26 February 2005
This week's verdict against three British soldiers for abusing prisoners in Iraq is one of many pending investigations, from Abu Ghraib to Bagram and beyond. These follow a time-honoured pattern, where the small fry get prosecuted, while the politicians get sanctimonious. Top brass such as Tony Blair and George Bush indignantly condemn abuses, yet it is no coincidence that torture is rife in the rank and file. It would not be happening if it were not encouraged by the attitudes of our political leaders.
Politicians studiously avoid use of the word torture. But Donald Rumsfeld specifically authorised the use of "stress and duress" methods, saying they were necessary to gather important intelligence. This torture-lite inevitably devolved into torture-heavy as it filtered down the chain of command.
Blair is playing a similar game. When he wrote this week that "there is no greater civil liberty than to live free from terrorist attack", he was employing a well-worn code. The sub-text would read as follows: "The right of the individual to be free from all kinds of abuses - even torture - must be subservient to the rights of the majority to protect itself."
We should not be debating the use of torture in this millennium. Blair shields his face in horror at the word, but this is hypocritical. His government argues for the use of torture evidence in British courts. He takes passports away from prisoners released from Guantanamo based on so-called confessions extracted under torture.
The Americans are more honest - if occasionally more frightening - when they openly make the arguments in favour of torture. First, there is the ticking time bomb scenario. As the leading neo-con Richard Perle argues, "if a nuclear weapon had been placed somewhere and we had in our custody the man who ... could tell us where it was, and it was set to go off automatically, would we be justified in that situation to use any conceivable means to get from him the information necessary to disarm that nuclear weapon, I think the honest answer is yes".
Who could disagree with saving thousands of innocent lives? But herein lies the deception: There is not one incident in the past 100 years when torture has stopped a ticking time bomb. It's a myth used to justify a nightmare.
The second argument is an apocalyptic vision of a Terrorised New World. Blair writes that the "nature and scale" of the terrorist threat is unique in history, partly because of a "new breed" of terrorists, including "potential suicide bombers". This is so much nonsense. The Nazis killed six million Jews, 20 million Russians, and rained bombs down on London every night. The Japanese used kamikaze pilots. Britain has withstood terrible threats, civil liberties intact, and it is clear Britain will withstand al-Qa'ida.
We worry about Blair blindly following the Bush line on foreign policy. We should worry more when Blair allows Bush to redefine our own history. America has little experience with direct threats to her territorial integrity. So an extreme American reaction to 11 September 2001 is perhaps predictable. But Britain should know better.
Torture does not even achieve its purpose. I have spent a distressing proportion of my time in recent months talking to people such as Hussein Mustafa in Jordan. He describes how, in Bagram Airforce Base, the Americans shoved a broomstick up his rectum. On the receiving end of this kind of treatment, you will say anything. Torture does not get truthful answers; it gets what the torturer wants to hear.
Torture has terrible collateral consequences too. History teaches us that the euphemistic Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1972 was the most powerful recruiting sergeant the IRA had in their decades of struggle. Each such exercise in hypocrisy has been a public relations catastrophe. And hypocrisy breeds hatred. As a result of Blair's assault on the civil liberties of Muslims, London is in far greater danger of a terrorist attack today than it was four years ago.
On the other hand, when we live up to our own ideals, and treat others with decency, they are less likely to wish us harm, and far more likely to warn us of the extreme plans of others. Torture is indeed uncivilised; it is also fundamentally unwise.
The writer is a human rights lawyer. His Channel 4 documentary 'Is Torture a Good Idea?' will be broadcast on 28 February at 8pm