Breaking the spirit

Dr Marc Zarrouati Marc Zarrouati is Chairman of ACAT-France (Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture) and Associate Professor of Philosophy of Science at University of Toulouse in France. He spoke with Michael Cook, the editor of MercatorNet, about arguments which seek to justify torture in order to win the “war on terror”.

MercatorNet: Tell us about your organisation.

Zarrouati: ACAT (Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture) is an ecumenical organisation which has branches in over 30 countries all around the world. The movement was founded in 1974. It has over 15,000 members and tens of thousands of supporters. ACAT's task is to denounce torture wherever it is used, without ideological, political or religious bias. It speaks out just as forcefully against acts of torture perpetrated by US intelligence services as against those committed in China, Sudan or Iran.

MercatorNet: How do you define torture?

Zarrouati: Under the terms of Article 1 of the United Nations Convention against Torture, “torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him […], or intimidating or coercing him […] or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity”.

This is the only consensual definition available today, and it has the merit of pinpointing the very essence of torture, ie, both the deliberateness and the intensity of the act, the desire to inflict enough pain to break an individual's spirit, whether to make him talk or to make him shut up.

However, this definition also has its limitations. It does not yet sufficiently take into account violence perpetrated by “new actors” of international law such as non-State entities (guerrillas, the Mafia, terrorists and tribal groups), which exercise a de facto sovereignty over entire regions in which they use torture. Under international law as it currently stands, only the states concerned – many of which are totally powerless, eg, Colombia, much of whose territory escapes government control -- are answerable to the international community for such acts of torture.

More generally, we cannot today base ourselves solely on a legal definition. We must also analyse torture from an anthropological, philosophical and theological point of view, in order to obtain a better understanding of this complex and multi-faceted phenomenon and take more effective action to prevent its occurrence.

MercatorNet: What is wrong with torture?

Torture in Abu GhraibZarrouati: Torture is not merely an act of violence: it is acute violence. Not all acts of violence are necessarily acts of torture. For instance, although the fact of depriving someone of their freedom, by taking them where they do not wish to go (eg, to prison) constitutes an act of violence since it involves acting against their will, ACAT does not see it as its task to condemn this type of violence.

Torture is a form of violence which consists in deliberately causing physical and psychological injury to human beings, in order to reduce them to what one wishes them to be. Blinded by a delusion of omnipotence, the torturer thus usurps the role of God himself.

Torture is a violation of a person's integrity, aimed at diminishing him, fragmenting him and robbing him of what makes up his dignity, namely his will, his ideals, his beliefs. Whether what is involved is extorting information from a Guantánamo Bay prisoner or brainwashing a dissident into adopting the Communist ideology in China, it in both cases amounts to torture.

From a Christian viewpoint, this basic violation of human dignity may be seen as a desire to erase God's image in man and thereby to disfigure his soul. Is there any greater scandal than this?

MercatorNet: How, without aggressive interrogation, can there be good military intelligence about terrorists?

Zarrouati: I would turn your question around and ask whether aggressive interrogation methods, far from providing the safest guarantee of a result, are not actually proof of the ineffectiveness of intelligence services.

Intelligence services themselves are the first to admit in their memos that such methods of investigation rarely produce reliable results and should only be used as a last resort, and even then with no guarantee as regards the value of the results. Their assessment, based on a utilitarian approach, not an ethical one, clearly shows that aggressive interrogations are a very approximate method and therefore represent an admission of failure by any intelligence service that uses them. Good military intelligence cannot therefore seriously develop such methods, nor can it rely on information obtained by such means.

MercatorNet: But what if terrorists have placed a ticking bomb somewhere? Wouldn’t you allow torture if it could save the lives of many innocent people?

torture in Abu GhraibZarrouati: I could argue in response to this that such a question never arises in the precise terms that you have quoted. In the real world, there is never any such certainty that the person concerned has actually placed a bomb somewhere or that the danger is so imminent that “humane” interrogation methods automatically have to be ruled out. We should avoid allowing this hypothetical case to serve as a pretext for justifying the countless acts of torture committed today.

However, I am also aware that my answer does not fully deal with the problem since, even though we are talking about a rare or exceptional scenario, it is also impossible to say with certainty that it could never happen. What if it did happen? Would torture then be acceptable?

This question is of key importance in the debate currently taking place on the use of torture, but would require a lengthy analysis, going well beyond the scope of this interview. The brief comments I will make here in reply to the question cannot possibly fully demonstrate the need for a categorical ban on torture. However, they will, I hope, show that the position which consists in categorically condemning all acts of torture is a valid one.

First of all, the way you presented the issue in your question is not without significance. It forms part of what I would describe as a quantitative approach to political ethics. In a quantitative approach to “good governance”, the aim is not so much to do good rather than evil; instead, what those in power in today's world are expected to do is “as little evil as possible”, this lesser evil being understood in quantitative terms. Those who uphold this position consider it wrong, of course, to torture. However, the evil which consists in breaking a person's spirit is seen as less serious than the wrong consisting in not making every possible effort to save the lives of thousands of individuals.

Governance of a state is thus “optimised” in the same way as a business seeks to optimise its production levels according to demand.

Besides the fact that this is based on the extremely debatable assumption that evil is the only possible option, the main problem, however, is that the argument is based on a quantitative view of ethics. To what extent can ethics be seen in quantitative terms? If we take, for instance, the absolute defence of life advocated by Christians: can this ethical imperative be formulated in quantitative terms?

Moreover, this approach to State intervention in the lives of individuals, consisting in actually using torture to protect populations hypothetically under threat, is extremely worrying since it is exactly what 20th century totalitarian regimes used as a basis for committing the worst crimes. Drawing a parallel between this issue and the horrors of totalitarianism may at first seem surprising. But the two are in fact directly related. In 1917, the Bolsheviks held out the promise of a future Socialist paradise to justify the elimination of all opponents. In this perspective, the worst abuses against minority groups are seen as admissible because they will bring a better future for the majority.

MercatorNet: But is it not irresponsible to refuse to compromise with this “lesser evil” on the pretext that it is not “good”? Does responsible government not necessarily entail accepting such compromises? Should we not therefore be talking about “ethics of responsibility” as opposed to “ethics of belief”?

Zarrouati: I think it is important, in this connection, to emphasise that the opposition, which the influential sociologist Max Weber wrote about, between the “ethics of responsibility” and the “ethics of belief” has often been misunderstood. If you look at Weber's original text, you will see that, in his view, political responsibility consists, among other things, in a statesman's capacity to stop, ie, not to go too far. Weber considers this type of ethics of responsibility to be the opposite of the ethics of belief held by German revolutionary Socialists in 1919.

Responsibility is therefore not about making every possible effort to save lives allegedly under threat, but on the contrary being capable of not exceeding certain limits, even where lives are at stake. Politics is the art of organising human society. Those in power must therefore always bear in mind that people are the ultimate yardstick by which their action is to be measured. If they lose that human dimension, the policies they apply will be inhuman; they will confuse prudent reasoning, as defined by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, with the instrumental rationality that was advocated in Nazi Germany and Stalin's USSR.

While Christians should be particularly sensitive to this concept of responsible action, it is a universal requirement, not restricted to the Christian perspective. Those in government are accountable for their acts to those they govern, but also to future generations of citizens. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt points out, a nation is collectively responsible for acts committed by its members, including those, now deceased, who once formed part of it.

In this connection, we can ask ourselves whether the benefits which the Americans gained by subjecting a few Iraqis and Afghans to torture are greater than the moral and physical damage suffered by the United States -- in particular US soldiers deployed in Iraq -- as a result of the abuses which occurred in Abu Ghraib prison. It is not just George W. Bush, but also all the US Presidents who will succeed him, who will have to live with the increased hatred, humiliation and thirst for revenge triggered off throughout the Muslim world by these acts of torture.

It is therefore absolutely essential that we get away from this quantitative approach and this (largely academic) example of the terrorist and the ticking bomb. A genuinely ethical stance which totally prohibits the use of torture is not incompatible with fair, human and effective political action.

MercatorNet: Saddam Hussein’s regime used to torture people with amputations and electrocutions. How can you equate these with the lesser abuses by American interrogators? More generally, interrogators at Guantanamo Bay have used techniques like gender coercion to demoralise at least one Muslim suspect: using female interrogators acting in sexually provocative ways -- making him wear a bra on his head, etc. Such techniques are humiliating, but can they really be described as torture when compared, for instance, with those which were used under Saddam Hussein’s regime?

Zarrouati: We should avoid only looking at the physical consequences of an act of torture to gauge how serious it is. Thanks to the work of care centres for torture survivors, such as the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT) in Copenhagen and the Primo Levi Centre in Paris, we now have a clearer idea of the scale of psychic traumas caused by acts of torture, even where there are no major physical scars. Torturers themselves are well aware of this, as illustrated by the “white” or “clean” torture methods used in the 1970s in Soviet psychiatric clinics and still applied in Communist China to keep political, religious and ethnic dissidents under control. Such methods leave no visible traces on the victim's body. In such cases, torture shows its true face. It does not merely affect the victim's body; its target is his spirit, which it seeks to “bend” (tortura in latin, is related to the verb torquere, meaning “to twist”), to distort, to reshape according to the views of the torturer and those whose orders he obeys.

From this point of view, the humiliations suffered by Iraqi prisoners may, in a cultural context quite different from our own, give rise to profound trauma. I am not saying that all forms of humiliation cause profound trauma, but simply that, as far as “cultural trauma” are concerned, we are in no position to judge the consequences of our own acts when we are alien to a culture and therefore incapable of spontaneously grasping its values and taboos. The fact that American interrogators are total strangers, even though totally immersed, in Iraqi society should surely encourage them to show greater caution and restraint.

MercatorNet: Do you think that the Geneva Convention offers sufficient protection against the torture of detainees?

Zarrouati: At present many regional and international legal instruments (eg, the United Nations Convention against Torture, which entered into force in 1987 and was ratified by the United States in 1994) adequately supplement the Geneva Conventions and form a coherent set of standards imposing an absolute ban on torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. However, such texts can only be effective if backed up by the establishment of independent supervisory bodies responsible for monitoring their implementation by individual states. ACAT, in cooperation with other anti-torture NGOs, is actively supporting the establishment of such bodies at international level.

To come back to the specific point you raise, ie, the US Administration's refusal to consider certain prisoners captured in the context of the “war on terror” as prisoners of war and therefore as being covered by the Geneva Conventions, I would simply reply that this is a totally indefensible position. No reasonable interpretation of international law can lead to the conclusion that suspected terrorists are outside any legal category, and have therefore no rights that they can claim. The intention of the international legislators who devised the Geneva Convention was in fact to provide rights and protection for categories of people who were hitherto not covered by law.

MercatorNet: Where would you set the boundary between legitimate interrogation and torture?

Zarrouati: The substantial case law on this issue (especially that produced by the European Court of Human Rights) shows how difficult it has always been to provide a clear and definitive answer to this question. However, in my view, if the interrogator himself is careful not to violate the integrity of the person before him and is genuinely aware of the consequences which his interrogation techniques can have, he is often best placed to gauge, and in some cases to anticipate, the suffering caused to the person he is interrogating.

More generally, ACAT supports the efforts made by governments to provide better training for any of their personnel who could find themselves in such situations, eg, prison personnel and police officers who are required to carry out interrogations in police stations. I would remind you, incidentally, that torture is used on a daily basis all around the world, in the prisons and police stations of very many countries, including countries in which there is no open conflict.

Yes, it is difficult to know exactly where the boundary is between what is legitimate and what is to be totally prohibited. It is also impossible to deny authorities the right to interrogate suspected terrorists: that would in fact be irresponsible. Efforts must constantly be made to identify means that are suited to reaching a particular end.

Terrorism is a reality in the world in which we live, and states have a duty to protect their citizens. What ACAT objects to is the manner in which this is done: it is immoral, illegal and in fact unsuited to ensuring such protection in the long term, as has been shown by the Madrid and London bombings, as well as the continuing war in Iraq. The terrorists are far from having surrendered, and the use of torture is merely heightening the hatred of the West which is currently brewing in the Muslim world.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. He writes from Melbourne.


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