There is no grey

Posted: 11/02/2011 in Uncategorized

There is no grey. A response to Barry Gewen’s article: “The Gray Zone: Defining Torture” which appeared in World Affairs, May/Jun2010, Vol. 173 Issue 1, p49-61, 13p

By Monica Bandeira

In his article “The Gray Zone: Defining Torture”, Barry Gewen, editor at The New York Times Book Review, attempts to provide an objective overview of the issue of torture and the justification of its use. Although Gewen succeeds in providing arguments from both sides the article seems to lean towards the erosion of the arguments against torture. He concludes that the way to “reconcile the conflicting values of security and human rights” lies in “acknowledging that under certain limited conditions, torture—or harsh interrogation techniques, which blur the boundaries of legality—may be necessary in the world we inhabit”. I would argue that this is not true and that in fact the arguments he puts forward actually support a position of no torture. In challenging him I put forward the following points:

1)      Gewen admits that much of the evidence that supports the use of torture is anecdotal. Let us for a moment examine the sources of such anecdotal evidence. One could argue that reports from torturers claiming that torture works are by default biased. If they were to take the position that torture does not work, they render their actions defenceless. Without this, they would be confronted with the reality that they have inflicted extreme harm on an individual(s) for no purpose whatsoever. A difficult reality to reconcile. Gewen goes so far as to say that “The evidence, anecdotal though it may be, comes from too many sources covering too many situations over too many historical eras to be dismissed.” The argument that because something has been done for many years, by many people must mean that it works is clearly flawed.

2)      In arguing against the Human Rights position of ‘no torture under any circumstances’, Gewen states that this ideal position is naive and has not been implemented in reality as there is a “well-established American tradition of torture”. One could say that there is a long tradition of abuse against women, yet that surely does not make taking a stance against it naive. Ideals, although often difficult to reach are necessary guidelines put in place to protect and guide people.

3)      Putting forward an objective question of whether torture works is, I would argue, an impossible task, because the issue is too complex. It is not a simple question of if torture provides accurate information.  Other factors need to be included in the equation, such as: how often is the information accurate; how useful is the information obtained; and, most importantly, what are the costs (indirect and direct) of using torture. The cost of torture requires a more in-depth examination than what Gewen offers. The notion that ‘the means justify the end’ can only be argued if a complete picture of what the end really is. Here, a more long-term, broader perspective is necessary. How many wrongs justify a right or even a maybe?

4)      Several times in the article, Gewen returns to the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario. For him,”Ticking bombs are not mere figments of an authoritarian imagination” and “in truth it’s not that hard to imagine a situation in which the head of Homeland Security rushes into the Oval Office and tells the president that police are “pretty certain” a bomb is set to explode, and they’re “fairly confident” they have a man who knows where it is.” I would argue that those situations remain very unlikely and that this perspective also undermines the level of preparation someone planning such action has. In addition, this approach places us on uneven ground regarding what ‘pretty certain’ and ‘fairly confident’ means, possibly hurtling us down the slippery slope towards abuse. 

5)      In line with this, Gewen provides a good description of the flaws present in attempts to guide or define when and/or how torture is used. These points strongly support the position that torture should not be used. Indeed, attempting to objectively define ‘exceptional circumstance’ under which torture is justified, for example, is hardly possible. Taking into consideration that these decisions will often be made under highly emotionally charged contexts, based on very little intelligence, objectivity seems improbable. I would further argue that enough evidence exists to say that simply defining the parameters of torture practice (e.g. water-boarding only allowed x times a day) will not translate into practice and can hardly be controlled. Abu Ghraib, the scene where photographs of abuses shocked the world were taken, provides a good example of this. Janis Karpinski, the commanding officer in charge of Abu Ghraib, estimated that 90% of detainees in the prison were innocent. Gewens argument that what happened there “has no place in the torture debate” as it was not approved and was an illustration of “how incompetent leaders can let matters get out of hand” and that is was an isolated incident, is problematic. What happened there speaks directly to the context in which decisions are made and how policies are implemented. In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in seeking the release of more photographs showing prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq being abused by Americans, argue that these show that the abuse was more widespread. Opening the door to the possibility of torture, even if ‘under certain circumstances’, using ‘certain methods’ is highly problematic.

Gewen ends by mentioning September 11, a move bound to evoke an emotional reaction from his readers. This may serve to entice readers to believe that torture could have prevented it. However, in my view, he does not provide strong enough arguments to support this view. In conclusion, I would argue that enough evidence exists to support the position that torture is, in fact, not justifiable. Energy should now be invested in discussions regarding how events that lead to the supposed ‘need for torture’ can be prevented before they occur. Lastly, I ask what state of affairs we find ourselves in when a discussion of whether to torture someone or not is even contemplated.

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