Monday, 22 February 2010

The Ticking Bomb and the Tooth Fairy

When I was very small, my mother told me that flies were bad. When I was also very small, I think it was "Black Beauty" in which I was very surprised to read a passage in which one boy beats up another boy for being cruel to flies. When I got older, I suddenly remembered that I used to think it was all right to be cruel to flies and general "bad" creatures, and felt shocked and sick with myself.

A lot more years later, I so often hear or read something like: "Yeah, that's a great theory, but real life isn't as nice as that" as an excuse for such things as cruelty. The implication is that innocence, immaturity, weakness, a general lack of thought, is the only place for goodness - while real thought and ability is the place for wrongdoing; and idealists should grow up, stop making others feel guilty, and join in. I suppose one could say that this idea goes back to the Garden of Eden, and probably many years before that. Personally, I'd say that it's the other way round.

A week ago, Bruce Anderson wrote an editorial in the Independent that caused a furore whose like I have rarely seen. He claimed: "We not only have a right to use torture. We have a duty".

He begins by detailing the revoltingness of torture, rather as a boss I once had used to begin trying to order my 18-year-old self to "grow up" and approve of corruptness and dishonesty by lecturing me on the damage that corruptness and dishonesty can do. Possibly this introduction is intended to forestall uncomfortable retorts, and make the opposition feel thoroughly depressed.

He then goes on to claim that torture provides us with useful information, that "although we find torture repulsive, it does not follow that those who are tasked with governing Pakistan could safely dispense with it", and that "we should be grateful for the Pakistanis' efforts on our behalf". He claims that America is too sophisticated to need to use torture at present, though it might in the future, if presented with the famous "ticking bomb" scenario.

This "ticking bomb scenario" is the crux of his argument: "the intelligence chiefs, grey and drawn from lack of sleep, inform the Prime Minister, ditto, that it seems almost certain that a nuclear device is primed to explode in the next few hours. There is a man in custody who probably knows where it is. They are ready to use whatever methods are necessary to extract the information..." Anderson favours waterboarding. He also favours the torturing, if possible, of the prisoner's wife and children.

The general idea of the article is that it is better to torture one person, or a few, than to allow "the ticking bomb" to explode and kill millions. He says what so many people say, to make the idealists feel immature: "There is nothing to be gained from refusing to face facts".

Very well. Let us actually start thinking, and examine some facts.

Of course, we don't have very many facts to hand - which is why, for example, we are simply supposed to take it on trust that the information gained by the Pakistani torturers or Guantanamo is useful, accurate, worthwhile, and could not be obtained by other means. I don't take that on trust. Anyone being tortured will eventually say absolutely anything to get the agony to stop. They will sign false confessions, they will probably end up babbling nonsense. And of course any terrorist with half a grain of sense will have a good misleading cover story or two. Meanwhile, what is the actual likelihood of knowing that somebody has planted a bomb, and while you don't know where the bomb is you do capture the right person? If there is one incident of this ever happening (TV shows do not count), I would be very interested to know. Frankly, I doubt that it has ever happened or ever will.

. . . Where do I get all these "facts"? From logic, from the news, from the Internet - from, I hope, growing up and understanding human beings. Even from being bullied at school, where I was once thrust up against a fence, had my arms pinned behind my back, and had a lit cigarette shoved into my mouth, and this was a fairly normal day; and at the office when I was 18, where I eventually found it less trouble to admit that it was entirely my fault that the boss had made an idiot of himself or trashed all the company files, than to tell the truth and be disciplined even further for arguing.

And from books, of course. I recommend "The Railway Man" by Eric Lomax, which I found by reading The Independent's version of this haunting article about Nagase Takashi, a wartime interpreter for Japanese torturers and who has spent the rest of his life in repentance. Isabel Allende's books describe how Pinochet's Chile used torture to terrorize and repress its citizens. Thomas Powers's "Heisenberg's War" reminds us of the horrors Fritz Houtermans went through at the hands of the Soviets, who thought him a German spy, and the Nazis, who thought him a Soviet spy. The former told him untruthfully that they had captured his wife and children, at which point he signed all the confessions they wished. Anhua Gao's "To the Edge of the Sky" tells the story of interrogation in Mao's China; how, having nothing to tell them, but knowing they would not let her go until they had a name, she simply gave them a name of a woman she did not like - and it worked. And Sattareh Farman Farmaian's "Daughter of Persia", the best book I have ever read, shows us only too clearly what it was like living under a reign of constant terror of imprisonment and torture in the Shah's Iran.

Torture is never one isolated incident. Anderson's article makes it sound like one; offers a choice between one wrong and another. But it doesn't work like that. The torturers, those who ordered the torture, and the victim and their community, are all a part of it. How many countries whose governments use torture are forgiven and respected by the rest of the world? A torture victim who may not have been radicalised before capture is far likelier to do so afterwards, as are their family, friends, and perhaps whole country. After the ultimate suffering and humiliation, they will probably be a broken person. A broken person cannot trust others, form relationships, or, probably, hold down a job and be a productive citizen. Pure cold selfish economics should decree that breaking down a person in such a way leaves the state an expensive mess to clean up. You've also taught them torture, which they might go on to use on others. To say "they do it, so why shouldn't we" simply says, "We do it to them, so they can do what they like to us". And I have seen people argue that a terrorist whose intention is to blow up everyone surrounding them has given up their human rights - whether or not that is so, that does not mean we have given up our human responsibilities.

Just as I disagree with the message of the Garden of Eden, I also disagree that "sin" is something we carry around inside us until it is extracted by a mythological being, rather as detox purports to purge us of past burgers and fries. And yet it is rather a good metaphor, because a torturer must carry what they've done inside them forever. They might become a Nagase; which would certainly defeat the government's purpose, so they'd have to employ someone else. More likely, they'd have to desensitise themselves to what they'd done. They might become lost and withdrawn. They might grow to hate themselves. They might enjoy their work, the implications of which are sinister. What kind of a work culture would it be, having colleagues like that? Would they do it to each other; would they bring it out of the workplace, perhaps? And once a moral boundary has been crossed, how far do we go beyond it? Would the government start setting targets for how much information must be got out of suspects per year, requiring arbitrary torture? At what point, in any case, do you decide you can stop torturing someone because they've told you everything you want; at what point, indeed, do you decide that torture is necessary?

The comments pages (12 pages, by now) are heartwarming. To read a few of them right after the article, I felt like despairing at the human race. To read most of them, however, affirms my faith in it, and my hopefulness at learning and teaching us not only citizen science and working together, but to choose the right thing. Many people wrote movingly that they would prefer to die in a terrorist's bomb than live under a state that tortured. Others suggested that a good way to avoid the need for torture, and fear of bombs, is not to invade other people's countries. The Independent's letters have been pretty good too; though why they call it a "debate" I know not, given the unity of the writers! They'll probably be deeply buried soon, so I'll link them: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday - in which one of mine got published, sarcastically (I couldn't resist) comparing the "ticking bomb scenario" to the tooth fairy telling a reader to rape a child in order to bring about world peace. I hope it is clear by now that, put in a sort of vaccuum, one might choose to sacrifice the child - but to put it into the context of the whole world, it's obviously nonsense. (The rapist and raped are not exactly in a state of peace for starters.)

Some Twitterers were angry enough to set up a Facebook group against the torture of children. One letter was jointly from Amnesty International and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, the very group that helped Eric Lomax. I looked up the latter and was very pleased that I had. The "Torture Myths" section is particularly well worth a read . . .

At first, I was nauseated that the Indy could have published such a hideous, violent piece; now, like one of the letter writers, I am pleased they did - for the way to defeat a hateful argument is to expose it, and answer it. Torture is in every way wrong, and arguments against it are not merely liberal, self-indulgent wooliness, nor childlike innocence that the thoughtful outgrow: both human and logical arguments answer it clearly. For those of it who accuse me of "not thinking", I can safely respond, "Think yourself."


Anonymous said...

As I sit here discussing this with the oldest terrible teen, She asks, what is there to gain, if a person knows where the bomb is, and when it will explode, if they can only endure till then, problem solved.

Sakib said...

I honestly can't believe that someone could possibly advocate the use of torture! What hate fuelled times we live in! I can't comprehend the logic of permitting a minor act of evil for the "greater good" and to protect the public from terrorism by employing barbaric methods. The most powerful tool at the disposal of a torturer is the mind of the victim, the torture carried out in order to prevent a bomb attack would more than likely lead to the destruction that is supposed to be prevented. If torture is a duty, than that makes us as evil or even more barbaric than the terrorists. The use of torture would just fuel anti-Western sentiment further leading to the likelihood of violence and would maintain the neverending cycle of violence and chaos. Is it worth achieving peace at the cost of your soul and your humanity?

leslie said...

I think that fear is the emotion that help justifying all actions.
Fear (Garden of Eden), bomb or fear of the unknown. We are creatures of habits, what we know makes us feel secure , even if what we know is pain ,nastiness; it is so much easier to stay with it than to change. because change involves going to the unknown, therefore fear of the unknown. Few of us , it seems can grow up and take a step to change their ways. Torture is a very well know behaviour so just to easy to carry on, and so hard to stop. We all need to come to term with our fears.
Great post XX