Category Archives: abu ghraib

Torture prohibition as moral absolute

Žižek drives a hard bargain:

In a way, those who refuse to advocate torture outright but still accept it as a legitimate topic of debate are more dangerous than those who explicitly endorse it. Morality is never just a matter of individual conscience. It thrives only if it is sustained by what Hegel called “objective spirit,” the set of unwritten rules that form the background of every individual’s activity, telling us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

For example, a clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is “dogmatically” clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.

Knight of the Living Dead, NYTimes March 24, 2007

 So we need dogma. That’s all well and good, but where does that position one in relation to the torture advocate who is attempting to propose rational arguments for the use of torture?

‘Sorry – we don’t discuss this.’

‘You’re wrong. End of story.’

‘I’m not listening – LALALALALALALA – I can’t hear you.’

 If torture is a moral absolute, then surely this position would have been arrived at through a process of examination and assessment of the argument, not an a priori conclusion? As such, unless the arguments themselves were flimsy (they’re not), one should still be perfectly able to take on the torture advocate in debate and, without rhetoric or overtly emotive tactics, justify why the moral absolute is indeed a moral absolute.

 Ruth Blakeley, of the University of Kent, in her powerful article ‘Why torture?’, outlines 3 assumptions behind the application of torture by both liberal and authoritarian states: security, stability and legitimacy.

The security model reflects the dominant claims made about torture by authoritarian and liberal states alike – that its function is to obtain intelligence to defeat security threats. The stability model accounts for torture when it is used in authoritarian states, but often sponsored by external liberal elites, as a method to instil fear, to deter potential and actual political opposition among the population. This is intended to help protect the interests of elite groups. The legitimacy model accounts for the ways in which state officials, usually from liberal states, seek, on the one hand, to secure the right to use torture, based on the assignment of specific identities of themselves – as legitimate – and of those against whom they wish to use torture – as illegitimate. On the other hand, claiming the right to use torture is intended to secure those specific identities, which are never fixed. (Blakeley: 374)

 Can there be any justification for any of these assumptions?


In conversation the other day with a retired British Army officer who had served in intelligence operations during the Cold War and in Northern Ireland, I asked whether, in to his knowledge, torture has ever been effective in gaining reliable intelligence. ‘Well’, was his response, ‘the Soviets employed psychoactive drugs in order to discombobulate the prisoner, who would often start to babble and would thus betray himself. The British in Northern Ireland [and I’m not sure if he was referring to the army, the police, or secret services] tended to break down a prisoner through sleep deprivation. An interrogation would commence, and when the interrogator tired he would be replaced by another, and so on. Many IRA suspects betrayed the whereabouts of their comrades through this tactic.’

So – is it effective – well, undeniably, intel is gained.
And reliable – well, some of it, I suppose is reliable.

The problems with this, though, are manifold.

If you have the wrong man, then no amount of interrogation (harsh or otherwise) is going to produce valuable intel.

If the man babbles because his brain is fried (either through pain, psychoactive compounds or sleep deprivation), then reliable information is surely going to be shot through with incoherence and thoroughly unreliable info. As such, only years of enquiry or inspired divination will be able to sort the wheat from the chaff.

He’ll also, as is well documented, say whatever he believes the interrogator wants him to say in order to stop the pain. ‘Give me a water board, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders’ (Jesse Ventura). This, shockingly, was the case of the intel gained from the enhanced interrogation of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, whose admissions were only discredited by the CIA after Bush et. al. cited him in their allegations of the ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in their justification for invasion.

Furthermore, what are the guarantees that the alleged ‘reliable intel’ gained through torture could not have been gained through more empathetic, less brutal, techniques? The ex army officer explained that, despite evidence to the contrary, the British are still the world’s most accomplished practitioners of the cross-examination style interrogation. He cited a British interrogator during the Cold War, upon whom John le Carré based some of his interrogation sequences, who was the absolute master at examining the suspect, questioning the story, leading the suspect, through brilliant Rumpole-of-the-Bailey-style eloquence and logic, to betray himself.

Without even going into depth about the horrific physical and emotional chronic pain that the torture victim (and the torturer) suffer as a result of torture, and without discussing the wider implications with regard the victim’s family and society at large, it needs to be reinforced that the justification for the use of torture as a means of gaining reliable intelligence is inherently flawed, as no positive case could be taken in isolation of numerous negative cases.

That’s to say – let’s imagine the extreme case in which a suspect gives up information that leads to the annulment of a security risk or the revelation of a terror cell (or some other ‘positive’ outcome). It is impossible to consider this situation in isolation of scores of occasions in which torture was employed with the same aims in which a) the suspect was innocent, b) he gave misleading information such as naming innocents, c) he simply gave information that he believed the interrogators wished for, d) he became unconscious or died, e) as such a steely-nerved evildoer he continued to remain silent, f) and so on and so on…

It would be impossible to assert that torture was used only for the acquisition of reliable intel without also admitting the collateral damage produced from torture where, for the reasons stated, reliable intel was not acquired. Therefore, even in the ‘reliable intel’ argument, we’re dealing with a set of prerequisites almost as improbable as in the ticking-bomb scenario, which I argue against in another post. Furthermore, once you’re using the ‘reliable intel’ as a justification, the outcome invariably will be in order to defuse a potential catastrophe. Therefore, the argument rapidly morphs into the ticking-bomb scenario anyway. Again, so improbable as to be impossible.

Last of all – at this present moment the only people claiming that the techniques have been effective are either right-wing radio nuts like Glen Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, or are the war architects themselves, like Cheney. Following the stratospheric levels of duplicity, secrecy, cover-ups, document shreddings, legal jiggerypokery, crafty memos and sly policies – who in their right mind would believe such a man?

And if you then compare Cheney’s claim that reliable intel was gained, with, for instance, any of the reports by Stafford-Smith, Erik Saar, Philippe Sands, Mahvish Khan, or any of the testimonies by detainees, FBI agents, marines, military guards, military police, translators, interrogators, chaplains, etc. all held at the The Guantánamo Testimonials Project – WHO ARE YOU GOING TO BELIEVE?



‘Well,’ said the ex army officer, ‘surely some nations have gained a form of stability through the use and the threat of imprisonment, torture and disappearance. Pinochet remained in power for nearly two decades, Chairman Mao for far longer. But is it a type of stability you want?’

Of course, and this now enters the old philosophical question of law: if the penalty for parking on a double-yellow line were death, would people park on a double-yellow line? If the answer is no, then is it an effective law? If stability (for what it’s worth) is achieved through such brutal measures, does it really constitute stability? I believe not.



This is the most absurd of all of these assumptions, and is akin to the Orwellian double-speak (and double-think) endemic in the War of Terror. Bombing to bring peace through Operation Enduring Freedom, killing in order to save, destroying in order to preserve, incarcerating without trial, abusing and even killing detainees in order to ‘Defend Freedom, Sir!’


To conclude.

At the beginning of my musings on torture, I felt that perhaps if there had been a situation in which reliable intelligence had been gained through torture then there would be a chink in the armour of the torture opponents. We would have to say that ‘ok, so you have shown me a situation in which torture was used as an absolute one-off, and, in this case it proved successful in achieving intel that led to the dismantling of a terror network. However, despite this, I am not prepared to accept the legitimacy of such means, and I still oppose the gathering of intelligence through these means. I am, therefore, prepared to sacrifice that intel so as not to condone torture’.

I now believe that statement to be false, as, simply, such an isolated situation seems to me utterly improbable.

 I believe, therefore, that we don’t need to retreat into dogmatic silence in the defence of a moral absolute. Indeed I would go so far as to suggest that such absence of reasonable and intellectual argument would serve only to allow the proponents of torture to believe they have a valid point. They don’t. Each one of the arguments, I believe, can be successfully and convincingly dismantled.

Rendition, secret detention and the absence of habeas continue wholesale under Obama

Rather than attempt to summarise his article, here is Andy Worthington’s latest piece concerning Bagram: Obama Brings Guantánamo And Rendition To Bagram (And Not The Geneva Conventions)

For those pressed for time, here is Andy’s poignant conclusion:

The upshot of all this is disastrous for those who hoped that President Obama would not only accept, but would positively embrace the opportunity to return to the laws that existed regarding the capture and detention of prisoners, before they were so comprehensively dismissed by the Bush administration. Far from reassuring the world that there are only two acceptable methods for holding people in detention — either as criminal suspects, to be put forward for trials in federal court, or as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions — Obama has chosen instead to continue to operate outside the law, implementing Guantánamo-style tribunals at Bagram, and acknowledging that he wants the US courts to remain excluded because he is using Bagram as a prison for terror suspects “rendered” from around the world.

To gauge quite how disastrous this news is, imagine how former Vice President Dick Cheney is responding to it. Yes, that is indeed a smile playing over the lips of the architect of America’s wholesale flight from the law in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. “I told you so,” he mutters contentedly … 

The torture debate continues – with echoes of Algeria and Ulster

John Amato, over at the tremendous ‘virtual online magazine… OK, it’s a blog’ Crooksandliars, recently published an interview with Alfred W. McCoy, author of A Question of Torture. The interview was originally broadcast on Late Night Live – ABC Radio National, Australia. March 15, 2006, and as John points out, ‘considering the current events in the torture issue, it seems apropos to take another look at it now.’

McCoy is another of many to point out in simple easily-understood terms a number of key points in the torture debate, most notably, that the ‘ticking-bomb scenario’ so beloved of torture advocates, is an outright illusion that has never occurred in reality.

Others (of many) to point out not just the immorality and cruelty of torture, but its overall ineffectiveness – indeed, its contra-effectiveness – are Ray McGovern, 27-year CIA veteran, Clive Stafford-Smith, in his book Bad Men, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum in the article The Torture Myth, Ruth Blakeley, of the University of Kent, in her powerful article ‘Why torture?’, and Jean-Paul Sartre, in the preface to Henri Alleg’s first-hand description of being tortured in Algeria by the French, The Question. Sartre, indeed, sums up the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario neatly:

“How are the torturers justified? It is sometimes said that it is right to torture a man if his confession can save a hundred lives. This is nice hypocrisy. […] Was it to save lives that they scorched his nipples and pubic hair? No, they wanted to extract from him the address of the person who had hidden him. If he had talked, one more Communist would have been locked up, no more than that. […] These tortures bring a poor return: the Germans themselves ended by realising this in 1944; torture costs human lives but does not save them.” (Alleg 1958: 22)

John Amato continues with a piece entitled: “Not Only Is This Illegal and Immoral, It’s Stupid. Six Days Without Sleep Doesn’t Produce Useful Information”, strengthening the argument of the uselessness of torture…

The important issue at stake is the hard-lined pragmatic question of result. If all the moral and ethical arguments against torture were wheeled out to argue against its use, and yet, as Cheney pa and daughter would have the US public believe, genuine intelligence is indeed gained through the practice of torture (sorry – enhanced interrogation techniques, including mock executions, waterboarding, sleep deprivation and drill attacks – see Newsweek article – and these are only the declassified techniques…)… if this genuine intel is gained, then there would be a gap in the moral/ethical argument. The great debate at present in the US, and spilling over into the UK with regard the alleged participation/complicity of the MI5 in the torture of British citizens or residents oversees, is whether a) these techniques have really produced this intel of such value to homeland security and b) if so, could that intel (and perhaps more) have been gained through empathetic interrogation. As would be expected, the argument in favour of these techniques is promoted by hard right wingnuts like Bill O’Reilly on Fox, versus, well, versus all those liberal pansies whom big Bill so despises.

Interestingly, the debate has stirred some puddles that clearly had never really settled in their cultures’ memories – the French in Algeria and the British in Northern Ireland.

The War of Images

Baudrillard, as would be expected, addresses the concept of image in the War of Terror in the article War Porn.

“The worst is that it all becomes a parody of violence, a parody of the war itself, pornography becoming the ultimate form of the abjection of war which is unable to be simply war, to be simply about killing, and instead turns itself into a grotesque infantile reality-show, in a desperate simulacrum of power.”

Brilliantly, he addresses the Abu Ghraib images:

“Truth but not veracity: it does not help to know whether the images are true or false. From now on and forever we will be uncertain about these images. Only their impact counts in the way in which they are immersed in the war. There is no longer the need for “embedded” journalists because soldiers themselves are immersed in the image – thanks to digital technology, the images are definitively integrated into the war. They don¹t represent it anymore; they involve neither distance, nor perception, nor judgment. They no longer belong to the order of representation, nor of information in a strict sense. And, suddenly, the question whether it is necessary to produce, reproduce, broadcast, or prohibit them, or even the “essential” question of how to know if they are true or false, is “irrelevant”.

Of the infamous photo of the hooded prisoner with electrodes on his outstretched arms, Baudrillard comments:

This masquerade crowns the ignominy of the war – until this travesty, it was present in this most ferocious image (the most ferocious for America), because it was most ghostly and most “reversible”: the prisoner threatened with electrocution and, completely hooded, like a member of the Ku Klux Klan, crucified by its ilk. It is really America that has electrocuted itself. (War Porn)


 It is worth considering this image in greater depth.

Baudrillard notes that the man is hooded like the KKK, and then crucified by them.

If the image evokes the KKK, is it the horror of them – the violence and racism – or some sense of justice? For the hood is not just the KKK – it is also the burka. The repeated rhetoric, used to justify the war on the Taliban in Afghanistan, is that the Muslim man imprisons the woman. Here, therefore, the liberators pull the burka over the brutalising man. Are the KKK hood and the burka now somehow interrelated in racial tones of supposed justice? And what of the crucifiction? Unlike Christ on the cross, this man is faceless and dressed in black. His crucifiction is thus a mockery, a travesty. He cannot look to the heavens or cast his light on his followers. He is darkness swallowed up by darkness.

My feeling, therefore, in tune with Baudrillard’s, is that these images provided more than simple moral outrage – they provided a degree of titillation shot through with a sense, somehow, of justice. The US soldiers or MPs at Abu Ghraib, in addition to venting their own (homoerotic) sexual fantasies upon the male prisoners, and in addition to constructing very carefully the precise form of sexual humiliation that would most disgust the prisoners, in this particular image, they have created their own particular, culturally and religiously-bound form of punishment. A dark-skinned non-Christian wife-beater is ironically hooded in a KKK mask that doubles as a burka, placed in public view on a soap-box, and is then crucified.

Millions of Iraqi children starved during the US embargo. Thousands of Iraqis dead in bombardment. The only news that really was any news were the images of Abu Ghraib. Is it because these images embodied greater meaning than simple photos of dead children?