Saturday, September 26, 2009

On Tzvetan Todorov's Torture and the War of Terror

One of the major early decisions of the Obama presidency in America—a decision intended to establish a sharp break with the Bush regime’s way of working—was the resolution to shut down the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay by January 2010. This site has been one of the key locations, along with the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, that has led to the debilitation of America’s moral standing in the world, and has created a general derision at the purported aims of the “war on terror”.

As the world’s first democracy and, even today, the first among democracies, America has a certain responsibility, no matter how awesome its power, towards democratic norms. But as the philosopher and historian of ideas, Tzvetan Todorov, argues in his new book, Torture and the War on Terror, not only is the Bushian phrase “war on terror” a vague, dubious and scaremongering idea, it has succeeded, in contravention of generally accepted norms in the civilized world, in sanctioning unspeakable human rights violations upon detainees in the interest of “security”.

Todorov is concerned, like many other commentators, about the Bush administration's tactic of introducing euphemisms such as “illegal enemy combatant” and “enhanced interrogation techniques” to work its way around prevailing strictures against the use of torture to extract information from suspects (as glimpsed, for instance, in the line taken by the infamous "Torture Memo" of 2002, on which a comprehensive set of listings is here). He is also worried about the support extended to such practices by other governments in the free world. But he is distressed, most of all, by the recent change in the moral climate that has made ordinary citizens of democracies, like you and me, believe that torture is a worthwhile way of ensuring that our safety is defended.

A common hypothetical situation put forth by those who say torture is under some circumstances justified (and there are many “hawks” among democratic thinkers who subscribe to such views) is the “ticking bomb scenario”. A terrorist has been arrested; it is known he has planted a bomb somewhere. There is only one hour to find out where. The lives of thousands of citizens are at stake. In such a situation, would you not use the harshest methods to get the necessary information out of the detainee? If you say “no”, all too often you are assumed to be an unreasonable and lily-livered bleeding-heart.

But, argues Todorov, the situation involving most detainees on a charge of terrorism is far more prosaic than this cooked-up situation of high drama, and usually our own knowledge of what they may have plotted amounts to no more than a strong suspicion. Further, nothing proves that the information obtained under torture is actually true. As the third-degree methods used by policemen in India often prove, prisoners under duress will confess to pretty much anything you accuse them of. Intelligence obtained by subjecting a man or woman to intense stress or degradation is often not, to use the catchphrase, “actionable intelligence”. Too often, torture is about nothing but the exercise of absolute power of one human being over another.

Lastly, even if torture allows, in a small number of cases, the resolution of a short-term crisis, in the long run it does incalculable damage to the moral standing of nations, inflames hostility among adversaries, and makes the population of neutral countries unsympathetic to the cause. As the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat has written, “Torture aims for a single goal—obtaining information—but it achieves a slew of others.”

Citizens of democracies, notes Todorov, often criticize sharply the human rights violations of totalitarian regimes. But we should look closer home too, to see if we are not, by degrees, being turned into the very brutes that we so abhor. Even if we are not actually at fault ourselves, barbarous acts are being committed by governments we have elected, that claim to be acting in our interest. "institutionalized torture is even worse than individual torture," writes Todorov, "because it subverts the very foundation of the idea of justice and law. If the state itself becomes the torturer, how can we believe in the civil order that it claims to bring or to sanction?" There are no good reasons for torture, either on the count of utility or of morality. Todorov’s short, trenchant book is a reminder that we cannot be tough on terror without also, paradoxically, being tough on torture.

And some links: "Should We Fight Terror With Torture?" by Alan Dershowitz, "If Torture Works" by Michael Ignatieff", "Bush's Intellectual Torturers" by Todorov, "Does Torture Work?" by Edwidge Danticat, and "The Torture Myth" by Anne Applebaum.

Todorov's points also have great relevance closer to home. Custodial deaths in India are among the highest in any of the world's democracies, a sign of how far we have to go on respecting the rights of individuals and the rule of law. We are at the moment debating our own Prevention of Torture Bill, on which point you might want to read Neelabh Mishra's "Dismantle The Iron Maiden".


Hari Batti said...

In April, The New York Review of Books ran an article about the "ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen 'High Value Detainees' in CIA Custody". There's not one "sound byte" to pull from it, but the overall impact of the piece is absolutely chilling. It's here, fwiw:

I think there is such widespread acceptance of torture because people think it works. In a real democracy, with a functioning civil society, torture would be unacceptable, even if it did work-- but as you point out it rarely does. In fact, it often leads to misinformation. And like corrupt police and abusive teachers, it has a disproportionately corrosive affect on the story we tell about who we are as a country.

I am glad you are raising this issue. Lord knows it needs to be raised.

Hari said...

Ahmed Rashid writes in Descent Into Chaos:

"If war has been mankind’s most powerful negative urge, then the universal agreements that limit the horrors of war and protect civilians have been the hallmark of progress and have reflected man’s deeper instincts for civilization. The Geneva Convention may not have halted the Jewish holocaust, Rwandan genocide, or terrorism but they have given us a code of conduct by which we can judge the actions of our leaders in the desperate times of war. That is why the decision by President Bush on February 7, 2002, to deny captured al Qaeda, Taliban and other terrorist suspects prisoner of war (POW) status or any access to justice was a step backward for the United States and for mankind – one that has haunted the United States, its allies and the international legal system ever since. Whereas in the West it created a furious debate about civil liberties, in the Muslim World it further entrenched dictatorship and abuse of civilians.

For the greatest power on earth to wage its “war on terrorism” by rejecting the very rules of war it is a signatory to, denying justice at home, undermining the U.S. Constitution, and then pressurizing its allies to do the same set in motion a devastating denial of civilized instincts."

The chapter I picked this from is called America Shows the Way: The Disappeared and the rendered

Kartikeya said...

I am not convinced about the implied comparison between practices in India and practices in the United States. Police excesses in India stem from the existence of a weak, overworked judicial-legal system, with additional issues of literacy, ignorance about rights etc.

In the US torture and the entire project of the 'war or terror' is part of a much longer right-wing ("conservative" as they like to call it) project of privatization - of dragging everything under the purview of private profit and capital. Take the example of the numerous private contractors whose actions in Iraq did not fall under the purview of either US law or Iraqi law!

I think that the idea of profit being the sole legitimate motive is more deeply pervasive in the US than many people realize. It gives rise to all sorts of euphemisms. Take for example the idea of the "free market" - which essentially consists of large corporations getting concessions from the government to effectively destroy competition through tariffs and trade walls, the creation of captive markets (as in the case of healthcare), using US power the open up new markets overseas without making comparable concessions at home etc etc

"Enhanced interrogation techniques" (Torture as Mr. Obama called it in his UN Speech) and "Extraordinary Rendition" (essentially international abduction) are only the most obvious euphemisms.

I submit though that these are not the same as "game bajana" or "wicket" (as recorded by Suketu Mehta in his book about Bombay), used by cops and the mafia in India. The "war or terror" is a deeply ideological project which has little or nothing to do with freedom or liberty, but everything to do with the desire to make a profit. We are seeing the effects of the success of the "Greed is Good" dictum.

The interesting thing is that the right to make a profit has been exalted to such heights in the US, that nobody bats an eyelid when the truly astonishing idea of a healthcare mandate, which forces every citizen to buy health insurance from an for-profit insurance company, is raised!

Someone needs to write a philosophical critique of Profit and of Entertainment. Those are the books i'm waiting for.

Neha said...

A bit off topic (or perhaps not), have you heard of/ read Gurcharan Das's "The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma"?