Torture and democracy

2008-12-19 00:00

TORTURE has been officially endorsed at the highest level of the United States government. Interviewed about the military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Vice President Dick Cheney not only defended the practice of simulated drowning during interrogation known as waterboarding, but expressed no regrets about its use.

The Americans use the phrase “war on terror” to describe their efforts to curb international terrorism. But it is in fact no war. War is a state of armed conflict between nations governed by international agreements commonly known as the Geneva Convention that expressly forbids the ill-treatment of combatant prisoners.

Terrorist attacks, the argument runs, are different. Undertaken by shadowy groups, often without clear demands and aimed at the mass murder of civilians, they present another sort of challenge. Terrorists disregard the rules of warfare and act with impunity that can only be met by playing equally dirty. After all, the lives of millions are at stake and against these the rights of a few miserable fanatics are irrelevant.

It is a seductive argument that rallies the faithful, but it has major weaknesses. Scrapping the division between right and wrong means abandoning the moral high ground essential to the wellbeing of democratic societies. It also recruits new martyrs to the terrorist cause which already has strong support for the belief that the United States is itself a terrorist state.

Basically the issue is one of morality versus practicality. Cynics would no doubt argue that when pushed, all nations abandon the Geneva Convention and use brutality to obtain information. This is perhaps what is so shocking about Cheney’s admission: torture to him seems an uncomplicated issue to be applied indefinitely until his government decides the threat of terrorism is over.

Many people believe such a simplistic, heavy-handed view of world affairs stoked terrorism in the first place, and has kept it alive. In a sense the terrorists have won a greater victory than 9/11: the country that regards itself as the world’s freest now tortures, apparently without regret. It can only be hoped that the incoming Barack Obama administration will look at human rights with greater subtlety.

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