"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Monday, December 11, 2006

The 'torture debate' - a reply to Norman Geras

Norm objects to my recent post about the 'torture debate' on the grounds of my rejection of the very need for a torture debate and my 'too brief' dismissal of Stephen de Wijze's article about torture.

The first position requires some explanation because I was perhaps unclear. I regret the very existence of a 'torture debate' in the way that Zoe Williams regrets that there is an abortion debate. What she feels is that this represents the reality that what she regards as an inviolable right for women is presently threatened by the possibility of compromise. I think she's right about this - and it's the same with torture. I wasn't really suggesting that a rational defence of the torture taboo shouldn't be made but rather regretting the dismal situation where these have to be made at all. But this, as Norm might say himself, is where we are - so I suppose they have to be.

This is why I used the expression 'the wisdom of ages and of nations' in this context. Arguably it's a bit of a cheap shot to take an expression that is obviously a piece of rhetorical flourish so literally. Of this Norm writes:
"[T]he 'wisdom of nations' hasn't always come out against torture."
I'll overlook the insult* implicit in the assumption that I was unaware of this. I was talking about Britain - I think I mentioned it specifically - and we are talking about the United States too, a country whose constitution specifically proscribes torture in her Bill of Rights. 'Ages and of nations' does not imply that there has been universal recognition of this principle from time immemorial but rather that this was a lesson human beings might have reasonably been expected to have learned from history. That it had been is implicit in the constitutions of Britain, France and the United States. That it is these three countries that have breached the taboo against torture in the second half of the twentieth century was in my mind when I made the appeal to tradition. I make no apology for doing so because the American constitution, for all its flaws, is smarter than Donald Rumsfeld.

This brings me to the article I dismissed with, according to Norm, undue haste:
"Anyone reading Shuggy's post but who hasn't read Steve's review article may form the impression that Steve either defends 'torture warrants' or has too soft an attitude to torture (though it surely wasn't Shuggy's intention to give this impression). Neither point is true."
It certainly wasn't my impression to suggest that Stephen de Wijze advocated 'temporary torture warrants'. I was using this an a example of the sort of idea that would be familiar to people following the torture debate. The second point, though, I plead guilt to. Stephen de Wijze does, in my opinion, have a too soft attitude towards torture and I'm afraid Norm misrepresents his article if he thinks you'll find in it an unequivocal condemnation of torture as always and everywhere wrong. An easy mistake to make though because clarity, in this article anyway, is conspicuous by its absence. Take this, for example:
"Consequently, the answer to the question of whether it is morally justified to use torture in the face of a TBS is both yes and no.

It is always morally wrong to use torture but in some cases of the TBS it is also a moral duty to practice it - one must do wrong in order to do right! In these rare and extreme circumstances, there is no escaping getting dirty hands."
So, it's always wrong to use torture - except in circumstances where it is the lesser evil, in which case it is not only permissible, it might be considered the duty of a government's security forces to perform it. But because it's always wrong, it can never be legally institutionalized. But since it might have to happen sometimes to find a ticking bomb, those found guilty of carrying out what is always wrong might in retrospect legally be found to have done right after all? And Norm thinks it's me that has got myself into a tangle? Hmph!

*Ok, I've chilled now. There wasn't one - my mistake. Still don't like the de Wijze article, though.

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