Tuesday, 5 June 2007


On Sunday, James and I went to see an event entitled ‘On Torture’ as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The panel was comprised of two speakers, American Michael Otterman, the author of the book ‘American Torture,’ and Raimond Gaita (acclaimed philosopher and author of the memoir “Romulus My Father” which has just been released on film.)

The first speaker was Michael Otterman – a journalist.

He argues that we should not legalise torture for three main reasons:
a. The ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario is a hypothetical – there has never been a historical situation (or so he believes) where this has been the case, so to legalise torture on that basis seems ludicrous.
b. Torture is actually the worst way to get information from suspects. The FBI (as opposed to the CIA) have used non-violent methods in investigating various different domestic terror suspects in cases like the 1993 WTC bombing and the 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing. He believes their intelligence to be of greater value when they use tactics like ‘we’ll get your sick son medical treatment’ etc. instead of physical torture.
c. Once torture is legalised, it quickly spreads. He cites the example of Israel in the 1980s where the Shin Bet were authorised to utilise a ‘moderate use’ of coercive methods, and it was found that over 85% of Palestinians were subjected to torture in detention.

All of this is perhaps unsurprising and nothing new. These are very similar “we should not legalise torture” arguments from debates we’ve been doing for years. However, Raimond Gaita - an ethics professor at Kings College – presented some really sophisticated arguments which I think are much more interesting than the usual run-of-the-mill ones.

In light of this, I thought I’d pose some questions with some of Gaita’s answers mingled with my own thoughts.

1. Would you torture one person to save a thousand?

People who condone the use of torture – even in extreme times – cannot choose to answer for the thousands they seek to represent, as the thousands of others are not an indivisible mass. That is, you cannot presume to answer on behalf of the other thousand people, for who are you to do so?

Gaita argues that each one of us should be prepared to die so that the practice of torture should not be inflicted upon anyone. “Do not assume to torture on my behalf – I may be prepared to die in the fight of not negotiating with terror.”

He also argues that people who accept torture must also accept all of the implications. For example, they must accept that there is a brute underclass created to perform such acts etc

I think this is a fascinating twist on the ticking time bomb hypothetical. For a long time, I think my answer would have been, yes, torture one (or even kill one, in more morbid hypothetical) so that a thousand could live. But I think he point isa really valid one. It also reminds me of the Ali G sketch, where, interviewing an animal rights activist, he asks, “Would you kill one chicken so that two others could live?” and “Are you ok with animal testing when the product is for animals?” Two philosophical nail biters if ever there were.

2. Is everything negotiable when one’s life is at stake?

Some people argue that torture is a ‘necessary evil’ because of the common good and/or the national interest.

Gaita’s response is that terrorists only threaten our lives: it is us who control how we will change our own morality/democracy/ethics in how we respond to terrorists.

Further, he cautions against the use of ‘necessary evil’ as a frame itself. How can anything, he asks, framed as ‘obligatory’ be seen as evil? If this is the case, we blur our boundaries of good and evil when we accept the necessary nature of anything

3. But aren’t things fundamentally different since 9/11? Aren’t we in a new era of warfare?

Some people argue that after the event of 9/11, everything has changed and therefore we now need to turn to torture.

Gaita argues that this would be true if the last century was particularly innocent, but that this same “blood-soaked” century, the time of Paschendaele, Gallipoli, Auschwitz, Rwanda etc, was also the century of the U.N. and hundreds of conventions governing how we should be humane to each other. So to think that 9/11 has changed the world, he believes, is succumbing to the tyranny of the present and a politicking tool to justify a whole lot of breaches of H.R.

I find Gaita’s argument really compelling, but wonder about the new type of warfare which 9/11 has prompted, that of the move from wars fought within or between nation states and the shift to non-state actors like terrorists on the world stage. Perhaps, where there is no longer a red phone to the Kremlin in the Oval Office, it is unsurprising that tactics must change. I don’t say this as an apology for torture – I am against the use of it entirely – but I wonder whether the event hasn’t prompted some changes to modern warfare, the effects of which we can’t understand yet. Or perhaps I too am succumbing to the politics of the “things are bad, so let us do what we want” White House.

4. What do you think of the role of doctors and psychologists in the practices of torture on American soldiers in SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) Schools?

Otterman talks of these schools where American soldiers are tortured under the watch of psychologists and doctors in order to become ‘stress inoculated’ in case they are captured by the enemy. Someone in the audience raised the question that could these people could be aligned with the Nazi doctors who also took the Hippcratic Oath. Isn’t the purpose of a doctor to protect the patient at all costs? (Hypocritic, perhaps?)

Interestingly also, the American Association of Psychologists is one of the major medical organizations who has not spoken out about this practise, because some of the senior psychologist on the board were in Iraq supervising torture methods…

5. Are there some things that should be essentially undiscussable?

Just as you can note the character of a person by what they will not discuss, you can note the character of a nation by what is ‘undiscussable’. Gaita doesn’t believe there is even a place to ‘speak’ about torture within the community, because there are some things that can’t morally be argued. For example, you would never see a debating topic like “That Genocide is an effective way of XYZ” but you are very likely to see the topic “that torture is a legitimate means of intelligence gathering.”

This is the question that most stumps me, as my inner liberal leftie wants to talk about everything and debate everything because I think that part of beating your enemy is to know them through knowing their ‘side’ if you like. I have debated that torture topic a few times, and been on both sides of it. I suppose I had no moral objection at the time because I think of debating as an intellectual exercise in framing, contextualisation and argument. But I also think that if something like torture is in the public discourse, it should be talked about a lot. But again, perhaps there is no argument to be had: perhaps a line deserves to be drawn against the most reprehensible things, like the detention of immigrants in Australia because there is no argument.

I’d be really interested to hear what the others think on this topic.


James said...

On Kato's point 5, should torture be 'undiscussable':

Gaita sees our laws as being based on a "shared thread of morality" in that we instinctively assume that some things are ok while others are not. It is this undergirding structure that is under threat from the practice of torture.

This is because it is impossible for people to torture or be tortured without degrading themselves. It's not like warfare or even execution, where people can sometimes maintain their dignity. Therefore, as the practice and the idea of torture spreads, it attacks this "shared thread" of what is acceptable.

Hence the idea that it should be 'undiscussable.' Gaita talked about the notion of 'sobriety.' Sometimes it is fundamental to critical intelligence to rule things out. I assume this to be the same way an addict maintains his ability to think by ruling out the drug. Or perhaps it is more helpful to think of torture as an inherently destructive meme, that strikes at the heart of what holds us together as a civilisation. For that reason the idea should be quarantined, and not given legitimacy through discussion.

My problems with this theory are similar to Kato's. I have the debater's optimism that everything should be discussed.

But I also don't know how to bring this notion into practice. How do you 'make' something undiscussable - aren't you basically creating a liberal thought crime? And if torture is discussible right now, isn't the cat out of the bag? What do we gain by removing it from public discourse if it continues in our name?

R Ko said...

I am not for torture but here are some different points of view for discussion:

1. One might be able to speak for 1,000 when elected under a social contract.

2. If we can accept that some things are more evil than others or that some amount of good can net out a lesser amount of evil, then being good means being a good negotiater.

3. What 9/11 brought home was something that Clinton was aware of in the early 90s. The only similarity between the "blood-soaked" century and the asymmetric warfare of today is that the only way to win is to recognise when things aren't working and change course. Everyone who won a war in C20 did that. Everyone who stayed the course got beat.

4. I think the medical profession needs to be a broad church to reflect wider (open) society.

5. The benefit of having undiscussable topics is that you get a kicker in your quantum profundity when you do talk about them.