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Too High a Price

I am truly astonished to learn, from the newspapers, and from callers on phone-in radio stations, that a significant number, perhaps even the majority, of my fellow-citizens regard torturing our ‘enemies’ as acceptable on the grounds that they would not hesitate to torture us.

The context of course is the United States Senate’s report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of what are being described as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’.  Presumably these fall short of ‘terminating with extreme prejudice’.  (Don’t you just love the way the spooks create such colourful euphemisms in the cause of Freedom.)

I hate to be a pink-toned bleeding-heart, but I seem to have been under a misapprehension these past few decades.  Here I am thinking that the whole point of a society – any society – that embraces to its bosom the virtues of liberty and democracy and enlightenment is to stand firm on civilized values to avoid receding back into a new Dark Age. 

Back then in days of yore, our ancestors had no compunction about using enhanced interrogation techniques.  Actually, they usually skipped the interrogation bit altogether in favour of enhanced termination techniques.  Extracting information, they must have concluded, was not only time consuming, but more often than not failed to yield anything worth the effort.

Attila the Hun no doubt gained considerable influence throughout Asia by boiling his opponents in oil.  The Catholic Church has through the ages sought to preserve the One True Faith – or, if you prefer, The One Big Lie – by burning heretics at the stake.  Of more recent memory, in some cases within living recollection, Herr Hitler was known to hang dissidents with piano wire, especially those who unreasonably objected to his propensity for gassing millions in camps especially designed for the purpose.  Comrade Stalin disposed of his opponents by methods so varied as to be as impossible to enumerate as the number of victims. 

Since then, though, it has been my distinct impression that society wished, if you will pardon the currently fashionable vernacular, to move on.   At least in the so-called enlightened industrial countries of the West, where we invite gay people to cocktail parties rather than throw them off the roof and turn a benign blind eye when our neighbours have it off with partners other than their spouses.

The CIA, I am told, did nothing worse than subject its guests to a little water-boarding, or expose them to hypothermia in unheated concrete cells.  These, let’s face it, are nothing compared with beheading people or tipping lorry-loads of rocks on them.  

That much is self-evident but is hardly mitigation. 

My problem is that I can’t and more importantly do not wish to identify the line across which we should not step.  It is a line that, even if it identifies, cannot remain static.  If we allow our security agencies to dunk heads in buckets, or apply a little electricity to testicles, and that fails to produce the desired result, what do we do next?  The answer is that the only thing we can do at that point, ineffective forms of torture being pointless, is to raise the level of persuasion.    

Many of the listeners who took to the radio airwaves this morning acknowledged the truth of that.  But they went on – the full nine yards.  Failure to coerce justifies ever-rising levels of imposed pain.  There was much bellicose talk of fighting fire with fire, of biblical exchanges of eyes and teeth, of joining those who deploy harsh methods because by not doing so we can’t beat them. 

My bet is that half these people, as rational as they sounded, have a severe personality disorder.  The other half probably intends to vote for UKIP.  An overwhelming majority, I would be prepared to wager, favour a return of capital punishment.

What they fail to understand about our so-called enemies is that we have beaten them in all the aspects that matter – spiritual and material.  The residents of this and other countries whose governments abhor medieval forms of punishment by and large bask in lives of comfort and joy.  Those unfortunates who dwell in arid lands devoid of creature comforts and stable lives respond to incitement to violence because they have been hoodwinked into thinking it is being done in defence of their One True Faith.

If we have to endure isolated acts of terror as the price we pay for winning the battle for hearts and minds – even including those of misguided souls who disagree on radio talk-ins – then it is a small price to pay.   Use of torture is far too high a price, at any time, and in any circumstances, no ifs and no buts.

It disturbs me that so many people seem to disagree.

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