, disease, crime etc. A Baghdad interviewee said that the deaths from Saddam were appalling, but that the deaths since 2003 have been hard to fathom. I think that whilst you and I might agree that the mission was one of liberation, it quite clearly has not been successful. Now is not the time to go through the hundreds of reports, op eds, articles, books, etc. that attest to the fact that there were ulterior motives beyond ‘freedom and liberation’ behind the invasion of Iraq.
“Right, but it’s one thing to play the game of knocking politicians and quite another to think of some constructive alternative that you would implement were you in their position of power, see below”.
I am not in a position of power, nor do I want to be. However, that does not disqualify me from commenting on the situation. This is what being informed is about, and I would hate to be either in utter darkness about current affairs, or to be unwilling to make any comments because I’m not qualified. We are all qualified. I have read numerous reports and books (most of them acknowledged in the blog) about the system of detention in Gitmo. Stafford-Smith, Begg, David Rose, Erik Saar, Mahvish Khan, Andy Worthington, and many others, with professional attachments to the situation, have suggested that the system is flawed, illegal and counter-productive. As such my question remains:
“what is possibly achieved by banging them up in a now widely publicized prison, alongside numerous innocents, having contravened international laws and treaties of extradition, abuse, Geneva Conventions, habeas corpus, etc.? What is achieved aside from hardening the detainees’ resolve, making them into martyrs, and converting more to their cause in the name of their own justice?”
On the matter of preventative detention, there may be evidence sufficient to suspect someone, but not sufficient to convict. Whilst most legal systems (that I’m aware of) have a limit on how long someone can be detained, it is clearly a problematic issue, and a risk that every legal system must take into account. In the case of Gitmo and other facilities, it is acknowledged even by the US officials, that the vast majority are innocent – indeed many are cleared but remain in captivity. Quite evidently hundreds have been swept up in a net for the sake of a suspicious few. Those few are not even put through due process of law, but are subject to torture, military commissions, secret evidence, etc. It is not sustainable in any situation to detain someone indefinitely on the suspicion that they may commit a crime. Ultimately, evidence needs to be provided or the person must be released. One thing was the debate here in the UK over how many days, another thing is holding someone, without trial, for 7 years… I fully agree with you: “The question then becomes only how much time is reasonable. The different issue you raise of pre-punishment is philosophically interesting, and there has been some good discussion of it in the literature.”
Lastly, the child/kidnap/torture case.
I find your insistence on this matter disturbing. I clearly state that yes, if I had this bastard in my hands I’d want to hurt him. I state that without qualm. However, I attempt to make it abundantly clear that this situation is so improbable as to be only an intellectual exercise. Furthermore, and importantly, it is totally unlike any of the cases of abuse or torture documented in the latest conflicts. I’m not ‘weaseling out’ of anything. I’m stating that this situation is as improbable as being in a trolley with two paths, one which will kill 3 people, one which will kill 2 (or any of the other variations). How, aside from in intellectual theory, would I (or anyone) find themselves in such a ‘must torture or child will die’ predicament? It simply makes no sense to me. I also fully agreed with you, that, in the improbable event of this situation arising, I would do whatever I could to get the info, but, to repeat, this is not related to the situations presented, nor can it be systematic:
“I’m not being pernickety, but really the situation you describe is highly improbable. And if it were to arise, and all those predicates are met, and I do give the man the thumb-screws, and he does talk, and I do rescue my child, a) the case is unlike any of the cases of detention that I describe in the blog, and b) it is not and cannot become systematic.”
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not an advocate of torture. But I do think that there may be unusual and extreme situations where the absolute dictum ‘Torture is always wrong’ needs to be questioned. I also think that the ‘Death to the Great Satan’ approach to political discussion is unlikely to do justice to the complexity of many situations. I’m not saying that you take this approach, but it’s probably correct that most of the reading you do on subjects like Gitmo are taking a position that you antecedently endorse, so that’s not much of a learning experience and may tend to give you a one-sided picture. These are really difficult issues and it is important to apprise oneself of the best arguments on each side. One of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen on telly was Andrew Marr, on his Sunday morning show, constantly interrupting and shouting down a woman whom he was supposed to be interviewing jut because she was trying to explain the American position. He obviously had it in his mind that she was trying to defend the indefensible, so he just did not want to listen, or to give viewers the opportunity to listen.
Best wishes, (name anonymised)
Hi (name anonymised),
“But I do think that there may be unusual and extreme situations where the absolute dictum ‘Torture is always wrong’ needs to be questioned.”
That’s precisely what the blog is about. Precisely to analyse this question. That’s what the post about Zizek is about.
I fully agree about the Andrew Marr business.
(from William again)
Dear (name anonymised)
Good talking to you face to face. You’ve given me food for thought not only in relation to the moral obligation of intervention, but in relation to the options available to Tony Blair back in 2003…
By the way, further to our chat, here’s the link to my argumentation against the ticking bomb:
I much prefer talking to you than reading your blogs. This one is full of rhetoric, hyperbole and gratuitously emotive expression; it contains assumptions that a thoughtful opponent simply would not share. Recently there have been convictions of individuals for whom there is strong evidence that they were planning serious terrorist attacks imminently on targets they had reconnoitred. There are the first four conditions of your ‘ticking bomb’ scenario satisfied right there. In fact, those conditions could be used to draft legislation: Torture is legally permissible only when the following eight conditions are satisfied….. This is like the recent legislation on assisted suicide — it’s allowed only if a number of stringent conditions are met, and there is no suggestion that they will never simultaneously be met.
An anti-Iraq-war play by David Hare ran in London a few years ago. It gave the audiences consisting of the Hampstead set and other right-on opponents of the government the opportunity for mutual admiration and a comunal self-satisfied sneer at poiliticians. But, if it only massaged egos, confirmed people in views that they already held, made them feel smug and superior and allowed them to parade their pseudo-humanitarian credentials, what was the point of it? My own view is that, by and large, such people are inhumane and racist. They have no conception of what it is like to live in constant fear of arbitrary arrest and execution by psychopathic state-licensed thugs and, even if they did, they would not be in favour of our intervening because, of course, the saving the lives of hundreds or thousands of Iraqis does not justify the sacrifice of one of ‘our’ lads. It is for similar reasons that craven leaders of nations, more interested in securing their political futures than doing the right thing, declined to support the resolution to invade, NOT because they had any deep insight into how the war was likely to unfold. Had they participated, the war would have unfolded very differently.
Best wishes, (name anonymised)
Dear (name anonymised),
I very much enjoyed our chat, and, as I said yesterday, I certainly am prepared to consider a) the moral obligation of intervention and b) the options available for Blair back in 2003.
However, I find it unsettling that you accuse me of prejudice, and then glibly talk of ‘the Hampstead set and other right-on opponents of the government’ who go to the play in order to massage their egos and to feel ‘smug and superior’.
Whilst I am fully aware of some of the contradictions involved in a) criticising the actions of government whilst taking no active part in any governance oneself, and b) espousing pseudo-socialist values from a plush 5-story Hamsptead town house, it seems absurd to me to make such assumptions about the motives of the audience of a play.
Who, in your eyes, would be a legitimate opponent of the government (i.e. not simply seeking “mutual admiration and a communal self-satisfied sneer at politicians”?) Where must these people live? What must their social status be?
And how are “their pseudo-humanitarian credentials” different from yours, in blindly (and I mean that, as you asserted that intervention is an unquestioning moral duty) assuming that western-style democracy must be delivered to other nations down the barrel of a gun, irrespective of the horrendous fall-out of such endeavours? Why, seriously, were we not treated as liberators in Iraq? Why were folk upset at their country being, in the words of Bush, ‘bombed back to the Stone Age’? Did the UN Security Council vote against invasion because they were all yellow-bellied cowards? Did Zapatero withdraw his Spanish troops because he was racist? Whilst you suggest that my blog may be blinkered, I find your reduction of the events to such simplistic good vs. bad arguments overtly blinkered.
On the matter of torture, you assert that “those conditions could be used to draft legislation: Torture is legally permissible only when the following eight conditions are satisfied”. Well, this is precisely Dershowitz’s argument, that with the conditions met, a torture warrant could be issued. This is precisely what I attempt to refute in the post.
Some considerations of this that I didn’t go into in the original post. What if you didn’t have the bomber himself but you had his son. Somehow you had the bomber on the phone, or watching on a screen. Would you torture his son so as to make him reveal the bomb? As Stafford-Smith explores in his interview with torture theoretician Professor Levin: ‘You’re in the situation where the perpetrator knows where the ticking bomb is. The way you’re going to get him to talk is you’re going to torture his five-year-old, would you do that?’ He then further asks: ‘What proportion of people are we willing to torture erroneously, because we just got it wrong, before that invalidates the whole process of torture?’ (Bad Men: 28)
The leap between holding a suspect and torturing a suspect is, and must remain, large. Despite considering the possible scenario, and despite attempting to work through the arguments (admittedly, with ‘gratuitously emotive expression’), I cannot accept the logic for accepting torture. If the scenario was possible, one would assume that it would have occurred at least once. Stafford-Smith interviews Professor Levin, Professor Dershowitz, Assistant Secretary of Defense during Reagan, Richard Perle and retired Marine Corps officer, Big Bill Cowan, all of whom advocate the judicious use of torture. Not one of them could cite a case in which all those predicates had been satisfied. Perle and Cowan, indeed, admit that the enemy is empowered by the US’s use of torture.
My information about the constitution of the audience at David Hare’s play come from a theatre critic who was there, though I could have predicted it a priori. And please let me say that I do not, repeat not, classify *you* as a champagne socialist — I rather suspect that you, like me, are a socialist, simpliciter.
Like Stephen Fry, I do think that unconstructive whingeing at government policy is a British disease, but, of course, I do not think that all the policies of the present government (which I helped elect) are beyond reproach. When I judge a policy, I try to think not of how it affects me but of how it affects the broader community, and I try to inform myself on the issues so that I won’t be merely ignorantly mouthing prejudice — I believe that you are no different from me in this respect.. Opposition to a policy from this perspective is, I think, entirely proper and is not, of course, restricted to members of any particular social class. Unfortunately, for most people, research on an issue does not take them much beyond what they read in the papers or see on telly, and I think current standards of reporting in the media are atrocious. I’m sure you know how it works: a reporter makes up a story that he thinks will excite readers’ interest, e.g. ‘Brown is weak and inept’. People believe what they read. Reporters then do some interviews and — surprise, surprise — now find members of the public saying that Brown is inept. So the next day it’s ‘A recent poll has revealed that 74% of the British public believe that Brown is inept’. By this process, some proposition for which there was initially absolutely no evidence is now made true.
Whoever contended that ‘western-style democracy must be delivered to other nations down the barrel of a gun, irrespective of the horrendous fall-out of such endeavours’ ? I remember saying to you that pragmatic consideration have to be brought to bear on whether or not to intervene (you’d be ill-advised to try it on China) and I agreed with you that, before undertaking any such action, it is a moral imperative to estimate ‘fall-out’ as accurately as possible. Western democracy may not be the best political set-up for all societies (though it would be better for Burma than what they’ve currently got, wouldn’t you agree?) but what I do object to is people who say things like ‘East Asians belong to a different culture where human rights are not so important to them.’.
I think you missed my point about conditions under which torture is legitimate. You said that torture is never legitimate because (at least) 8 conditions would need to hold, and you doubted whether those conditions would ever be simultaneously saisfied. Another way of putting that is to say that torture is permissible only if those 8 or so conditions are simultaneously present. Then your opponent will say that your view that those 8 conditions will never actually simultaneously be met betrays an ostrich mentality. I tried to sketch for you one case where they would be. And it’s not difficult to imagine that, at some time in the near future, the police have incontrovertible evidence that a bomb has been planted on an airplane that has now taken off. They have got hold of the perpetrator and need to know from him, urgently, where the bomb is hidden. To think that there will *never* be such cases is mere wishful thinking and I suspect that relatives of the victims of London, Madrid, Bali do not share such optimism.
The sort of cases you contrive in your last two paragraphs are very interesting and would make excellent topics for discussion in a moral philosophy class. They need to be thought about very carefully.
Best wishes (name anonymised)
Hi (name anonymised),
Thanks for this response. We actually see eye to eye on most of the issues here. Above all we both agree that spouting slogans, whether supporting or criticising government actions, without being informed other than from tabloid headlines, leads to the angry and destructive mentality amongst so many.
On the morality of intervention, I agree on principle but have tremendous doubts about the application. In the same way that if justice is not for all then it’s effectively for none (the case of Polanski is interesting here), it unsettles me that proposals to overthrow a tyrannical regime always come alongside policies of supporting another. This has been the case in conflicts throughout the world. We mentioned Pinochet, for example, who was fully bankrolled and supported militarily by the US and the UK. As long as the Saudi royal family continues to buy our arms, we offer no criticism of their regime. The pragmatic aspect of what you were outlining (i.e. we wouldn’t invade China) effectively means we’ll only regime-change those regimes that we know we’ll overthrow or those regimes who buy their arms from other suppliers… This pragmatism, I feel, annuls any convincing morality.
On a final note concerning the ticking bomb, I definitively did not say that torture is not applicable because the conditions to be met are improbable. In the post (and others) I state quite clearly that proposing these conditions is already stepping down from a moral consensus. ‘We do not torture’ is inscribed in internationally signed conventions and treaties. Therefore, even prior to analysing the exceptional circumstances, you’ve opted out of that position. THEN, when you look at the arguments, you see them to be highly improbable, illogical, unrelated to any historical case, and, morally suspect. Therefore the argument of the improbability is simply to say ‘ok, so you want to find room for torture, ok, show me how it works. Uh-huh, ok, I see, under those OUTLANDISH circumstances. Has that ever happened? How do you know the torture would produce the intel? Who would do the torture? How would he have been trained? Who would train him? How do you know the suspect is the right guy? Should we torture the suspect’s son or ageing mother? How do you prevent martyrdom? Would you offer counseling for the torturer as well as the tortured? How do you guarantee that torture is applied only under these circumstances? Who judges these conditions to have been met? Who could grant or revoke the torture license? Would we accept that the enemy might also, legitimately, use this torture license? Etc. etc. etc.’
Really, there are so, so many negatives to the one shaky and unlikely positive of ‘defusing the ticking bomb’, that I feel it could never be written into any legislation – especially not some dodgy torture license…