The recent US Senate report into the use of torture has once again stimulated the sensibilities of our civilisation by challenging the utopian ideology often comfortably espoused in a TV studio or any other ”I’m more human than you“ debate where the tendency to downplay any practical aspects or the wider picture is convenient.  Notwithstanding, that this report may not be what it initially appears to be it seems clear that coercion, easily described as excessive, has been in regular use and possibly with the tacit compliance of our own dear state.

In the comfort of our living rooms most of us would abhor all forms of brutality between people or peoples. Torture is particularly distasteful when viewed through this ‘cream tea’ perspective and most of us shudder at the recreations of scenes from a Plantagenet or Tudor dynasty expressing silent satisfaction that we don’t do this sort of thing today. Except that we do. Not, perhaps, so primitive and not so much by our revered western culture but such actions continue around the world every bit as distasteful as Mary’s bonfires, probably emphasising just how fragile a compassionate social structure is to achieve and then maintain.

This is not the place to go into our recent and continuing military adventures that have sacrificed the lives of countless people, though that does epitomise a somewhat variable benchmark when it comes to brutality, but to explore whether or not coercion is an appropriate tool, if acceptable levels of it should be enforced and what constitutes tacit agreement and can any level of that be publically acceptable?

On ‘This Week’ (BBC1) recently Douglas Murray postulated upon the recent American revelations by questioning the validity of total openness and a blanket opposition to even some extreme methods of coercion. The response by the Hackney MP Diane Abbot was predictably one dimensional, ill thought out, (no deviation from the norm there) and desperately populist. Whenever anyone spouts such self aggrandising virtue I really wish someone would ask them the following question.

Assume you are an official of some standing, perhaps a defence minister or chief police officer. You receive a call from the American Intelligence services which goes something like this. “We’ve just received credible information that a bomb is set to detonate this evening during the Royal Variety Performance.” You are about to leap into action when the message continues, “I’m afraid we had to torture this informant pretty severely to break him but with the corroborative evidence we have we’re sure that it’s a real threat.

This creates a real dilemma. Having decried the use of torture and knowing it to be illegal do you act? Do you sacrifice principles to protect life and limb or refuse to act because the information was obtained illegally? Acting is tacit approval of torture, so a tricky position, but is there another way? Could you possibly act by using the defence that it was the associated and corroborative information that prompted the action and nothing to do with the information obtained by torture or, is this a bit thin?

You can play with this scenario by amending the circumstances to see if any combination of events could penetrate your moral opposition. For example you could lessen the degree of coercion used, or increase it, move the venue to another country or even place your own children at the scene. Would any of these variables change what you would do?

Once you get out of your armchair it seems that the efficacy of torture and the degree to which it is used becomes extremely complicated.

I suspect the reality would be a little different. When such information is passed it would never be accompanied by its method of extraction. Equally nobody would ask thereby avoiding any uncomfortable dilemmas and that is probably a guiding principle of covert operations neatly sidestepping moral involvement.

If one has a secret service one might expect it to be clandestine and possibly to indulge in subversive activities on our behalf. Perhaps the blind eye followed by outrage, should something be discovered, be the appropriate strategy? It seems so. Should this continue or should some specified degree of torture be approved. For myself, I would be surprised and a little dismayed if our security services weren’t doing things I knew nothing about. I take the view that it’s what they are there for. Also if I and my family were in the building to be blown up I wouldn’t really care what was done to the informer to get that information and save our lives, so it really is a question with a multiplicity of dimensions and not easily compressed into sound bites so often trumpeted by our well meaning but superficial liberal intelligentsia.

Torture, of course has other disadvantages. It’s said that the information gathered is often unreliable and may not even be known by the unfortunate interrogatee. Eventually people will say anything to stop the pain. However that strongly suggests that in some cases the interrogatee is in possession of the needed information and will divulge it. Should such interrogation be subject to judicial approval (never political) on a case by case basis so the argument of nasty but essential becomes an acceptable compromise?

I’m not sure I have any answers to this, only questions, but unless the subject can be brought out for sensible discussion the ‘ I didn’t know’ defence will continue to be the ‘go to’ response whilst knowing privately that such practices continue. Maybe that’s how it should be?

Photo by takomabibelot

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