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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Naught for your comfort

Edge of topic department…

David Aaronovitch writes a thoughtful and lucid piece in today’s Times examining the arguments for and against the use of torture in the war against terror. And he concludes with a ringing defence of the classical liberal position:-

'But as McCain puts it now, we are in “a war of ideas, a struggle to advance freedom in the face of terror in places where oppressive rule has bred the malevolence that creates terrorists”. And we fight it — always, always, always — by being as little like those oppressors as we can possibly be. Even if torture works.'

Reading this I wanted very much to agree with him. Unfortunately there’s a gaping hole in this argument. Among the things oppressors do very well is starting wars and killing people. So being as unlike them as possible is also the basis of the classic case for pacifism – and I happen to know that David Aaronovitch is definitely not a pacifist.

The Saddam trial will certainly give us plenty of reminders of the gulf between anything the CIA may be doing and what was routine under his regime. We are a long way from moral equivalence here, whatever the Guardian may say to the contrary. That is of course true of the motives as well as the methods. Torturing a would-be murderer in the hope of saving lives is not the same as torturing anyone who dares speak out against a tyrant.

On a personal level, if Mrs Cyrus’s life were on the line I very much doubt if I would give priority to a terrorist’s right to be spared from pain.

If torture is horrifying, so too are many other aspects of modern warfare – bombing cities, for example. The implication of Christian just war theory is that if a war fulfils the criteria for being just, it becomes a moral imperative to fight it with all means necessary to ensure victory – unless those means become a greater evil than the one which the war is intended to prevent, in which case the equally clear-cut moral imperative is to lay down one’s arms. The difficulty of deciding whether torturing terrorists can be justified is in principle the same as the difficulty of determining whether it was justifiable to firebomb Dresden and thereby accelerate the ending of the Holocaust.

A pacifist response would be that the answer is to stop trying to play God. But I can’t accept this. Our capacity for moral reasoning is part of the equipment God gives us for dealing with a broken, sinful world. We have to use it, recognizing that we are not going to do so infallibly and that it is not always going to allow us to keep our hands clean.

And on that inconclusive and very uncomfortable note I end. Comments please.

1 comment:

Melanie said...

I heard Alan Dershowitz in an interview on TV about 2 years ago presenting an argument for torture to be legislated. It was a long time ago so I hope I’m not misrepresenting his views but from memory, he argued that it is better that we legislate what is deemed acceptable torture because torture will possibly happen in any case.
Recently Professor Bagaric from Deakin University here in Australia wrote a paper advocating torture in extreme circumstances and caused an outcry. Ironically many of the academics that were outraged support Palestinian terrorism. I guess in their view, we in the West have to uphold the highest moral standards while others are permitted to fight for whatever they want by whatever means. So we are fighting on different sides of the same battle and the rules for each side are different.
Personally, I think it is an important issue that needs to be debated openly. Currently just mentioning the need for the debate is taboo. And if I presented Alan Dershowitz's views correctly then I agree with him too - otherwise I agree with the misrepresentation of him. New laws have to be established to reflect the realities of the world we live in today where existing laws can be inadequate. Not having them will leave governments very vunerable in a legal sense.