Torture and the Great Excuse

Detention_and_torture_room,_Security_Prison_21_(S-21),_Tuol_Sleng_Genocide_Museum,_Phnom_Penh,_CambodiaThese days news isn’t as shocking as it once was. In the age of 24 hour news and social media, horrific events are just part of everyday life; massacres, poverty and natural disasters just a few clicks away. So when it was revealed in a report about the CIA that they have been using torture as an interrogation technique for years and that a lot of it may have been ineffective, the news was probably about as shocking as finding out that George Osborne doesn’t know the price of milk or that Russell Brand straightens his chest hair.

The details of the report seem to me unimportant. This is not because I do not think that torture is awful. I actually think that it is a crime against humanity and completely unjustifiable. It is for that reason that the details of the report for me are not what is horrific; it is the western attitude towards torture. Even though it is not yet clear if British agents were involved it has been at hinted at that the report may contain evidence to the contrary.

To paraphrase philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek’s comments about ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ it is the film’s apparent indifference towards torture that makes the film deeply controversial. This, of course, does not seem to be anything new. It is easy to pick dozens of cultural references off the top of one’s head that present a causal and flippant attitude toward torture. From the hit Fox show ‘24’ to the gritty Liam Neeson film ‘Taken’. Could it be the more and more since 19/11 popular culture has seemed to cling to a narrative in which the audience is supposed to empathise with those who commit torture?

I think it is here that we hit the heart of the issue: utilitarianism; the belief that the sole purpose of society is to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It seems odd to Segway from torture straight into happiness but it is how the logic of the torture justifiers works. They believe that if they can persuade the general public that their lives and those of their loved ones could be saved by the information gathered by torture, then even though torturing people is an awful thing to do, it is a necessary evil. More and more I believe we are seeing this logic used to justify any number of infringements on our liberty; from tracing people’s emails to the alarmingly increasing presence of CCTV. Surely, if all of this prevents a terrorist attack, surely if all of this ensures the greatest happiness of the greatest number it is acceptable? – Surely?

As Will Self so rightly observed, is it not disturbing that public debate surrounding our security has so quickly turned into this anticipated fear at losing a family member in a terrorist attack? I am not denying that they happen – or that they are awful, but personally I do not wish to live in a country where the terms of the debate are set in this way, where our fear is used to coerce use into forfeiting more and more liberty.

With the decline of religion and other systems of ethical conditioning, perhaps moral absolutes in general have gone out of fashion. But even if we accept this to be the case, I do not think that the prevailing attitude towards torture in this society should be one of indifference and utilitarian excuses. As much as I find it sad that torture is viewed in this way, we cannot let the facts of the matter escape our attention. This report reveals that torture is also ineffective at gaining intelligence. If this is true, then torture has failed to justify itself on the utilitarian grounds it dwells in.

The thing that is most damaging to our security and reputation worldwide is that agents of this Country alongside the US may be committing these atrocities in our name, supposedly to defend our interests. This to me is unacceptable. If we intend to take a moral high ground as a nation, as we so often do in our condemnation of other countries, then we should at least have the conviction to approach international affairs with a certain amount of integrity. Because until we do, how can we honestly say we are better than them?