A unique threat…

“‘Violence is taboo’, wrote Stephens in his in-house history of Camp 020 now available as a National Archives publication, “for not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information” .
Stephens put the unprecedented successes of Camp 020 down to the rule of non-violence.
“Never strike a man” wrote Stephens in instructions for interrogators.
“In the first place it is an act of cowardice. In the second place, it is not intelligent. A prisoner will lie to avoid further punishment and everything he says thereafter will be based on a false premise”……
… On one occasion in September 1940, Stephens expelled a War Office interrogator from the camp for hitting a prisoner, the double agent TATE. As Liddell noted in his diary “It is quite clear to me that we cannot have this sort of thing going on in our establishment. Apart from the moral aspect of the whole thing, I am quite convinced that these Gestapo methods do not pay in the long run”.

These quotations from an apparently famous British WWII interrogator Tin-eye Stephens are from MI5’s website. (I added some paragraph breaks.) As I blogged a couple of weeks ago, Alex Gibney said an interview about his film Taxi to the dark side that his father – who had been a WWII naval interrogator – was horrified at the use of torture, seeing it as both completely unethical and absolutely ineffective.

Many people believe that waterboarding and the associated horrors (like the emetically-named torture-lite) are justified because the current threat from Islamic terrorists is so extremely serious and unique.

I will spare you political arguments about manufacturing terrorism, through what I will politely call “misguided” foreign policies.

Instead, I’d like to question the “uniquely threatening” idea. I’ve already banged on about the decades of Northern Irish warfare having been a much bigger threat to the UK public than the recent terror episodes. But that was surely a playground scuffle compared to World War II.

The clue’s in the name. It was a world war.

Remember, there were Nazis who made lampshades out of human skin. Well more than 6 million Jews, disabled people, homosexuals, gypsies and communists were systematically exterminated. Most of Europe was overrun by the people slavishly following vile political systems. Any European country that hadn’t been invaded expected invasion at any moment.

Surely that was a pretty unique situation. So, do we find World War II veterans falling over themselves to justify torture?

In case you haven’t guessed, the answer is “No.”

From the quotations from Alex Gibney’s father and from the English interrogator with the nickname that could have come out of a Biggles book – it’ s pretty clear that the very people who might have justified torture in World War II saw it both abhorrent and completely useless at getting real information.

The phrase “Gestapo methods” expresses it all. People who took part in World War II on the Allied side were pretty confident of having the moral high ground. Torture was part of the horrors they were risking their lives to oppose. Indeed, after the war, the Nuremberg principle established that “just following orders” was no defence to war crime charges,

Can anyone seriously argue that the current terrorist threat is so much more threatening to the USA – let alone to Western Europe – that standing on the moral high ground should have changed to sinking into a filthy swamp?

6 thoughts on “A unique threat…

  1. Excellent post.

    I have often thought it is the peaceful nature of modern society that had led the unthinking masses to accept such horrific actions.

    I do wonder, however, if the west has retained any claim to the moral high ground…

  2. You have no idea how much of a relief it is to be able to come here and find people who are still resolute against the use of torture.

    Increasingly I’m finding people are far too willing to either condone outright or at least remain apathetic to its use against “terror suspects”. The whole ‘us against them’ mentality springs to mind.

    I think what many people fail to understand is just quite what torture is. We’re used to seeing a bit of rough treatment in action movies, and think to many that’s all there really is to it. They fail to appreciate the utter brutality and disregard for humanity that is required to be a torturer. In my mind if you couldn’t stomach doing it yourself, you should not be complicit in allowing your country to do it for you.

  3. XanderG

    Thank you so much.

    Yes, it’s really dispiriting that so many people have somehow started to condone torture, imagining that it makes them safer.

  4. If the government tells them torture will make take away their fear, then it will.

    You know, because the fear was manufactured by the same government.

  5. Excellent post. The West’s justification of the use of torture is beyond shameful. It’s a regression to the morals of a much less civilized, enlightened age. Considering the technologies at our disposal now, this regression is truly frightening.

  6. Perhaps it’s not so ironic that torture was frowned upon in World War 2 by the Allies while the current Bush administration condones it (despite their weasel words to the contrary): the stakes were much higher in the world war so that they needed to use methods that actually worked, whereas the administration might actually be aware that the stakes in the War on Terror isn’t that great, so they allowed methods that made them feel good or makes them think they’re “doing something” (or whatever, for all I know it was pure incompetence).

Comments are closed.