[First published May 26, 2005] Important human rights groups, such as Amnesty International (AI), and important opinion makers in the media and politics mark certain behavior as so wrong, so bad, with moral certainty and even vehemence, that no one dare question it for fear of social and political ostracism. Yes, even though the moral claim is not only morally wrongheaded, but . . . and I’m selecting my words carefully . . . stupid.
There has been much ado about the American incarceration of terrorists in Guantánamo, and their treatment under conditions that are claimed to amount to torture. One recent AI report is titled, “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – Human Dignity Denied: Torture and accountability in the ‘war on terror’” (link here). It says:
The struggle against torture and ill-treatment by agents of the state requires absolute commitment and constant vigilance. It requires stringent adherence to safeguards. It demands a policy of zero tolerance. The US government has manifestly failed in this regard. At best, it set the conditions for torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by lowering safeguards and failing to respond adequately to allegations of abuse raised by Amnesty International and others from early in the “war on terror”. At worst, it has authorized interrogation techniques which flouted the country’s international obligation to reject torture and ill-treatment under any circumstances and at all times.
Note how absolutists this is. Torture is wrong always and at all times. This argument, wildly accepted and constantly reiterated is itself morally guestionable. I could describe any number of scenarios in which torture was legitimate:
1. A man has raped a 14 year old girl, sealed her in a box, and buried it. He is caught, confesses, and then realizing what he has done, withdraws the confession. And realizing that if the girl is uncovered alive, she will point a finger at him, he refuses to say where the girl is, even though probably still alive. Torture him to save the girl’s life and convict the criminal?
2.The FBI picks up terrorists in Washington, DC, who they know from undoubted technical and human sources, have hidden a suitcase nuclear weapon in the city. They deny everything, but sensitive radiological tests confirm they handled such a weapon. Torture them to find the bomb and save the city and hundreds of thousands of lives?
3. Leading terrorists are caught by American marines in Baghdad. Evidence on their computers and in their safe-house indicates that plans for massive car bombing of mosques and markets are underway. Torture them to stop the bombing and save the lives of innocent civilians that would assuredly die in the explosions?
If you answered no to all the above, then you are like the absolute pacifist who says no to even defending his democratic country against outright attack by a foreign tyrant, and thus contributes, no matter how small, to defeat, and were that to happen, to all the lives lost in the resulting occupation (leave aside the person’s willingness to stand aside and let others sacrifice themselves for his freedom). But if you answered yes to torture in one or more of the above, then you are a situational moralist on this issue, as I am.
Now, as for American torture of terrorists it captures. These are evil men to begin with who think nothing of cutting off the heads of prisoners, and exploding bombs in the midst of women and children. They are all mass murderers. Moreover, they violate all the clauses of the Geneva Conventions. They fight in civilian clothes, hide weapons in Mosques and schools, fight from the midst of civilians, and use ambulances to transport weapons and ammunition. They have thrown out centuries of diplomatic efforts and international treaties and conventions designed to limit war and protect civilians. They deserve no protection by the Geneva Conventions, which in any case does not cover them as POWs.
And, if one or more of them is captured by the American forces, and they have reason to suspect that the terrorists has information that may save American and or civilian lives, torture is legitimate. To do otherwise, is to say that the lives of innocent people and soldiers must be forfeit to avoid causing these terrorist pain. Even if the toll might be 50 or 100 men, women, and children murdered in a car bomb.
That’s a crazy morality. But it is the morality of AI and many such groups, and the morality that few are willing to speak out against.
Link of Note
United States of American (Covering events from January – December 2004) In Amnesty International’s Report 2005
Hundreds of detainees continued to be held without charge or trial at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Thousands of people were detained during US military and security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and routinely denied access to their families and lawyers.
Military investigations were initiated or conducted into allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees by US personnel in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and into reports of deaths in custody and ill-treatment by US forces elsewhere in Iraq, and in Afghanistan and Guantánamo. Evidence came to light that the US administration had sanctioned interrogation techniques that violated the UN Convention against Torture. Pre-trial military commission hearings opened in Guantánamo but were suspended pending a US court ruling.
I’ve gone through this and other AI reports on American abuse of terrorist prisoners. What soon becomes clear it that (1) considerable credence is given to prisoner allegations, even though they are enemy terrorists of the United States, and it is known that they are told by their leaders that if captured they should claim abuse; (2) claims by the American military about their investigations and treatment of the prisoners is met with skepticism.