Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

To rationalize the unconscionable

Do our ends justify our means?





Waterboarding

Waterboarding: torture or “enhanced interrogation”?
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When the defenders of waterboarding and other means of torture as a means of interrogation advocate these techniques, they do so by saying that we cannot afford to be gentlemen when we are at war for our way of life, that we must be prepared to use whatever means are necessary to save civilization from the menace posed by foreign barbarians. But they may wish to consider two questions that call this hypothesis into doubt: What are the characteristics of civilization that make it preferable to barbarism? And if a civilization is indeed at war with barbarians, what happens to it when it sets a higher standard for the conduct of the barbarians than for its own?

In the case of the Taliban, there is no doubt. These people are barbarians. They have no respect for other peoples, faiths and cultures, and will happily kill — or deface irreplaceable historical artifacts — if they find that their narrow, medieval notions of morality and godliness are not being acceded to: They have jailed people for listening to music, executed suspected adultresses by stoning and homosexuals by knocking down walls on them, and once dynamited a pair of centuries-old enormous stone Buddhas as “graven images.”

But today I read people commenting that the crimes of the U.S. are worse than those of the Taliban, and I can only shake my head. For, obscenely, the charge is undeniable. As terrible, sadistic and backward-looking as the Taliban is, its impact has been limited to its own country, and the raw numbers of its victims do not begin to compare with those of the U.S. military and intelligence services alone.

Now consider this hypothesis. Let us imagine that the U.S. achieves final victory and crushes all its enemies. If it has achieved this by means of lying to its allies and its own people; creating secret death squads; kidnapping people whom it either wrongly suspects of terrorism or has merely picked up by mistake, or to make examples of them through what it euphemizes as “extraordinary rendition” (much as if it were a virtuoso concert interpretation of a classical symphony); torturing people similarly selected in the hope of forcing them to confess knowledge that there is reason to believe they do not possess, in order that their confessions may be used as “proof” of theories that the facts fail to support; and invading, occupying and leaving in chaos countries that have done it no harm and threatened none, then what moral distinction can it expect the world to see between it and its foes? What kind of civilization will it have become?

It is shameful when one’s country so behaves that it merits deeper abhorrence than the worst of its enemies.

Originally published as a review of a Telegraph article on the use of torture.

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