We might become reluctant supporters of “extreme interrogation techniques” if we could really persuade ourselves that half an hour of waterboarding could really save a hundred lives — or indeed a single life. In reality, no such calculus is possible
It is not yet clear whether George W Bush is planning to cross the Atlantic to flog us his memoirs, but if I were his PR people I would urge caution. As book tours go, this one would be an absolute corker. It is not just that every European capital would be brought to a standstill, as book-signings turned into anti-war riots. The real trouble — from the Bush point of view — is that he might never see Texas again.
One moment he might be holding forth to a great perspiring tent at Hay-on-Wye. The next moment, click, some embarrassed member of the Welsh constabulary could walk on stage, place some handcuffs on the former leader of the Free World, and take him away to be charged. Of course, we are told this scenario is unlikely. Dubya is the former leader of a friendly power, with whom this country is determined to have good relations. But that is what torture-authorising Augusto Pinochet thought. And unlike Pinochet, Mr Bush is making no bones about what he has done.
Unless the 43rd president of the United States has been grievously misrepresented, he has admitted to authorising and sponsoring the use of torture. Asked whether he approved of “waterboarding” in three specific cases, he told his interviewer that “damn right” he did, and that this practice had saved lives in America and Britain. It is hard to overstate the enormity of this admission.
“Waterboarding” is a disgusting practice by which the victim is deliberately made to think that he is drowning. It is not some cunning new psych-ops technique conceived by the CIA. It has been used in the dungeons of dictators for centuries. It is not compatible either with the US constitution or the UN convention against torture. It is deemed to be torture in this country, and above all there is no evidence whatever that it has ever succeeded in doing what Mr Bush claimed. It does not work.
It does not produce much valuable information — and therefore it does not save lives. Of course we are all tempted, from time to time, by the utilitarian argument. We might become reluctant supporters of “extreme interrogation techniques” if we could really persuade ourselves that half an hour of waterboarding could really save a hundred lives — or indeed a single life. In reality, no such calculus is possible. When people are tortured, they will generally say anything to bring the agony to an end — which is why any such evidence is inadmissible in court.
In the case of the three men waterboarded on Bush’s orders, British ministers are not aware of any valuable information they gave about plots against Heathrow, Canary Wharf or anywhere else. All the policy has achieved is to degrade America in the eyes of the world, and to allow America’s enemies to utter great whoops of vindication. It is not good enough for Dubya now to claim that what he did was OK, because “the lawyers said it was legal”. The lawyers in question were Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee and his deputy, John Yoo, and after a good deal of political cattle-prodding from Rumsfeld et al, they produced a totally barmy attempt to redefine torture so as to allow waterboarding.
Pain was only torture, they determined, when it was “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily functions, or even death”. If that is right, it would seem that most of the techniques of the Spanish Inquisition would be acceptable to the American government. You could beat the soles of someone’s feet; you could pour molten candle wax on their extremities; you could even pull their finger nails out without infringing those conditions.
How is some tired and frightened American officer supposed to make head or tail of this sophistry, late at night in some bleak Iraqi jail? How is he supposed to calibrate the pain that comes from an organ failure or death? It is no wonder, with orders like that coming from the top, that the troopers misbehaved so tragically in Abu Ghraib. They failed to see any moral difference between waterboarding their suspects and putting hoods over their heads. They failed to see any moral difference between waterboarding them and terrifying them with alsatian dogs or attaching electrodes to their genitals. They failed to see any moral difference, that is, because there isn’t any moral difference.
That is the real disaster of the waterboarding policy — that we are left with the impression that the entire US military are skidding their heels on the slippery slope towards barbarism. And that is emphatically not the case. Yesterday at the Cenotaph we remembered the sacrifice of men and women not just in two world wars, but also in Iraq and Afghanistan. The purpose of these conflicts is not so much to defeat “the enemy”, but to defend things we believe to be inalienable goods — freedom, democracy and, above all, the rule of law.
I believe that, of all nations, America still best upholds and guarantees those things. It would be ludicrous to suggest that the waterboarding disaster, or the evils of Abu Ghraib, have set up some kind of moral equivalence between America and – say – the murderous Taliban regime, let alone Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. If you want to appreciate the difference, remember that the perpetrators of Abu Ghraib were court-martialled, and we know about US interrogation techniques because of rules on freedom of information. But if your end is the spread of freedom and the rule of law, you cannot hope to achieve that end by means that are patently vile and illegal.
How could America complain to the Burmese generals about the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, when a president authorised torture? How can we talk about human rights in Beijing, when our number one ally and friend seems to be defending this kind of behaviour? I can’t think of any other American president, in my lifetime, who would have spoken in this way. Mr Bush should have remembered the words of the great Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who said in 1863 that “military necessity does not admit of cruelty”. Damn right.