On Allegations of Torture

By July 4, 2007 No Comments

The American humorist P.J. O’Rourke once made an observation about the relative value of the 1913 Encyclopaedia Britannica compared to all encyclopaedias written since the end of the First World War. He pointed out that this was the last edition where observations about non-Western societies tended to be both candid and accurate; but also observed that this edition was the last full expression of that unbounded optimism about the future which used to characterize the West before ‘The War To End All Wars.’ To illustrate this point, he mentioned the reference about torture – which pointed out that in Europe, this was (in 1913) an obsolete practice whose day had ended.

Ninety four years later, torture is still far from obsolete and has certainly not vanished. The problem is that, sometimes, it might indeed be necessary, and also that few of us have any idea of what torture is and is not.

Torture, like terrorism or pornography, has escaped exact definition and cannot easily be isolated from other activities. Art may be in the eye of the beholder – so is obscenity. Some people are offended by a Ruben’s nude; some apparently see artistic merit in Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ. We all condemn terrorism and yet too many people will excuse groups they support from the taint of it. Inexact boundaries are found in the difference between torture and legitimate means of interrogation.

Most of us can recognize that subjecting a prisoner to electric shocks, whips and such is undeniably torture. (One wonders if this is true for those who voluntarily submit themselves to painful abuse and take sexual pleasure from it.). A few of us imagine that utilizing the sense of psychological disorientation and isolation that is normal to a POW is somehow unfair and impinges on torture, while deliberately prolonging or inducing that feeling is certainly such.

However, innumerable police officers and military intelligence personnel from democratic societies who view torture as a foul and evil practice frequently induce a mild sense of dislocation as a means to facilitating interrogation and see no lasting harm in it. The author, in his military service, inflicted and received worse treatment with other Canadian soldiers in peacetime exercises. This more robust view of what is or is not torture certainly conflicts with at least one spokesperson for Amnesty International who held that even an intimidating look from a police officer constituted ‘mental anguish’, and hence was torture in his world view.

While we cannot agree on what is, or is not torture, everyone is certainly against it – more or less. The problem is that the definition keeps changing: The old pillars of international standards for behaviour, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Human Rights Committee, have been getting rather flaky lately; and the old understanding (in lieu of an acceptable definition) have been getting blurry. The blurriness is deliberate – especially when the new buzz phrase is now about ‘Torture and Ill-Treatment’, which lumps the two concepts together and treats them as the same.

Obergefreiter Hanns Scharff was probably one of the most effective interrogators that ever lived. An NCO in the German Luftwaffe during the Second World War, he wrung volumes of information out of captured Allied airmen. What makes him unusual is that he largely confined his interview techniques to tea, sympathy and cigarettes, and is not known to have ever raised his voice to any prisoner he ever interrogated (in fact, Scharff was welcomed into the US after the war with the support of many of the airmen he interviewed, and ended his days as an acclaimed artist).

Professional interrogators know that with enough time and inducement, almost anything can be wrung out of most prisoners without resorting to physical torture. However, with fanatical ideologues or especially stubborn criminals, it might be necessary to turn on the psychological pressure – those old non-physical techniques of isolation, disorientation, and uncertainty. These techniques, while useful, seldom make for admissible evidence in a court; and never do if their use seems to have been deliberate and intensive. For example, waking a prisoner up in the middle of REM-sleep to interrogate him is an effective technique (the author having done this in peace-time exercises in the Canadian military), but a competent attorney might convincingly argue that this indeed constituted torture.

Many people will accept the idea of torture if it saves lives. In fiction, the old Clint Eastwood movie ‘Dirty Harry’ shows a hard-nosed police office who is willing to torture a suspected serial killer to save the life of a young woman who has been buried alive, and in the latest season of the television thriller series ‘24’, the hero tortures a suspect to attempt to reveal the whereabouts of a nuclear weapon concealed in a city before it detonates. These are fictional examples, but are there real cases along these lines? Yes… and the details will never be made public, particularly as the prisoners who were hastily tortured were killed after providing vital intelligence (the two instances that the author is aware of involved Special Forces from Allied nations in conflict zones).

We can all agree that we all oppose torture, even if we can’t agree as to what constitutes torture, and with the caveat for some of us, that it might just be permissible in special circumstances. When torture is alleged to have taken place, we can also all demonstrate our revulsion to the practice, usually without bothering to acquaint ourselves with the details or understanding the circumstances… which essentially makes our protest cheap and meaningless.

Members of Canada’s Parliament were alarmed and horrified by the reports that prisoners captured by Canadian troops were handed over to Afghan authorities where it was presumed that they were being tortured in detention. Much hand-wringing and viewing-with-alarm then ensued. However, Scott Taylor of Esprit de Corps magazine – no friend of the Canadian military’s senior brass — went to the effort of actually visiting and photographing the Afghan detention centre in question (something that no other Canadian journalists appeared to have done). Yes, the prisoners are badly housed with few amenities and an inadequate diet… and their guards lived in virtually identical conditions. These were not conditions of torture, but they certainly reflected the poverty that virtually all Afghans have to live with. There were no signs whatsoever of a cage, chains, or other implements that the centre was accused of using.

But the hoo-hah about Afghan detainees illustrates two – or possibly three – points about torture that inhibit our ability to fight against terrorism and protect ourselves.

The first is allowing the continued survival of a bogus argument that living conditions which are substandard to our own can somehow constitute ‘torture’ in themselves. Yes, an Afghan or Brazilian or Egyptian prison is a bad place to be; but so what? These are societies that are poorer than ours, and nobody in any society is going to provide amenities for their prisons that most of their more law-abiding citizens lack. Moreover, our continued insistence that prison facilities in poorer countries somehow constitute torture is simultaneously racist and elitist; and is certainly insulting to people whose cooperation and support we often need.

Secondly, and this really should have come up in the Arar Inquiry (which is why the author assigns no value to its findings); physical torture leaves scars – brutal ones on the body as well as on the soul. Once somebody alleges that they have been tortured and implies that it is somehow our fault that this occurred, a thorough medical exam by a competent doctor who is a friend of the court should be the only standard of proof. The test for psychological trauma leaves far too much to non-specific interpretations of ‘torture’ to be trustworthy, unless – again – a thoroughly neutral authority can be used as a friend of the court.

There is a good reason why we should no longer take it as a given on somebody’s ‘say-so’ that they have been tortured. The al Qaeda training syllabus in their camps and over the internet places a frequent stress on the conduct of Jihadists when captured – they are always to allege torture and abuse when in detention.

It is a fundamental principle of deception operations and psychological warfare (at least from totalitarian sources): Throw enough mud and some of it always sticks. When al Qaeda wrote up its training guides, they certainly understood this point, which is why Jihadists and their sympathizers always allege that they have been tortured and abused in detention. In fact, the allegation is so common, it can be reliably taken as an indicator that the suspected Jihadist actually is a part of the movement.

Should we torture captured Jihadists? Well, it depends on what one means by torture. Should we keep Jihadist prisoners mentally off-balance and disoriented to facilitate their interrogations? Certainly. Does this constitute torture? Not really. Is it acceptable to use torture if the circumstances are dire? Probably, but remember this – torture is dehumanizing and soul destroying for both the prisoner and the torturer. And the prisoner has a better chance than his tormentor of recovering his humanity later… If one inflicts torture, the risk of becoming a monster is real.

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