Torture is repulsive. Even on the scaffold or in front of a firing squad, a man can meet death with dignity. The torturer sets out to strip his victim of dignity, to break him, to violate not only his body but also his soul. In England, torture was outlawed in 1660, and for most of the past 350 years, that seemed to be a final verdict. Torture had been a barbarous relic of the dark ages. Anyone who suggested that it might still have a role would have been laughed to scorn; no doubt he would also have been in favour of burning witches.
If only it were still that simple. But the dark ages are not over. In the Middle East, there are fanatics who seem to despise death as much as they despise the West. Their challenge has to be confronted, and it would be fatuous to assume that this can be achieved within the constraints of the Geneva Convention.
The latest Senate Report on the CIA has commanded headlines all over the world and the Agency has already been convicted in the court of global opinion. Yet this may be an unjust verdict. There has been a powerful rebuttal by several former CIA Directors and Deputy Directors. If these gentlemen are telling the truth – and they back up their points with plenty of detail – the Senate Report is a squalid exercise in inaccuracy, anti-Americanism and political partisanship: a wholly unjustified assault on the integrity of an institution which has done so much to protect Americans, and their allies.
That said, the question remains. Could torture ever be justified? There many who insist that the answer must be an emphatic ‘No’: that if we were to use torture, we would destroy any claim the West might have to moral superiority. Those who employ the methods of barbarism to deal with barbarians, themselves become barbarians.
Such arguments are an eloquent appeal to our better nature and would be irrefutable, if only the world were inhabited by angels, not by men. ‘Original sin’ is still the best summary of the human condition. In this fallen world, we face a challenge from ruthless enemies whose malice knows no bounds. Alan Dershowitz, the American lawyer, has used the phrase ‘ticking bomb’ to refer to a scenario which we all devoutly wish will never occur. A terrorist group is believed to be in possession of a nuclear device. Time is desperately short, but we have captured a member of the group. In such circumstances, torture would surely be justified.
Another formidable lawyer and commentator, Sydney Kentridge, came up with a devilish refinement of the ticking bomb dilemma. We have captured a terrorist, but he is a such a hardened case that there may not be time to break him down. We have also captured his wife and children…
What a horrible problem. But it would be the height of complacent naiveté to assume that it will never require an answer from some Western leader in the course of this embattled century. My view is that if – God forbid – such a situation did arise, we would not only have the right to use torture. We would have the duty to do so. Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight. Roaring Bill, who killed him, thought it right. Let us hope that we can protect ourselves without extremities. But protect ourselves we must.