Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Bush claims torture works. What is the evidence?

George W Bush has defended his use of waterboarding, which is clearly a form of torture as defined by the UN Convention on Torture:...an act by which severe ... suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information... 

He claims it worked in preventing attacks on Heathrow and Canary Wharf. This is an important claim. Is it true?

It looks as if Bush is referring to the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks. Craig Murray writes:

"The man was waterboarded - which causes excruciating pain and suffocation - over 180 times. That is about once every three days over the period in question. There are few examples in history of anybody ever being tortured so severely over such an extended period. Can you imagine the permanent mental anguish, of waiting for the next physical anguish to begin? Plainly the "Ticking bomb" argument used by Cheney and the pro-torture lobby is a myth, when torture extends over years."

As a result of his 4 year period of torture, he confessed to planning several terrorist plots, including Heathrow and Canary Wharf attacks. I seem to remember Heathrow being surrounded with tanks during a peace demonstration. At the time we just took it to be a piece of Government street theatre. Maybe they were responding to KSMs distorted "confessions".

So it looks, on the evidence available, as if Bush is fooling himself. Again. He believes that KSM was tortured into revealing important details of a plot to blow up Heathrow and Canary Wharf, when, like any torture victim, he was willing to say anything just in order to stop the pain and suffering.

If I am wrong, Bush needs to come up with more evidence. As do the journalists who will repeat his words uncritically, slowly oozing into the mind of the British people the false idea that torture works.
There is more background to KSM's arrest here, in which we read "Inside the C.I.A., says a retired senior officer who was privy to the agency’s internal debate, there was hardly any argument about the value of coercive methods: “Nobody in intelligence believes in the ticking bomb. It’s just a way of framing the debate for public consumption. That is not an intelligence reality.”

So if there is no robust historical evidence that torture produces valuable information, the torture lobby have to fall back onto the "ticking bomb" argument which goes like this:

"What if you knew a bomb was going to go off in one hour, killing hundreds of your people, and you were holding the bomber? Would it not be right to torture him to find the location of the bomb?"

This is a hypothetical scenario, and no other piece of policy would ever be rested on such a flimsy piece of fiction, especially not a policy with such serious humanitarian and reflexive implications. Thousands are being tortured in real life every day, and the torture lobby wants this to continue under the pretext of an imaginary scenario?

But if we take the scenario at face value, it does not work, because a terrorist can hold out for an hour. He can buy respite by giving a false location for the bomb.

The "ticking bomb" defence is without merit.

There is the reflexive aspect of condoning torture on the basis of this fairy tale. If Britain tortures people, Britons will get tortured. Period. So in condoning torture, the British Government, and their spokespersons in the media, will cause British citizens to be tortured in the future.

In the past they used to do human sacrifice. Humanity gave that up 3000 years ago. It is time we gave up the torture and war also.


Greg Cameron said...

Waterboarding 'works?' What a pernicious way of looking at the problem! The question about waterboarding is not whether it 'works' but whether it's morally wrong(one would think the perspective would interest so-called fundamentalists). Of course, if waterboarding does work, just think how much more effective electric shocks and cigarettes applied to heels would be. Bush is literally saying that the ends justify the means. Think about it. That assumption is implicit in what he says. This is a slippery moral slope. My more extreme suggestions here fall within the bounds of so-called rational debate - if physical distress works, why not use more extreme forms of physical distress? Might it not be more effective? Of course, in the past, the U.S. let its various Third World proxies do the torturing(and even show them how to do it). Lends a whole new shade of meaning to Chomsky's phrase "Bringing the Third World Home," doesn't it? People who suggest we should have a rational debate about this issue are implicitly trivializing the matter. Should one have responded to the Holocaust with the equivalent of a high school debate? Bush's claim that torture works ignores the fact, repeatedly demonstrated, that people being tortured generally tell their torturers what they want to hear(like the imaginary link between Iraq and the 9/11 terrorists, for example). Bush also ignores the fact that it is hard to determine questions of causality in human affairs(did x really lead to y, and so forth). When William F. Buckley learned of Nixon's enemies list, he called it the most despicable document to emerge from Watergate. These days it would scarcely raise an eyebrow. It shows how far public discourse has declined. We even had a major American political figure suggest the possibility of someone assassinating someone for exercising one's freedom of speech - and this apparently doesn't sink that person as a political big wheel. We don't need a 'debate' about torture - for civilized people, there is nothing to discuss. Where has one's sense of moral outrage gone? In the same book, Bush claims he reads books. Yes, I'm sure he reads "the Odyssey" and "the Aeneid"...especially the latter. That's my two cents...Greg Cameron, Surrey, B.C., Canada

DocRichard said...

Hi Greg, thanks for commenting. I 100% agree that torture is simply immoral. My post is predicated on that, but goes on and out to challenge the arguments of the torture apologists. On their part, they are quite happy for us to stick to the "moral" argument, which they can then categorise as morally consistent, but divorced from the harsh political waters in which they are forced, sadly, &c to operate.

I believe there are both moral and pragmatic reasons to reject torture. And so do you. "Bush's claim that torture works ignores the fact, repeatedly demonstrated, that people being tortured generally tell their torturers what they want to hear". This is the same case as that which I am arguing.

I agree that it is depressing to be having to debate this matter, and a sign, as you say, of how much backsliding we in the West have been doing under the influence of the neo-cons. But these arguments are being made, and reported by the gullible tabloid journalists, and we are duty bound to meet and counter their arguments, not only on the moral high ground, but also on the blood-soaked grounds on which they choose to operate.