Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Why not torture?

Maher Arar.


So the whole sordid affair is out where everyone can see it easily. Maher Arar: Canadian citizen; deported to Syria by the United States; tortured in Syria until he confessed to crimes he couldn't actually have committed. If you have any doubt of he details, you can check them pretty much anywhere you like nowadays.

Then there was the inquiry which confirmed that the RCMP and CSIS, our own security organizations, provided the Americans with the information that led them to think Maher Arar was somehow associated with terrorism. The inquiry condemned the actions of those two organizations.

Our media appear to be doing something quite similar - the condemning part, that is - but they're missing the point.

The first thing I see on the news is the bit about the RCMP handing "evidence" over to American officials. The problem, apparently, is that the evidence is circumstantial. The RCMP, you see, had bad info on Arar. The American officials in question took this bad info to heart and sent Arar packing off to Syria. The next information we had was a report to CSIS that Maher Arar had confessed to being a terrorist. CSIS, for some reason that mystified even the inquiry, decided to accept this confession at face value despite Syria's record of human rights abuses and torture.

The crime, as portrayed by the media, was that Arar was tortured because of circumstantial evidence. The crime, as portrayed by the two reports I just saw on television, was that CSIS beleived the report of confession and therefore led the Canadian government to protest less than it should have.

The crime, apparently, was that Maher Arar was the wrong guy to torture.

I would like to submit, for your analysis, the idea that - perhaps - the people who bring us our news have lost their damned minds.

The crime was torture. Whether or not Maher Arar was a criminal; whether or not he attended a camp in Pakistan; whether or not he spoke to Al Qaeda members; whether or not he's even a murderer - none of these things are relevant to the fact that we as a nation acquiesced to his torture.

If you want to be pragmatic about it, you can make a lot of technical points about torture. For one thing, it doesn't work. While torture does illicit confessions from criminals, it elicits confessions from the innocent as well. (Google me this: "witch hunt" "salem".) While torture can get information from terrorists, it also gets completely useless, falsified information from non-terrorists who are just hoping that you'll stop it with the broomstick already if they pretend they know something.

So torture doesn't work? That's the reason we shouldn't do it?

No. The reason we don't torture is because it's a cruel, inhuman thing to do. I'm well aware that we are bound to come across cruel, inhuman people who do horrible things. These people will knock over World Trade Centers, spread depleted uranium all over Iraq, cluster bombs all around southern Lebanon or blow themselves up in a crowded plaza.
The question arises: Do these people deserve to be tortured?

The answer is a very firm "maybe". But it's the wrong question.

The question is: should we torture these people? The emphasis is on the "we". "We" must understand that undertaking to enact cruel punishment on other human beings isn't just bad for them, it's also bad for us. I can't pretend to have any magical power that allows me to decide what other human beings "deserve". Tolkien observed in the Lord of the Rings that "many die who deserve to live while many who live deserve to die". Fair enough, though I have no idea who is really entitled to make such decisions. When "we" decide to torture people, we have surrendered the moral high ground that was supposed to separate "we" from "they".

"We" don't have an infinite fountain of benevolence from which we can draw the right to torture people based on our generally friendly disposition.

Torture is an evil thing to do, even when it's done to an evil person. There is nothing we could gain from torture that could possibly be worth what we lose by doing it ...

... even if it did work.


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