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?

Welcome to Babylon

It’s pretty insulting to tell a musician that their music is an instrument of torture. Not that many musicians seem to care. Metallica (crappy band, of old-Napster-destroying memory) are quite unconcerned that their music was a Gitmo standby.

Unfortunately, some artists are not offended by their work being used to torture. “If the Iraqis aren’t used to freedom, then I’m glad to be part of their exposure,” James Hetfield, co-founder of Metallica, has said. As for his music being torture, he laughed: “We’ve been punishing our parents, our wives, our loved ones with this music for ever. Why should the Iraqis be any different?”(from Clive Clifford Smith in the Guardian 19th June 2008)

So respect is due to David Gray for speaking out about the use of his “Babylon” track. He, at least, doesn’t find what the US call “torture lite” particularly amusing:

“That is torture,” the singer-songwriter told Radio Four’s World Tonight programme……
..”No-one wants to even think about it or discuss the fact that we’ve gone above and beyond all legal process and we’re torturing people,” he added.

The Guardian piece had a few words from someone on the receiving end of torture-lite. (Is that almost the most chilling phrase you’ve ever heard)

Despite this, to date, the Pentagon’s semanticists have achieved their purpose, and many people think that torture by music is little more than a rather irritating enforced encounter with someone else’s iPod. Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who is still held in Guantánamo Bay, knows a bit about such torture. The CIA rendered him to Morocco, where his torturers repeatedly took a razor blade to his penis throughout an 18-month ordeal.
When I later sat across from him in the cell, he described how psyops methods were worse than this. He could anticipate physical pain, he said, and know that it would eventually end. But the experience of slipping into madness as a result of torture by music was something quite different.
“Imagine you are given a choice,” he said. “Lose your sight or lose your mind.”

David Gray pointed out that there might be legal implications in using music tracks without permission:

The singer wonders whether governments who use music as a torture technique without asking permission from the artists involved could face legal action. “In order to play something publicly, you have to have legal permission and you have to apply for that.(Guardian)

Just saying… VirginMedia have responded to pressure from the BPI by sending out threatening letters to customers suspected of sharing music illegally. Shouldn’t these copyright protection agencies be suing the US government, instead, if it turns out that they haven’t applied for permission, or paid for the rights, to broadcast music in their Gitmo free concerts?

Also on the endlessly enraging topic of torture, immense respect is also due to Christopher Hitchens for undergoing the euphemistically named “waterboarding” and reporting on how bad it was, even for a volunteer who knew he wouldn’t die and could go home at the end of the experience. (Hat tip to Quintessential Rambling for the link to this story.)

“Waterboarding” sounds so much like a fun new extreme sport, whereas those old-fashioned words like torture sound so cold and depressing. “Torture-lite” sounds so ironic and post modern, as if it’s not really torture at all. Something like being stuck in traffic on a really hot day. It seems that Newspeak can change anything from “morally abhorrent” to “familiar and acceptable.”

(There’s a good thought-provoking video of Stephen Pinker’s talk at the RSA, about how we use language – including the uses of euphemism.)