Thank the Lords

Common sense and decency prevails, as the House of Lords rules that evidence gained through torture cannot be used in court.
Lord Carswell

The duty not to countenance the use of torture by admission of evidence so obtained in judicial proceedings must be regarded as paramount and that to allow its admission would shock the conscience, abuse or degrade the proceedings and involve the state in moral defilement

The ineffectiveness of torture as a tool for anything has been well argued… but a couple of quick observations. First, the “ticking bomb scenario” is an unhelpful hypothetical construct. As David Luban says in the Washington Post, we give it credence only because we see so many examples of it in Hollywood. (via Clive). If it gets to the stage where a bomb is about to go off, and the only way we can discover it is by electrocuting a terrorists testicles… then I would say we’re already pretty much fucked anyway.
The other problem with the “ticking bomb” hypothetical is that it ignores the sheer amount of time and effort that goes into torturing people. If the CIA really are scheduling flights across the atlantic in order to torture their prisoners, then their intelligence gathering is clearly not being done with any sense of urgency.
Update: The New Republic carries Andrew Sullivan’s fantastic article against torture, a response to Charles Krauthammer’s apology for it. Over at Great Britain, Not Little England, there are links to further discussion, referencing Craig Murray and the Uzbekistani example.

9 Replies to “Thank the Lords”

  1. Robert,
    Interesting post. But I still think opponents of torture in all circumstances have to give a yes or no to the “ticking bomb” scenario, even if they think it’s improbable. (Before 9/11 I would never have guessed that terrorists would fly airliners filled with passengers into skyscrapers – too “melodramatic” by half.)
    Re, the speed of torture, I think Andrew Sullivan has mentioned that the average victim of waterboarding lasts 14 seconds before yielding. (I think waterboarding does count as torture, BTW, unlike some US officials.)

  2. I’ve just read the fantastic Sullivan article. He also suggests hints that by employing torture we are probably causing greater hate, and thus greater carnage further down the line… so a ‘yes’ to torture will not save lives in this situation. If it does come to a yes-or-no over the “ticking bomb” scenario, I’m happy to say ‘no’.
    I’ve been mulling this over for a few weeks, and I think my earlier point holds: “Freedoms will be destroyed in this so called war on terror. Better they be destroyed by terrorists, as they kill, maim and disrupt, than by the police, our agents of the state. We should play by the rules we have followed for centuries, even if that increases the risk of our being attacked. That is the price we pay for being better than them.”

  3. I too was so pleased to hear the Lords ruling on this topic. I listened to the Moral Maze on Torture on Thursday evening on Radio 4 and was horrified that some people were prepared to condone this practice. A slippery slope indeed. Surely it is clear that to be a torturer is even more dehumanising than to be tortured. I can’t bear the thought that those I considered right thinking people could contemplate condoning practices such as waterboarding which by any standards is torture. But I think we must define exactly what we mean by torture. If we allow the word to be stretched to include almost any sanction the debate becomes meaningless. And like Robert I think the ticking bomb scenario is unhelpful but if pushed to answer I too would say no.

  4. I am disturbed by this notion of being “better than them”. This whole superiority complex is what got us into this mess in the first place! I do not think macho hierarchical thinking is going to get us out of it.
    Plus, it is blinkered, I think; all the things that have been done in the past, and are still being done to create terrorists, do those things make us “better” than them? I think not. My only issue is that terrorists are not elected, and possibly not rational, but then neither are madmen.
    I also think the us and them kind of lingo isn’t helpful. Surely prevention of the ticking bomb scenario is far more helpful and urgent than quibbling about a hypothetical response to it. However, that would require a degree of empathy and moral fortitude and political honesty that most people don’t seem to be capable of.

  5. Clarice, again I think you are quibbling over semantics that really aren’t the point of the post. “Better than them” refers to people who disregard human rights, and that I do not want our country to endorse such acts. This should be clear from the context of the post, and indeed the tone of this blog as a whole.
    Looking at the wider picture (which I wasn’t), I agree that the ‘us and them’ lingo is not particularly helpful in preventing further terrorist attacks. I’ve always argued that current global unrest should be considered a form of homo sapien civil war that hurts everyone regardless of nation or creed. If you want to have an argument with someone over (say) whether the UK/USA should bear any responsibility for terrorist creation, you won’t find one here because I already agree with you (see my comments on the war on ‘terror’ and my comments on neo-con rhetoric for example).
    But since the “ticking bomb” scenario is cited as a justification for torture, I think a couple of paragraphs from me in response is appropriate. Such arguments should not be allowed to pass unchallenged.

  6. Yes, Rob, I agree with all you say here. I think you are more willing to engage in debates where I would question the premise. Also there is a fine line for me, between engaging with the debate/referring to arguments/metaphors, and implicitly endorsing the premises of the argument/metaphor, or at least being interpreted as so doing by people like me.
    I still think “better than them” is dodgy though. 🙂

  7. Intifada Kid was complaining about that same tendancy. In longer essays I think the need to address the premises of the debate are essential, but in the short articles I’ve been posting so far, I think its fine to address a specific point, and attempt to knock it down on its own terms. An editorial decision if you will. I think “better than them” is a good piece of rhetoric for precisely this purpose… or at least it was, before we analysed the shit out of it 🙂

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