Home / Opinion / What do we say when we say torture is OK if it’s useful?

In a civilized society—or one that claims to be civilized—there are certain things that are not up for debate. For instance, we do not have to argue that rape or pedophilia is evil—and this not having to prove to anyone that they are evil under any circumstances, is one marker of civilization and of our humanity.

Even in a society steeped in rape culture such as ours, you will be considered a psychopath if you were to suggest that rape is acceptable if it’s in the national interest. This might seem like a needlessly extreme, sensational example. But that is precisely what torture is, or rather, what it used to be in respectable, civil, public discourse—needless, extreme, sensational, and evil. It is this reservoir of our own humanity which we draw on when we express horror at the doings of an Islamic State or a Boko Haram.

Civilized humans do not discuss the pros and cons of torture. That is why torture is forbidden by international law. That is why it is still illegal in most countries, including those that practise it secretly or condone it. That is why we have a United Nations convention against torture. If torture keeps such a low profile, it is because it is still widely—even if hypocritically—considered morally abhorrent, much like rape and pedophilia are.

So it’s hardly surprising that the US Senate intelligence committee report on the systematic use of torture of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—while none too revelatory to the rest of the world—has created some turmoil in the American political establishment.

Things like water-boarding, beatings, mock executions, ice water baths and sleep deprivation were, of course, already well-known as part of the agency’s standard repertoire. But other, more advanced techniques, such as subjecting detainees to rectal feeding and rehydration, dietary manipulation, confinement in a coffin-size box, use of insects, etc., were relatively less known.

Procedural logic of torture criticism

Interestingly, even this expose—embarrassing as it is—charges the CIA only with procedural crimes, such as lying to the Congress and the White House, mismanagement, excessive brutality, illegal detentions, and so on. It does not condemn torture on moral grounds. As this New York Times report puts it, the Senate committee’s terms of reference were much narrower, and covered “mainly a practical question: Did torture accomplish anything of value? Looking at case after case, the report answers with an unqualified no."

Such being the terms of engagement, the CIA and the American intelligence community have had no trouble launching a counter-attack. They have hit back strongly through articles and reports that have begun to appear in the American media, accusing the Senate committee of being biased, of cherry-picking arguments against the CIA, and of undermining America’s interests and reputation by releasing details of a secret programme.

The way the torture debate is being played out, the main argument of those critical of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation programme—the intelligence community’s euphemism for torture—has been that it was unproductive in terms of generating useful intelligence, and detainees, when subjected to torture, typically provide only false or useless information.

This nicely prepares the ground for defenders of torture to present themselves as superior patriots who then have the thankless job of convincing ill-informed civilian idiots—who know nothing about the big bad post-9/11 world of terrorism—that torture has actually been effective, and if used smartly, can help save thousands of American or (substitute your nationality here) lives.

I am invoking 9/11 here because it is typically invoked by those who justify torture by saying that people living in the post-9/11 world need torture in a manner that people living in the pre-9/11 world did not. I might add here that the only evidence ever adduced to prove this claim are intelligence inputs from nameless shadowy intelligence agents who are not subject to democratic oversight, and assorted reports produced by so-called security experts who are also not subject to democratic oversight. And besides, what is rarely acknowledged is that both these advocates of torture have a vested interest in ensuring that security remains the top most public priority—more than liberty or equality or dignity.

But such narrowly circumscribed debates conveniently bypasses the real question: Would the CIA’s torture programme have been okay—to the American Senate, to the people of the US, and to people around the world—if the CIA had committed none of the procedural illegalities the Senate report accuses it of having committed? Would water-boarding have been okay if the CIA had done it only to genuine suspects? Would rectal rehydration be okay if every instance of its use yields crucial information pertaining to a planned terrorist attack, say, of a magnitude equivalent to a 9/11?

Is rectal feeding more humane than rape?

Further, given that many analysts nitpick on what constitutes torture and what does not—some have argued that torture up to a certain pain threshold is not really torture—would torture be OK with us if it was a little less extreme and, how should I put this, a little more humane, perhaps? Or would it be OK so long as it is conducted out of sight, and without our explicit, everyday, moral concurrence?

If our answer to any of the above questions is yes, then we need to answer if it would be OK for the CIA—or your own national spy agency or police or army—to use rape as a torture technique on, say, a female terrorist, to elicit information about a potential terror attack. If we say yes to this question, then we must acknowledge that we are already people for whom rape is acceptable under certain conditions. That, by the way, is what is known as rape culture. And it happens to be our social reality as of today.

Once again, I am not speaking of rape here flippantly, or in a cynical fashion to make a point about torture. We implicitly endorse one form of objective violence (torture, among others), and repress this endorsement from our national consciousness. Then we act surprised and shocked when subjective violence (rape) erupts in our midst, typically against vulnerable targets such as women and children. How can we condone one form of savagery, condemn the other, and not expect to face the consequences of the choices we make as a people? Both India and the US condone torture. And both display the same pathology of endemic violence against women.

This is not to say that there is a causal link between institutionalized torture and individual rape—which is absurd—but that there is structural link between objective and subjective violence. So when we take a stand on torture based on its functionality (whether it works or not) and not on its morality (whether you would do it to a stranger in your individual capacity), then we are also taking a stand, however implicitly, that we want to be the kind of society which says institutionalized rape is alright if it is serves a larger public interest such as, for example, saving a thousand women from being raped or killed.

It goes without saying that for most sane human beings, institutionalized rape would be abhorrent. How then have we allowed torture to become a matter of pragmatism and not morality? This is not about the CIA or the US alone, but every militarized nation state. And India, being one such, is no exception. We have till date not ratified the UN convention against torture. And we all know how common custodial torture is in our country.

Today, thankfully, we still don’t entertain rape or pedophilia apologists. But we want to give a free run to torture apologists. What would it take for us to understand that every human being tortured is a crime against every other human being?

I am not making a case here for moral absolutism. This is just moral realism: If you as a citizen morally condone institutional torture—and this is torture paid for by your money and conducted in your name—then you cannot avoid paying for it with your own humanity.

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