Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Beguiled by Cruelty

How long will it be before 'Western Civilisation' once again accepts torture as a regrettable, but sometimes necessary, practice? Not long enough, when a discussion of torture leads even opponents of torture to start speculating about how it might be made acceptable.

According to commenter NPOV at Club Troppo:

I might accept that some type of torture could be (barely) ethically justifiable, whereby: a) the process was “humane” as possible - e.g. gradually increasing the dosage of a intravenously supplied drug that caused pain, with careful medical supervision to assure no risk of permanent damage or death, and no risk that the torturer stepped out of bounds b) there was a requirement of thoroughly determined “possession of knowledge” beforehand (in the same way we now determine guilt “beyond reasonable doubt” before jailing criminals) c) the method was determined to be a highly effective method of extracting life-saving information, when all other avenues had been exhausted I still wouldn’t vote in favour of such a proposal, but I wouldn’t strenously object to it either, as long the checks and balances were shown to be working.

It may be that NPOV's intention here is sardonic - that the conditions under which NPOV is prepared to turn a blind eye are impossible to achieve. But that intention is by no means clear.

The first condition - or something like it - is attainable. The essential fatty acid arachidonic acid is a biochemical precursor of the prostaglandins which contribute to pain and inflammation. A subcutaneous injection of arachidonic acid would have an inflammatory effect on tissues, causing the sort of pain that is usually relieved with aspirin. A local injection of bradykinin would work even better. Historical experience shows that medical supervision for torture sessions would be forthcoming, one way or another.

The only question remaining is whether there is a risk of the torturer stepping out of bounds - but the door has already been opened too far. It would take very little force of argument from an advocate of the use of torture to open it all the way.

To argue against the use of torture in this way is wrong-headed. Once it has been allowed that torture - under proper supervision - is acceptable, the requirements of proper process will be satisfied, quite quickly, in the same way that they have been satisfied in the past; by defining punctilious protocols for establishing and recording interrogations under torture to provide the appearance of due process.

Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger's witchhunters' manual Malleus Maleficarum (MM) (1486) provides a good example of this under the heading 'Of the Third Kind of Sentence, to be Pronounced on one who is Defamed, and who is to be put to the Question':

THE Third method of bringing a process on behalf of the faith to a conclusive termination is when the person accused of heresy, after a careful consideration of the merits of the process in consultation with learned lawyers, is found to be inconsistent in his statements, or is found that there are sufficient grounds to warrant his exposure to the question and torture: so that if, after he has been thus questioned, he confesses nothing, he may be considered innocent. And this is when the prisoner has not been taken in heresy, nor has he been convicted by his own confession, or by the evidence of the facts, or by the legitimate production of witnesses, and there are no indications that he is under such a suspicion as to warrant his being made to abjure the heresy; but nevertheless he is inconsistent in his answers when interrogated. Or there may be other sufficient reasons for exposing him to torture. And in such a case the following procedure is to be observed.

The import of this passage is simple - once you have made up your mind to torture someone, for whatever you think good reason ('there may be other sufficient reasons for exposing him to torture') here is the proper procedure for recording the verdict - here's how you cover your bureaucratic arse.

The requirement that torture be found effective (NPOV's third requirement) is no impediment to the adoption of torture, Those who want to torture, or want torture used, will quite simply assume that it is effective, as did Kramer and Spenger. Accepting torture as a legitimate way to obtain information gives validity to testimony obtained under torture. This leads to a particularly vicious circle, where the 'truth' obtained through torture is used to justify the continued practice of torture:

[Here is] an instance which came within our own experience. For in the diocese of Constance, twenty-eight German miles from the town of Ratisbon ... a violent hailstorm destroyed all the fruit, crops and vineyards in a belt one mile wide, so that the vines hardly bore fruit for three years. This was brought to the notice of the Inquisition, since the people clamoured for an inquiry to be held ... it was ... that it was a case of witchcraft for us to consider; and among a large number of suspects, we particularly examined two women, one named Agnes, a bath-woman, and the other Anna von Mindelheim.

These two were taken and shut up separately in different prisons, neither of them knowing in the least what had happened to the other.

On the following day the bath-woman was very gently questioned ... and although she was undoubtedly well provided with that evil gift of silence which is the constant bane of judges, and at the first trial affirmed that she was innocent of any crime against man or woman; yet, in the Divine mercy that so great a crime should not pass unpunished, suddenly, when she had been freed from her chains, although it was in the torture chamber, she fully laid bare all the crimes which she had committed ... although there had been no witness to prove that she had abjured the Faith or performed coitus with an Incubus devil ... saying that for more than eighteen years she had given her body to an Incubus devil, with a complete abnegation of the Faith.

After this she was asked whether she knew anything about the hailstorm which we have mentioned, and answered that she did [and gave a detailed account of how she had caused the hailstorm]

... when on the next day the other witch had at first been exposed to the very gentlest questions, being suspended hardly clear of the ground by her thumbs, after she had been set quite free, she disclosed the whole matter without the slightest discrepancy from what the other had told ... Accordingly, on the third day they were burned.(MM, emphasis added)

How is it possible for two witnesses who have been separated to agree so much on the details of their crime? There are two common elements - the threat or use of torture and the inquisitors. The first alleged witch most likely told her interrogators what they wanted to hear. The second, after being 'exposed to the very gentlest questions, being suspended hardly clear of the ground by her thumbs' merely had to corroborate those details as they were put to her by her interrogators. This is how torturers obtain the evidence to support their claim that torture works.

In 2005, an Iraqi blogger who was arrested and tried for the crime of logging onto the blog Raed in the Middle posted an account of his experience in prison which includes the stories of other prisoners interrogated under torture:

Maysam And Nathom [were] two brothers, in their twenties, very poor, amazingly good looking, if there was an Arabic version of Hollywood, they would sure be Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.

When I was in jail I cried twice, one of them was when Nathom came to the toilets from an interrogation session, and I was in the toilets at that time, and he started crying hard, he said that they beat him so much to the point that he had to say that his brother killed 300 people and stole many cars.

He came to the toilets while they started to torture his brother to make him confess of these crimes, I went back to the cell and cried for minutes, it was so unfair, so unfair.

That night we made jokes about it, and that since we all are supposed to be “terrorism experts” we knew that a sword can kill up to 50 people, so he must have used so many swords, or maybe he used chainsaw? How else would anyone kill 300 people with his own hands?

Yes, we made jokes about that, in prison, and when it’s such a silly situation, you learn to joke about it.
So the interrogator said: “so he killed 300 people?”
“yes sir” Nathom answered, and the interrogator writes the confession. “and he stole an Opel Car?”
“yes sir”
“a yellow one?”
“yes sir”
And then the interrogator put down the pen and said “you son of a b****, it has been more that two years since the war and I never saw one yellow Opel car”

(And it’s true, for some reason all Opels in Iraq are grey, some are black or blue but it’s rare, but no yellow ones!) All of that interrogation happened while Nathom is hanging upside down, and being hit at the same time. (emphasis added)

The pragmatists who would have us forget our 'squeamishness' about torture - our justified ethical repugnance at the idea of beating, electrocuting or waterboarding another human being until she is prepared to endorse any lies we want to tell about her and her friends and family - ignore this reality that has not changed from the fifteenth century to the present day.

Accommodating their arguments - even with ironic intent - is not the way to answer them. Beyond the ethical repugnancy of torture, there is a very sound political reason for citizens of a liberal democratic state to insist that the use of torture has no place. To allow torture is to open the way to a very different kind of state - the torture state.

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