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?

The dark side

I don’t have the stomach to watch it, myself, but I am going to write about it anyway. Alex Gibney’s Taxi To The Dark Side is about torture in the war on terror.

The free bus paper, the Metro, had a powerful interview with the filmmaker. The full content doesn’t appear in the online version of the review.

Which is a pity, because the director made some very strong points. He said that most of the military whom he interviewed were horrified by the descent into torture. This included an interview with his own dying father who had been a naval interrogator in World war II. His father had said that they would never have condoned torture. Not only was it utterly unethical, the information that it produced would be of no value.

However, when the director showed the film to non-military audiences, he often got the response that the war on terror was different and meant that we had to go to “the dark side” to fight it. The film maker’s response was that Charles Manson had also been uniquely evil, but the USA hadn’t needed to dismantle its entire justice system to convict him.

I am going to pick up on two bits of this interview.

First, Gibney’s brilliant response to the popular idea that there is such a serious threat now that we have to drop human values to confront it. In the UK, Gordon Brown and others seem determined to use the argument that the old rules don’t apply not to justify torture – yet – but to gather support for daily more repressive laws. Brown explicitly said that the old war-on-terror was nothing like the new one. (He pretty well iimplied that the old one was almost cosy homegrown friendly disagreement.)

Just in case, anyone is convinced by this argument. The BBC’s On this Day has a handy Northern Ireland “bombings and shootings timeline.” This shows, for example, that by 1978, 1,000 people had died. That’s barely 7 years from the first event.

Cast your eye down the list. There were attacks on Parliament, on the Tory party conference, on two prime ministers, ambassadors, members of the royal family and so on. You would think that targeted attacks on the members of the establishment would have achieved total repression, if nothing would. And that was quite apart from all the thousands of normal humans who were killed and injured in pub bombings and shopping centre bombings, and so on.

Obviously, that was different. (There were no Americans killed, for a start.) Now, I think the Charles Manson point is unarguable. If the UK didn’t fall to pieces under that terrorist threat, why is it hellbent on doing so now?

Secondly, Gibney’s observation that it was usually people with no experience of the reality of war who are calling for the most horrific measures. This brings up a point that Grumpy Lion blogged about a couple of months ago – the biggest verbal “hawks” tend to be those people who have no idea what they are actually calling upon their troops to do. People, driven mad by fear, somehow lack the imagination see what sorts of actions they are endorsing. Some of the poor buggers who have to carry out these evil actions will themselves be scarred for life, quite apart from the unspeakable effects on their victims.

Sorry for a depressing blog. One of my own armchair warrior faults is that torture enrages me beyond measure. There is never a justification for it. People who condone it are well nigh as guilty as those who carry it out in their name. And there can be no truer sign of descent to “the dark side” than to come to treat it as just another option.