Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


The other day, I watched a BBC documentary entitled We Have Ways To Make You Talk on LinkTV. It was a history of the recent use of torture as a technique of interrogation. It began with the French practices in Algiers in the 1950's on up to the present time. Torturers and their victims were interviewed. It got me to thinking. Those of liberal opinion commonly hold that, not only is torture unethical and immoral, but it doesn't work. I agree with the the first part of that statement. To my mind, there is no ethical or moral justification for torture. However, I am not so sure about the second part.

If someone has a piece of information that you want, they will give it up under torture. All of the torturers who were interviewed for the documentary agreed on that, and I see no reason to dispute it. These practices wouldn't persist unless there were instances in which they were effective. On the other hand, if a detainee does not have he desired information, he's likely to tell the interrogator what he wants to hear in order to stop the torture. Sometimes that involves giving up people who are, in fact, innocent. For example, one of the victims of torture was a man who was picked up by the British during the troubles in Northern Ireland. The British tortured him in order to make him give up the names of IRA members. He said that he didn't know any IRA members, so he gave them the names of his neighbors just so the pain would stop. Were these people brought in and tortured as well? The documentary didn't say, but it wouldn't have been surprising. There wasn't any comment from the British authorities, but I suspect that they didn't much care whether or not innocent people were arrested and perhaps tortured. They were probably seen as collateral damage. As a former member of the British army who had been in Northern Ireland at the time stated, they stopped the IRA terrorism, so it was worth it.

A couple of members of the South African police who had participated in torture during the apartheid era were also interviewed. One of them talked about his favorite form of torture. It involved a gas mask. There is a stopper or something of the sort on these masks that is removed before use. If it isn't removed, the person wearing the mask can't breathe. This cop would tie his victim to a chair and put a stoppered gas mask on him. Just as he was about to pass out, he would take off the mask. He would tell the victim that unless he gave up the requested information, he'd put the mask back on. After going through this twice, the victim would be informed that he'd had his last chance and that the mask would remain on until he suffocated and died. The former cop said that this method never failed to get the information that he wanted, not even once. He never had to put the mask on a third time. Given the racial nature of the white South African regime, I doubt that they much cared much whether or not the information was accurate. So some innocent people were locked away or killed. They were undoubtedly seen as nothing more than "kaffirs" in the eyes of these fascists.

Now, there are those who would defend the use of torture in extraordinary circumstances. They invariably come up with some hypothetical scenario like, suppose a terrorist group is going to plant a nuclear bomb somewhere in New York City and we need to stop them before they can do it. That sort of example is bogus, and I defy them to come up with a single such situation from real life. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to incidents like 9/11, the information is usually there for the intelligence agencies but is either discounted or isn't acted upon. When it comes to torture, no government or regime that employs it uses it just as a measure of last resort in such circumstances, even if they were to arise. It is invariably part of a larger social and political process, namely, the violent suppression of opposition populations or movements. That was the case with the French in Algiers, the right-wing governments in Uruguay and Chile, the white regime in South Africa, and the British in Northern Ireland. It is also the case with the U.S. in Iraq. In that sense, torture is itself a form of terrorism, and it should be condemned for the unethical and immoral practice that it is.


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