Terrorism and torture

2008-02-18 00:00

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed confessed in March last year. He was, he said, the mastermind behind the 9/11 and at least 30 other terrorist plots. This confession followed illegal deportation to United States territory, psychological abuse and a form of torture, simulated drowning now known as waterboarding, devised in medieval Europe.

The world is not at war. Instead, it faces a long-term terror threat that feeds opportunistically on the margins of modernism where dispossessed, deprived and desperate people look in vain for messianic deliverance. By using the language of war to combat terrorism, the Americans have allowed common criminals to assume undeserved heroic status as freedom fighters for a cause. And the recent decision to put Mohammed and five other 9/11 accused in front of a military tribunal makes them combatants rather than mass murderers.

The events of 9/11 were an act of extreme criminality carried out by ruthless killers. Those behind the atrocity deserve punishment for their destructive zealotry. But democratic society requires justice and truth, and there is every likelihood that both will be subverted by a process beyond the normal judicial system.

Defending democracy requires a nuanced approach that balances information gathering, policing and political initiative with a military response when absolutely necessary. Torturing a terrorist does nothing to promote justice: moral calculations are not mathematical and two negatives will not make a convenient plus. Part of the democratic compact between people and government is truth. The proceedings at Guantanamo Bay will obscure unpalatable evidence, possibly about Pakistani intelligence service links with 9/11 murderers and U.S. errors of commission and omission.

The terror that struck New York and Washington on 9/11 was an internationally broadcast event in which private and innocent people met a very public and sudden death. All the casualties deserve an open, public trial subject to regular judicial procedure, not an affair hidden far away and controlled by security personnel. Even more deserving is the idea of democracy itself. Severe though the temptation may be to bend the rules under provocation, ultimately there is every chance of damaging the democratic values so hated by terrorists.

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