Fea­ture

Esquire (Singapore) - - Style -

9/11 Tor­ture Pro­gram, puts it. “That the pro­hi­bi­tion is uni­ver­sal is a reflection of the fact that hu­man so­ci­eties are al­ways go­ing to feel some ex­is­ten­tial threat. It’s the one-on-one ex­pe­ri­en­tial hor­ror of tor­ture that the pro­hi­bi­tion is rooted in.”

And yet Don­ald Trump is not alone. There are those will­ing to de­fend tor­ture—that is, de­fend what many say is in­de­fen­si­ble, de­fend the likes of what The Stan­ford En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Phi­los­o­phy winc­ingly de­scribes var­i­ously as be­ing “prac­tices [such as] as sear­ing with hot irons, elec­tric shock treat­ment to the gen­i­tals, in­sert­ing a nee­dle un­der the fin­ger­nails, drilling through an unanes­theti­cised tooth...”

The cel­e­brated lawyer Alan Der­showitz, for ex­am­ple, has made a case for state in­sti­tu­tions to be able to is­sue tor­ture war­rants, much as they might a war­rant for sur­veil­lance or to search a home; while Pro­fes­sor Fritz All­hoff of Western Michi­gan Univer­sity, au­thor of Ter­ror­ism, Tick­ing Time-Bombs and Tor­ture, has made a strong case for tor­ture’s lim­ited use. And—given that even dis­cussing the pos­si­bil­ity of prac­tis­ing tor­ture has be­come taboo—that is not, he says, an easy po­si­tion to take. “It’s a risky sub­ject and one rea­son why my work has got at­ten­tion is that peo­ple see it as be­ing the best ver­sion of the wrong ar­gu­ment,” says All­hoff. “Let’s just say that [de­fend­ing tor­ture] is not great for ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

In part, a readi­ness to de­fend what many would call tor­ture lies in a re­but­tal of the use of the word to de­scribe the treat­ment meted out. While the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights agreed that those de­tained men in North­ern Ire­land had suf­fered “in­hu­man and de­grad­ing treat­ment”, they had, it stated, not been tor­tured. That’s a mat­ter of de­gree, of in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the mea­sure of sever­ity—whether or not it re­sults in “se­ri­ous phys­i­cal in­jury, or­gan fail­ure or death”, as the Pen­tagon’s no­to­ri­ous ‘tor­ture memos’ of 2002 sought to limit def­i­ni­tions.

In­deed, the UN Con­ven­tion Against Tor­ture may rule tor­ture il­le­gal, fram­ing it as the only crime other than geno­cide that ev­ery state must pun­ish, no mat­ter who com­mits it or where—but it also makes a dis­tinc­tion be­tween tor­ture and what it calls (and also op­poses) “other cruel, in­hu­man or de­grad­ing treat­ment or pun­ish­ment”. Wa­ter board­ing, the prac­tice car­ried out by the CIA in the in­ter­ro­ga­tion of sus­pected ter­ror­ists in its Abu Ghraib fa­cil­ity, for ex­am­ple, may be a ter­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ence, but—legally—it re­mains open to de­bate as to whether it, and sim­i­lar acts, are tor­ture. Then there are ar­gu­ments made that, since ter­ror­ists are not a state party to the Geneva Con­ven­tions, they aren’t cov­ered by their pro­hi­bi­tions any­way. Since 9/11 it’s all be­come a very grey area—un­con­vinc­ing to many—for a very dark sub­ject.

But All­hoff’s ques­tion is more pre­cise: de­spite the re­pul­sion that the idea of tor­ture no doubt in­spires; de­spite the claims that it cor­rupts the soul—not just of the per­son tor­tured, but of the tor­turer, even of the state and of so­ci­ety; de­spite claims that it’s a slip­pery slope—that one in­stance of tor­ture is the be­gin­ning of the road to it be­com­ing a state sanc­tioned tool; de­spite broader claims, by the likes of Re­becca Evans, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at Ursi­nus Univer­sity, Philadelphia, that it dam­ages the rep­u­ta­tion of the state, com­pli­cates re­la­tions with its al­lies and sug­gests a hypocrisy that makes the recog­ni­tion of hu­man rights by other na­tions harder to in­sist on; de­spite—false—claims to its in­ef­fec­tive­ness in an in­ter­ro­ga­tion sit­u­a­tion—that the tor­tured don’t pro­vide re­li­able in­for­ma­tion (that the very act of in­flict­ing pain is said to neg­a­tively af­fect the cen­tres of the brain re­quired to be able to give truth­ful in­for­ma­tion)... Af­ter all this, can tor­ture ever be jus­ti­fied? And he says yes.

“Some peo­ple ad­mit that in prin­ci­ple, in rare cases, there could be some con­cep­tual, ab­stract ac­cep­tance of tor­ture. They’re com­fort­able with that be­cause they’re not tak­ing the idea on in the real world,” says All­hoff, “But oth­ers say that in prin­ci­ple tor­ture is never OK, which is just im­plau­si­ble. Crit­ics say that it’s bet­ter to have an ab­so­lute bar [on tor­ture] be­cause it’s too hard to nu­ance. But I think you can have semi-ef­fec­tive tor­ture in lim­ited cases with­out tor­ture be­com­ing in­sti­tu­tion­alised. The idea of a tor­ture war­rant doesn’t work—that amounts to a blank cheque. But if tor­ture is the right thing to do—if in­tel­li­gence indi­cates no other op­tions in tack­ling a sub­stan­tial and im­mi­nent threat— then do it.”

The ar­gu­ment—which does not sup­port the use of tor­ture for, for ex­am­ple, the ben­e­fit of sadists, for re­venge, or as a means of states ter­ror­is­ing their own pop­u­la­tions—is couched

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