Monday, May 10, 2004

Is Torture ever Justified?

This question is being discussed quite a bit right now. I think the answer is no. Torture is never justified. This makes me more of Kantian than I'd imagined.

I am opposed to capital punishment as well, because I think our justice system is too flawed to kill people is a fair and relatively just way.

Torture, of course, has no procedural safeguards, and is carried out in secret usually. How thoughtful of the US Army to videotape all of the torture for us.

Ariel Dorfman discusses this question in the Guardian.

I think Dorfman frames the utilitarian arguments for torture quite well when he asks if it would be acceptable to torture one child to make the rest of the human race happy. I think not.

I don't want to live in a world where millions or people are tortured to protect me. I would rather die with some semblance of honor.

This Dorfman quote is long, but I couldn't say it nearly this well myself.

Selected quote:


Make no mistake: every regime that tortures does so in the name of salvation, some superior goal, some promise of paradise. Call it communism, call it the free market, call it the free world, call it the national interest, call it fascism, call it the leader, call it civilisation, call it the service of God, call it the need for information; call it what you will, the cost of paradise, the promise of some sort of paradise, Ivan Karamazov continues to whisper to us, will always be hell for at least one person somewhere, sometime.

An uncomfortable truth: the American and British soldiers in Iraq, like torturers everywhere, do not think of themselves as evil, but rather as guardians of the common good, dedicated patriots who get their hands soiled and endure perhaps some sleepless nights in order to deliver the blind ignorant majority from violence and anxiety. Nor are the motives of the demonised enemy significant, not even the fact that they are naked and under the boot because they dared to resist a foreign power occupying their land.

And if it turns out - a statistical certainty - that at least one of the victims is innocent of what he is accused, as blameless as the children mentioned by Ivan Karamazov, that does not matter either. He must suffer the fate of the supposedly guilty: everything justified in the name of a higher mission, state stability in the time of Saddam, and now, in the post-Saddam era, making the same country and the whole region stable for democracy. So those who support the present operations in Iraq are no different from citizens in all those other lands where torture is a tedious fact of life, all of them needing to face Ivan's question, whether they would consciously be able to accept that their dreams of heaven depend on an eternal inferno of distress for one innocent human being; or whether, like Alyosha, they would softly reply: "No, I do not consent."

What Alyosha is telling Ivan, in the name of humanity, is that he will not accept responsibility for someone else torturing in his name. He is telling us that torture is not a crime committed only against a body, but also a crime committed against the imagination. It presupposes, it requires, it craves the abrogation of our capacity to imagine someone else's suffering, to dehumanise him or her so much that their pain is not our pain. It demands this of the torturer, placing the victim outside and beyond any form of compassion or empathy, but also demands of everyone else the same distancing, the same numbness, those who know and close their eyes, those who do not want to know and close their eyes, those who close their eyes and ears and hearts.
Alyosha knows, as we should, that torture does not, therefore, only corrupt those directly involved in the terrible contact between two bodies, one that has all the power and the other that has all the pain, one that can do what it wants and the other that cannot do anything except wait and pray and resist. Torture also corrupts the whole social fabric because it prescribes a silencing of what has been happening between those two bodies; it forces people to make believe that nothing, in fact, has been happening; it necessitates that we lie to ourselves about what is being done not that far, after all, from where we talk, while we munch chocolate, smile at a lover, read a book, listen to a concerto, exercise in the morning. Torture obliges us to be deaf and blind and mute - and that is what Alyosha cannot consent to.

There is, however, a further question, even more troubling, that Ivan does not ask his brother or us: what if the person being endlessly tortured for our wellbeing is guilty?

What if we could erect a future of love and harmony on the everlasting pain of someone who had himself committed mass murder, who had tortured those children; what if we were invited to enjoy Eden all over again while one despicable human being was incessantly receiving the horrors he imposed upon others? And more urgently: what if the person whose genitals are being crushed and skin is being burnt knows the whereabouts of a bomb that is about to explode and kill millions?

Would we answer: yes, I do consent? That under certain very limited circumstances, torture is acceptable?

That is the real question to humanity thrown up by the photos of those suffering bodies in the stark rooms of Iraq, an agony - let us not forget - about to be perpetrated again today and tomorrow in so many prisons everywhere else on our sad, anonymous planet as one man with the power of life and death in his godlike hands approaches another who is totally defenceless. Are we that scared? Are we so scared that we are willing to knowingly let others perpetrate, in the dark and in our name, acts of terror that will eternally corrode and corrupt us?

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