Tortured logic

By Ian Buruma

Financial Times

Published: February 5 2005

Torture is, one might say, a worse crime against humanity than killing.” Robert Conquest, the great chronicler of Stalinism, wrote this after describing a “comparatively mild-sounding” but apparently unbearable Soviet torment known as stoika, in which the victim was forced to stand against a wall for days on end.

If torture is indeed a worse crime than killing, it is because human beings, through acts of deliberate cruelty, are reduced to beasts, or something more degraded than that. Civilised nations don’t do torture. And yet, of course, they do. “Wall-standing” was used by British troops to break IRA suspects in the 1970s. Other techniques, used by the British, and later condemned by the European Court of Human Rights, were sleep and food deprivation, exposure to intolerable noise, hooding, and shackling people in painful positions. Now we know that these same things have been widely practised by US interrogators, not just in Abu Ghraib, but in many US installations overseas, where terrorist suspects, or even common criminals, are held. And we also know that British troops have abused Iraqi prisoners in Basra.

This is less surprising, though, than some of the attempts to justify such methods. In August 2002, the US Justice Department prepared a memo for the then White House lawyer, and next Attorney General, Alberto R. Gonzales, which stated that for “an act to violate the torture statute, it must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”. Anything short of that, then, was deemed to be all right. And, in any case, Gonzales advised the president, anti-torture conventions should not apply to members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, since they were “unlawful combatants”.

After much protest from lawyers and human rights groups in the US, this opinion has since been revised, but only to a point. The Justice Department still gives CIA interrogators plenty of leeway. Forcing the body of a prisoner underwater to the point of drowning, for example, a common torture technique known as “waterboarding”, is judged to be OK.

Conquest’s comparison, in the scale of evils, of killing and torture, is highly relevant to the US. The death penalty is thought to to be compatible by most Americans with a civilised society, but torture is not. This is why even Gonzales said during his confirmation hearings that “this administration does not engage in torture and will not condone torture”. What he had tried to do was stretch the definition of torture, which can be rather elastic.

Guy Womack, the defence lawyer for army reservist Charles Graner, convicted for torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, argued that his client’s penchant for piling up naked men in human pyramids before kicking them, urinating on them and setting dogs on them, was just a kind of innocent horseplay. “Don’t cheerleaders all over America form pyramids?”, he asked the military court. “Is that torture?” Pulling naked men around on leashes, as Graner’s girlfriend, Private Lynndie England, did while mugging for their photo collection, was also normal behaviour, according to the lawyer. He compared the leash to parents who tether toddlers while walking in shopping malls. “You’re keeping control of them,” he said. “A tether is a valid control to be used in corrections... In Texas we’d lasso them and drag them out of there.”

The reason for putting Graner on trial at all was precisely because the US military does not officially condone torture and abuse. Military lawyers never were keen to follow the White House in straining against the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, which Gonzales, in his January 25 2002 memo to president Bush, described as “quaint”. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorised the use of harsh interrogation techniques on al-Qaeda suspects in 2002, but these were rescinded three months later after military lawyers argued against them.

President Bush likes to think of his country as a beacon of decency, and the US as a supporter of international conventions against torture. The pictures of Abu Ghraib were a public relations disaster, so it was imperative that the likes of Graner were treated as perverted sadists, and not soldiers who followed orders and acted in the spirit of Gonzales’ recommendations. Yet this is what Graner claimed. As his attorney put it: “He was doing his job. Following orders and being praised for it.”

Although his military judges were careful to stop any inquiries into the responsibility of senior officers, Graner may indeed have been praised by superiors for “softening up” prisoners, but urinating on tethered men, jumping on their stomachs or making them masturbate in public are not in any military manual. Following orders is not an acceptable defence, if a soldier knows those orders are illegal. The problem is that once White House lawyers start, in the words of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, “playing cute with the law”, a thug like Graner might get a little confused on these matters, as might some of his more sophisticated superiors.

The playing cute is what is new and unusual, not the torture itself. There are torturers and potential torturers everywhere, even in the most civilised societies. When men like Graner are let off the leash, so to speak, they will do their worst. But most governments, even uncivilised ones, try to cover up such practices. Vietnam veterans have testified to seeing POWs being subjected to electric shock treatments and attack dogs. But the dirty work was often done by South Vietnamese, and US Military Intelligence officers tended to hover in the shadows.

Some of the most brutal torturers in Latin American dictatorships were trained by US instructors, but their work was never done openly. Even at the height of Brazil’s military dictatorship, the government took care to cover its brutality with a facade of legality, but not by claiming that certain kinds of torture were legal. Victims were often put on trial, after having confessions forced out of them. Some still had the courage to complain of gang rapes, electric shocks and mutilation. And the judges took careful notes before concluding that the defendants were lying.

This is not the way things are done in the US, where even the most guarded administration cannot entirely escape scrutiny. Comparisons are sometimes made between the US today and France during the Algerian War (1954-1962). Algerian rebels against French rule fought for their cause with acts of terror: blowing up crowded cafes, and so on. Intelligence was essential to break the uprising and stop French citizens from being killed. The difficulty was that hated foreigners had little hope of getting solid information.

The answer to this problem can be summed up in the words of General Paul Aussaresses: “The best way to make a terrorist talk when he refused to say what he knew was to torture him... The majority of people crack and talk. Then, most of the time, we killed them. Did this pose problems of conscience? I have to say, no. I was used to those things.” Common methods used by the French were submerging victims in baths of excrement, administering electric shocks to their genitals, using attack dogs, and rape.

And yet the French, like the US today, had signed up to the Geneva Convention and other treaties against torture. They tried to get around this by claiming that the terrorists were on French territory, and thus were not foreign enemies to whom the Geneva Convention applied. This kind of legal casuistry was similar to the Gonzales memo to President Bush, claiming that al-Qaeda and the Taliban were beyond the reach of international rules.

Even though Algeria was officially part of France, Algerian citizens were deprived of their democratic rights because of the state of emergency. General Aussaresses and other senior officers were given carte blanche to do whatever was necessary, and succeeded, up to a point. Half a million Algerians died and the rebellion came to a halt. But it had become apparent that French rule was not sustainable and Algeria gained its independence in 1962.

No French officer was ever prosecuted for torture. French governments protected their butchers to the end. But no attempt was ever made by French ministers or government lawyers to claim that deliberate cruelty was legal, or that holding people under water was not torture. This does appear to be a uniquely American phenomenon, which is both sinister and a sign of cultural and political difference. Raison d’etat is good enough for France to do its worst. Americans need legal justifications. As the US lawyer Alan Dershowitz, an advocate of torture in special circumstances, once put it: “If we are to have torture, it should be authorised by law”, because “democracy requires accountability and transparency”.

This is an unusual, and somewhat perverse, position. However, what all regimes and governments, civilised or not, who use torture have in common is the need to distance themselves from mere sadism, hence the importance of putting Graner on trial. Harsh measures used by US forces are ostensibly to protect American people, or the free world. The “ticking time bomb” argument is often used to justify torture, notably by Dershowitz. If a prisoner knows when the bomb in Times Square is going to go off, it is imperative to beat that knowledge out of him.

There are several ways to counter this view. One is that whatever General Aussaresses may say, torture is rarely an efficient way to get accurate information. A person screaming with pain will say anything to stop his ordeal. But apart from the question of basic morality, there is another, better argument for drawing a firm line against any form of torture. It poisons and brutalises the society that allows it to happen, even if supposedly in self-defence. Ironically, military men are often the first to see this.

In his fine book on two Latin American dictatorships, A Miracle, a Universe, Lawrence Weschler quotes a Brazilian journalist who tried to explain the end of military dictatorship in his country. “There were people in the military,” he said, “who realised that the torturers were going to have to be isolated, marginalised, and eliminated, so as to save the army.” For they realised that torturers start behaving like gangsters, and thereby undermine the morale of an institution that depends on discipline.

This problem was recognised by Alberto Gonzales. In his memo to President Bush in January 2002, he anticipated that failing to apply the Geneva Convention to al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners “could undermine US military culture, which emphasises maintaining the highest standards of conduct in combat, and could introduce an element of uncertainty in the status of adversaries”. He was also worried that it “would likely provoke widespread condemnation among our allies and in some domestic quarters”. Gonzales went on to reject both concerns. But when Colin Powell, a former general, first read this memo, he allegedly “hit the roof”.

Another telling example of how civilians can be harsher than military men is a scribble by Donald Rumsfeld on a memo sent to him by a Defence Department lawyer. The lawyer suggested that a subject of interrogation should not be forced to stand for more than four hours at a stretch. Rumsfeld wrote: “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why limit standing to four hours?”

Because of legalistic machinations, the line against torture has become fuzzy, and this has a corrupting effect, not just on bullies such as Graner, or on the US military, but on the whole of society. Americans, by and large, are a civilised people, as were the French in the 1950s, or the British in the 1970s; but every time a person is reduced to a howling beast by deliberately inflicted pain, civilisation crumbles a little more, until in the end there is only barbarism.