Torture and Abu Ghraib

Western opinion has been outraged by the revelation of torture by US forces of Iraqi prisoners. Photographs and videos shown to Congress (and partly reproduced in Western media) showed American soldiers at Abu Ghraib Prison sexually assaulting Iraqis and laughing over mutilated and abused bodies. Now President Bush has promised to demolish this notorious prison, symbol of Saddam’s police state, which no one expected would become the symbol of American occupation.

Torture of prisoners, military or civilian, was outlawed by the Geneva conventions of 1948, and the Convention on Torture of 1985. More generally, it falls foul of ‘rules of war’ which all civilised nations accept. Yet torture has been routinely used by all military authorities, and it seems that, following 9/11, Bush, Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashworth approved a secret system of detention and interrogation which led directly to the methods used in Iraq.

There is always a case for using torture, if by torture one can extract information that can save lives. This utilitarian calculus, therefore, allows for a ‘trade-off’ between the harm done to the prisoner and the benefit achieved by torturing him. The harm to the prisoner is certain, but it might be justified if the benefit in terms of lives saved is large.

The trouble with this argument is that there is no way of calculating the probability of realising the benefit. If the probability is unknown, then the weight one attaches to it is purely arbitrary. This opens the door to the indiscriminate use of torture, the appetite for which also grows with the feeding. That is why arguments based on consequences cannot be a basis for judging the morality of torture. One never knows enough to justify the decision.

This applies more generally to the morality of making war. International law puts strict limits on the use of force. It has to be for self-defence or be otherwise mandated by the Security Council to counter an act of aggression or disturbance of the peace. It is sometimes justifiable to break the law – either when the law is wicked, or when a breach of it will certainly, or almost certainly, lead to a better outcome than observing it.

This argument has been invoked to justify the war against Iraq. It was claimed that removal of Saddam Hussein would make the US (and the world) more secure against terrorism and that it would benefit the people of Iraq. On a utilitarian calculation these speculative benefits would need to be weighed against the certain damage of the war to the people of Iraq, to the United Nations, to the Western alliance, and to the system of international law itself. The impossibility of calculating this trade-off means that it would have been better had America stuck to the rules and avoided taking the law into its own hands.

There is an overwhelming case for humanitarian intervention to save a people from actual or imminent genocide. But this stems from the simple ‘duty to protect’, not from any utilitarian calculation. Similarly, prohibition of torture follows from the straightforward Christian or Kantian injunction: ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’.

There are two lessons here for Russia. The outrage which followed the torture of Iraqi prisoners was made possible by a free press. This is the strongest argument for freedom of speech. Abuses happen everywhere; in Russia too often the perpetrators go unpunished because their dark deeds remain shrouded in darkness, and therefore public opinion cannot be mobilised against their actions. It is also clear that internal opposition is much more effective in stopping atrocities than is criticism from abroad. A free society needs courageous leaders as well as more information.