Perspectives: Is torture ever justified?

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Can torture ever be justified?

As part of the Perspectives series, BBC Religion and Ethics asked two contributors to BBC One's religious debate programme The Big Questions to develop some of the issues.

David Vance is a political commentator and editor of the websites A Tangled Web and Biased BBC. He can be followed on Twitter and Facebook and is a Christian. David supports the use of torture when necessary to protect lives.

Reverend Nicholas Mercer was commissioned into the Army Legal Service in 1991. He has served in Northern Ireland and Bosnia Herzegovina, and was the Command Legal Adviser for the Iraq War 2003 with the HQ 1st (UK) Armoured Division. He was named Liberty Human Rights Lawyer of the Year in 2011. He fervently opposes torture.

An ethical and moral dilemma

David Vance (left) and Reverend Nicholas Mercer David Vance (left) and Reverend Nicholas Mercer approach the debate from different perspectives

David: The sanctity of human life lies at the heart of Christianity. In the Ten Commandments, it is instructed that we should not kill. Our government has a fundamental responsibility to do all that is necessary to protect innocent life from those who would take it. We face an unprecedented terrorist threat, a global jihad, and so the use of robust interrogation techniques by our security services is not only essential but also morally and ethically appropriate.

Nicholas: We oppose torture because our Lord was tortured.

David: I was unaware we crucified terrorists. Got any instances of that? I think the word "torture" is thrown around out of all context and in a way that is both insulting to our armed forces as well as being helpful to our enemies. The point under debate is whether innocent life should be saved by using "enhanced interrogation techniques" or whether it should be sacrificed in order that certain liberal consciences be appeased. How many innocent lives do you think we should sacrifice lest a jihadist be made to feel uncomfortable?

Join the debate:

Nicholas: The point about torture is erroneous but often employed by politicians who deny they ever condone torture, but have set the definition so high that they can (in their own minds at least) justify their assertion. The US authorities didn't believe water boarding was torture.

Try some of these for size:

  • Mutilating genitals (Mohammed)
  • Removing fingernails
  • Letters of introduction from MI6 to Gadaffi's torturers (Al Saadi/Belhaj)
  • Beating/stress positions/sleep, food deprivation and white noise (Baha Mousa)
  • Threats of rape, execution, striping naked, seducing/assaulting

This is all abhorrent and I don't believe you or anyone else advocates such practice. Above all we should abide by the rule of law and practise human decency at all costs.

We lost our bearings with 9/11 and we now need to recover them with a zero tolerance policy towards both torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. You may have forgotten - they are both illegal.

The ticking bomb argument

David: We did lose the plot but it was before 9/11 and the culpability was a failure to both gather and understand the intelligence of the plot that resulted in that dreadful day.

Start Quote

Above all we should abide by the rule of law and practise human decency at all costs. ”

End Quote Reverend Nicholas Mercer

Are you suggesting that had we been able to disrupt 9/11 that would not have been a moral good? Is it better to leave stones unturned? Surely you would not want to sacrifice 2,996 lives lest a plotter got waterboarded?

I find it interesting that al-Qaeda operatives are instructed to claim torture. Might this be because they feel there is a gullible western liberal audience who seek to believe the worst of our armed forces whilst denying the savagery of the enemy they face?

Nicholas: This debate has been rehearsed many times before and the only argument you can put forward, it seems, is the ticking bomb argument.

I do not know of any case where this has been relevant and, as I said before, even if such a situation existed, the committed jihadist (or whoever) would lie. The overwhelming majority of cases that have been brought into the light all concern either low level threats or no threat at all.

What is the definition of torture?

  • The Tokyo Declaration of 1975 defines torture as "…the deliberate, systematic or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons acting alone or on the orders of any authority, to force another person to yield information, to make a confession, or for any other reason."
  • The UN and USA's definition are more restrictive
  • Torture is outlawed in international law and forbidden in the laws of many countries.

Men, women and children have all been abused at the hand of their UK captors and you should concede that this is morally offensive and ethically unacceptable. Torture and inhuman and degrading treatment have no place in a modern democracy and belong in the dark ages or a medieval display in the Tower of London.

With regard to the high level threat, why is it that we can interview successfully under the domestic law with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and defeat the bombers but not when we go to war? As Sir William Gage said "the MOD did not have a grasp on or adequate understanding of its own interrogation policy".

David: Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5 stated during her BBC Reith Lecture in 2011: "It's not the case that torture always produces false information and actually it's clear that torture can contribute to saving lives." [Baroness Manningham-Buller went on to say that torture is "not something that is right, legal or moral to do" - Editor.]

Former US president, George W Bush, has also stated that the interrogation of senior al-Qaeda prisoners, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of 9/11, "helped break up plots to attack American diplomatic facilities abroad, Heathrow Airport and Canary Wharf in London, and multiple targets in the United States".

Former CIA Chief Jose Rodriguez also states that enhanced interrogation procedures produced intelligence that saved lives. Either these people are all deluded and lying or your suggestion that interrogation does not work is profoundly detached from reality.

Double standards

Nicholas: Of course - and Tony Blair tries to justify the invasion of Iraq, knowing full well, in my view, he breached International Law.

Again, in my view, Bush, Rodriguez and Manningham-Buller all know that they have breached international and domestic law and, just like Blair, are belatedly trying to justify their actions.

I am pleased Manningham-Buller has put her head above the parapet because she refused to reply to my questions when I wrote to her in the House of Lords about complicity in torture. Perhaps Manningham-Buller could give some further detail on Rangzieb Ahmed for instance.

No ticking bomb in this case but rather he claimed he was followed to Pakistan by her subordinates in MI5 who fed him questions as he was having his finger nails pulled out by Pakistani security services. [This is Mr Mercer's view but the claims were rejected by the Court of Appeal in 2011 - Editor]

The 'ticking bomb' problem

  • The 'ticking bomb' scenario is often used to illustrate the dilemma of whether a good result produced by torture justifies the evil act of torturing someone
  • A hypothetical situation: you are a senior law officer facing the leader of a terrorist group who has activated a nuclear bomb but refuses to reveal its location
  • Is it ethically acceptable for you to have him (or his family) tortured to find out where the bomb is and thus save thousands of lives, or is it unethical to torture him, no matter how many die as a result?

Perhaps Manningham-Buller can explain precisely what she knew and what legal authority she was acting under when she authorised this operation?

If a soldier had done it (Donald Payne - for instance) he would have been charged with a war crime or serious assault, mistreatment of civilian etc. If a civilian policeman had done it then he too would have faced criminal charges. If you were Nepalese you would have been arrested and indicted. Manningham-Buller and MI5 however seem immune from process.

Perhaps she would like to go and confess to this incident to her nearest police station and try her defence with the investigators as she is so convinced as to the lawfulness of her actions. She won't, of course.

The way to hell?

David: The saving of life also lies at the moral and ethical heart of robust interrogation yet you continually flinch from accepting this and instead attribute base motives to our political leaders, heads of intelligence, and armed forces.

Senior al-Qaeda jihadist Abu Zubayda broke after 35 seconds of being waterboarded and, according to the man who did it, the information he gave let us stop "[...] a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks".

Again, is everyone in the intelligence gathering community wrong and you right? You talk of ticking bombs but you fail to appreciate that some of these have gone off.

For example, when 52 people were brutally murdered on 7/7 by British jihadi, are you saying it would have been morally wrong for our intelligence services to do everything possible to save those lives - including robust interrogation?

Nicholas: I believe in the rule of law - you clearly find it inconvenient.

We have a new world order in the aftermath of World War II under the Charter of the United Nations. When it is broken, as in Iraq, the world is unforgiving. When the UN convention on torture is broken the Government take refuge in covering up the truth and paying off the victims. That is the reality.

I have been involved in the war in terror - so called - both in Ireland and Iraq. Had we applied the rule of law then we could have avoided the stain and scandal that has dogged us ever since.

I am looking for a different world where we conduct ourselves properly.

David: The problem about those trying to posture on the high moral ground on this issue is that it means them clambering over the corpses of innocent people whose lives have been already taken by a savage terrorist enemy.

The UK cannot afford to indulge such liberal sentiment and our strategic advantage lies in showing we are strong enough to do everything necessary to defeat our enemy. In a war, victory is the objective, not hopeless hand wringing.

By parroting enemy propaganda and by refusing to accept that our Government MUST protect the lives of its citizens, I fear utopians may yet take us all the way to hell.

Perspectives is a forum for invited contributors to write about personal and contemporary issues of faith and ethics. The views expressed here are those of the individual authors, not the BBC.

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