Friday, 1 May 2009

Can torture be justified?

There is an interesting discussion going on at Craig Murray's blog as to whether torture can ever be justified. A former ambassadorial colleague of Craig's, Charles Crawford, has posted both on his own 'blogoir' and as a comment on Craig's blog to the effect that this is not a simple and straightforward matter. I have responded as follows:

Mr Crawford, I find your post here and on Craig Murray’s blog on the subject of torture extremely disconcerting, not to say dismaying.

You purport to debate the ethics of torture by asserting that the “point” is whether it works, and you add: “If it did not work it would be trivial cruelty, to no end whatsoever.” But that is surely not the point. The point is that whether torture “works” (i.e. provides useful information that would not otherwise be obtained) or not, it would never be “trivial cruelty”. It is always inhumane, barbaric and inexcusable treatment which forfeits all claim by those who use, sanction, or connive in it to occupy the moral high ground.

You say: “The disturbing ethical issues arise over torture (and have done for centuries) because people think it does work to some extent, some of the time. This is what gives us agonising choices over how best to get information out of dangerous suspects which might save the lives of others.” In other words, the end justifies the means – the plea of the conscienceless criminal down the ages. You continue: “The UN Convention defines torture as inflicting ‘serious pain...’. That definition like all definition forces us to look at where lines are drawn - what type and level of pain up to ‘serious’ can be inflicted in a just cause? Surely a legitimate subject to talk about when we are up against many would-be terrorists who have no compunction about inflicting death and pain on countless people at random?” You are saying that as long as the pain – physical or mental – is not ‘serious’ – as defined by whom? – torture is OK in a ‘just cause’. If you really believe that, you are utterly unfitted for the posts you have held and exclude yourself as a serious commentator on ethics.

But of course, you are (or were) a diplomat; and, as you say, “The problem with diplomacy is that it is complicated. And that we have to deal with the world as it is.” I agree with that. But your next statements are preposterous: “Sure (you say) it is deeply problematic to receive intelligence information from a regime which probably or even possibly has used torture to get it. But why is that in substance any less problematic than chatting politely with that regime over coffee about trade ties or regional political questions or all the other things which go on? The issues are less directly linked to 'security’ The villains taking the decisions and smiling blandly at you across the table - and being legitimised by your very presence - are the same.” If you really cannot see that the villains are the same, but the issues are not, you are close to being a moral imbecile.

And I find this deeply worrying. Because if you have risen through the diplomatic service to the rank of ambassador and have such a slim grasp of basic ethics and the requirements of our country’s honour, this says something even more dire about the prevailing ethos of the Foreign Office than it does about you personally.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I assume that it is part of every diplomat’s training to be familiar with Sir Henry Wotton’s observation that “an ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country”. While a little incidental lying may be excusable and even laudable, the crux of the matter is basic honesty. I regret having to say this, but the tenor of your remarks to which I am responding indicates that basic honesty is something you are not as tuned in to as you should be.


anticant said...

My discussion with Charles Crawford continues on his 'blogoir'.

Bodwyn Wook said...

No time, I tell you, I have to go farm...all I can say now is I am against this vile poison too, but then there is the miserable circumstance of competing moralities, so to speak. Old Jung said that to go to a bank in search of christian charity is hopeless on the face of it. And, likewise, to expect preachments in church of profit at all costs (save from some protestants!) would be inapposite. So everyone goes around with a split mentality, and we wonder why societies collapse, of themselves mainly. I'm against it, but we have to just hold our breath whilst the more immature go through this all for themselves. The human condition, most charitably, stinks. This is why a politician such as Brown or Obama simply has to fight like the Devil becoming more conscious during this middle part of their lives, as they would then be unable to go on with the self-deception. Unfortunately, midlife crises when conducted on this scale always land us up in Suez, Vietnam or Iraq, or wherever.

Nora Batty said...

I put my finger in a woodpeckers hole
And the woodpecker said God bless my soul
Take it out, take it out

So I removed my finger from the woodpeckers hole
And the Woodpecker said
God bless my soul
Put it back, put it back,

So .....

Jose said...

Those who justify torture believe themselves to be above the rest of humans, they have never considered they themselves could be the object of that torture they back. They believe they are the owners of truth and that, in my opinion, is sheer fanaticism not worth of an intelligent, well educated person.

anticant said...

They lack empathy for others, but are the first to demand it for themselves.