May 11, 2004

Torture is bad

Seymour Hersh's work for the New Yorker in investigating and publicising a variety of reports into the American and British armies' detention practices is an exemplary piece of journalism. But beyond the journalism, there's little to cheer about. The reaction of the various rightist commentators and politicians has been depressing, and equally depressing is the extent to which the non-rightist analysis has dwelt on the consequences rather than the events.

If we read Hersh right (and surprisingly, there's actually not much factual dispute in this horrible episode), we first learnt that prisoners at Abu Ghraib and then prisoners throughout occupied Iraq have been beaten, tortured, killed, abused, sexually humiliated and raped. I have plenty of problems with what's happened, but the Ground Zero is surely that torture and murder in detention are just bad. Torture is a fundamental human taboo, regardless of what other ills it brings. And it is, after all, one of the hallmarks of Saddam's regime.

There are several arguments going round which seek to portray the reaction to the revelation of prison torture and murder in Iraq as out of proportion, wrong-headed and shamefully gleeful. The list runs something like this:
1. They never apologised for killing people in the World Trade Center or on the Cole, so just remember that before you get too upset.
Well, it's true - they didn't. But this is not them. Any comparison is a furphy. The people kept in these jails, as the Army's own documents show (and corroborated by the Red Cross), are a mix of common criminals, innocent civilians and suspected Baathists. Not suspected terrorists. Not suspected Al Qa'eda. And the Army itself acknowledges that about 60% of the people it detains are innocent, and that most of the rest are guilty of small-beer local crimes. Any attempt to broaden the scope of comparison asks you either to believe that Iraq (and all its people) was responsible for all of those acts of terrorism, or that everyone in detention is a top-order bad guy. Both requests are demonstrably wrong. And you should apologise - your troops have murdered and tortured.

2. Most Iraqis aren't too upset about it, so why are you guys getting worked up? In fact, we're doing them a favour.
The proposition about a general acceptance amongst Iraqis is fairly debatable on its own terms. There's quite a lot of evidence to say that one of the reasons the US and UK aren't doing too well at occupying the country is that they can't spot important bad guys and get played for suckers by local vendetta-merchants. So it seems there *are* quite a lot of Iraqis worked up by the idea that innocent people are in jail. But there's an aspect of this argument which seeks to legitimate third-party revenge - these people would do it if they could, so what's wrong if we do it? What's wrong is that you're not them, and that one of the burdens of democracy is the trammelling of revenge with law. Wrongs done to another should be resisted and redressed, but revenge is not yours to take. Further, the idea that you free a country from arbitrary rule of torture and terror really implies that you won't impose it yourself. Rule of law *means* in part turning revenge into trial and prosecution.

3. It's an isolated incident with some untrained guards.
Every bit of documentary evidence which has come to light suggests that it was an instituted policy of the military intelligence at Abu Ghraib. That clearly implicates relatively senior levels of command. Policy is not isolated; it entails thought, system and application. Further evidence is now suggesting that prisoner abuses were apparent in other places too. The bad apples argument doesn't really wash here either when you take into account the length of time over which complaints had apparently been made. An isolated incident doesn't take place in three parts of the country over a year. And training? You need training to avoid torture and murder? Are they common errors for new prison guards?

4. We're being condemned because we admitted the problem and dealt with it.
Actually, no. As Hersh makes clear, there were two separate US Army reports into just the Abu Graib deaths and torture. Neither was made public before Hersh received copies and published the details. Hersh makes equally clear that all of the Abu Ghraib offenders escaped sanction until the issue blew up in the press. Admissions were made only *after* third-party Western journalists investigated the accusations. Since Hersh's initial report, the International Committee of the Red Cross has revealed it has made complaints for over a year. Amnesty International has submited reports for half a year. You're being condemned because your troops murdered and tortured, you did nothing about it for a year and admitted it only after Western publication of your own damning reports. You could understand a little cynicism about the American way of democracy given the circumstances.

5. Our cause is still just.
Perhaps. But the manner of pursuing it is sometimes not. Does justice reside in action or in an a priori claim? The good guys have to do good things and not do bad things.

posted on May 11, 2004 at 09:55 PM by darren.