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‘The use of torture is anathema to a civilised society. We decry the Spanish Inquisition yet tacitly accept or ignore the use of torture, both physical and psychological, in many of our closest trading partners. Do the panellists follow the rule that the ends justify the means?’

Greg Sheridan’s work as a journalist is impressive; a veteran of 30 years in the field, he has written five books, hundreds of articles, and regularly comments on television and radio. He is also a man of culture; in the first few minutes of the ABC’s Q and A for May 21 we learn that he ‘loves’ Jane Austen, is currently reading George Eliot, and likes to cite Henry James on the importance of love. He also believes, with vague qualifications, in the use of torture. None of this would matter if he were not also, at least in the judgment of News Limited, Australia’s ‘most influential foreign affairs analyst’.

Like other intellectuals in politics he must accommodate his views on torture to his (Catholic) religious convictions. He would be aware that Pope Benedict xv1, in December 2005, condemned the use of torture in the war against terrorism and that eminent legal scholars, including leading Natural Law philosopher John Finnis, believe the right to be free from torture in the Universal Declaration of Rights is categorical – it is not qualifiedby limitations which apply to other rights to meet the ‘just requirements of morality, public order, and the general welfare in a democratic society’ (Art. 29).

One might imagine he is also conversant with the Russian classics and Dostoyevsky’s famous question, posed by Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, on the nature of evil:

‘Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature – that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance – and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth?’

With the possible exception of Kant, no philosophical theory has put a more forceful case against torture; certainly none has put a more eloquent argument against the ‘serpentine wanderings of the happiness theory’, and the idea that the end justifies the means.

Perhaps so, but what has this to do with the fact that Australia’s most influential foreign affairs writer supports torture? He is entitled to his opinion no less than Kant, Finnis and Dostoevsky. The answer is that it may explain a deep ambivalence in this support, which leads Sheridan to begin his reply with a hedged denunciation:

‘Well, no, I’m against torture under any circumstances…. But I tell you this: I do think you … confront a much more disturbing, difficult, interesting moral dilemma when you construct a case where torture does work and might save many innocent lives. Now I don’t think that justifies out and out torture but I don’t think it’s absolutely black and white. I don’t think you’re obliged to give the Taliban that you capture on the battlefield a slice of apple pie and a cup of tea and a warm environment. I think you are allowed to be pretty robust in your questioning.’

Tony Jones tried robust questioning: ‘Can I just ask, what is the limitation you put on this because we know that American Republicans at very senior levels talk about enhanced interrogation techniques?’

Sheridan: ‘Well I think, you know, there have got to be rules and the CIA, as I understand it, asked for proper legal guidance all the time and found it very difficult to get legal guidance.’

Jones: ‘But they ended up doing a lot of water boarding, for example. So just to sort of test you here, do you think water boarding is legitimate?’

Sheridan: ‘Well … there are other authors with similar knowledge who argue that enhanced interrogation techniques did provide lifesaving information. Now, it seems to me if the…’

Jones persists: ‘So just to get back to my question, would you condone water boarding?’

Sheridan: ‘Well, I’m getting, in my crab like way, to an answer, Tony. If the technique doesn’t leave any lasting physical damage whatsoever or any lasting psychological damage then I think you have to examine whether, in an extreme case, it might be allowed. But I wouldn’t have a blanket policy saying, yes, you can water board, but I wouldn’t absolutely rule out things which are pretty stressful in the interrogation.’

Jones: ‘Isn’t this exactly why policemen used to use rubber hoses and hit people with telephone books so it didn’t leave a mark?’

Sheridan appeals to realism: ‘Yeah, but I just don’t think you can just blanket whitewash everything and say you can’t do anything that’s stressful to a prisoner under any circumstances, no matter what because that’s not the reality of any battlefield’.

In the end, of course, he did answer: in ‘extreme’ cases ‘you must examine whether it might be allowed’. So in special cases the government will have a duty to consider torture, a formula which is broad and fuzzy enough to justify the official abuses by US authorities at both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Having got this far by enhanced interrogation we need to pause, because any serious discussion of the morality of torture must distinguish two kinds of justification. The first is for philosophers searching for the perfect moral theory. Its concern is with cases so exotic and so catastrophic they have nothing to do with the ordinary affairs of mankind, such as the nuclear bomb ticking away in a New York basement, with incontrovertible proof the suspect put it there.

This is not a moral argument but a rhetorical device to justify excesses in US foreign policy.

By contrast, a real-life justification must justify a wide range of common garden cases, beginning with the torture of innocent people and hapless suspects in the hope of finding information which might be useful to national security interests.

This is the formulation required if we wish to justify the systematic abuse and enhanced interrogation of Guantanamo detainees, mostly soldiers who fought to defend the Taliban regime against a US-led invasion. What ‘enhanced’ means is detailed in a Nov. 2008 report by the US Senate Committee on Armed Services; it means the use of methods

‘based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions, including stripping … of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures. It can also include face and body slaps and until recently, for some who attended the Navy’s SERE school, it included waterboarding.’

Former CIA torturer Glenn Carle, a fellow panelist on the same show, explained why:

‘fundamentally they are designed to … psychologically dislocate the detainee…. you make the person half crazy…. you have sound at an almost deafening level nonstop and the sounds are designed to create stress…. you hear silence and the silence is deafening and frightening because there’s been nonstop sound and then you don’t let someone sleep for 17 hours and you let them sleep for 8 minutes and you tell them it was 8 hours and you completely mess them up and it’s very quick.’

US military intelligence added a further refinement after Guantanam0 director Major General Geoffrey Miller visited Abu Ghraib in the summer of 2003. The new methods were designed to inflict a profound sense of religious shame, using forced masturbation, naked human pyramids and fake menstrual blood. This alternated with the use of vicious attack dogs to intimidate prisoners during interrogation.

We now know from the authoritative Denbeaux Study on Guantanamo by US Law Professor Mark Denbeaux of Seton Hall Law School, based on US Government files obtained under freedom of information laws, that ordinary Afghan citizens were detained as terrorists if found to be wearing olive drab clothing or a Casio watch. We know that 92% had never fought for al Quaeda and that only 5% were captured by US troops – the rest having been purchased from Pakistani and Northern Alliance forces for amounts up to US$5000. Given the Alliance had just lost a savage civil war against the Taliban, and the high local value of US currency, its motives and claims were always dubious.

So much so that after nine years, of the more than 770 detainees in Guantanamo, only a handful were tried and convicted; over 700 were quietly repatriated without charge – but also without apology and without compensation, most after years of imprisonment and ‘harsh techniques’ of interrogation.

This is what the abuse of rights and torture means in real-life cases not fascinating puzzles for philosophers; it helps explain Sheridan’s equivocation when asked to clarify what he had in mind. This admirer of George Eliot and Henry James could not say what kind of torture he would use or when he would use it. It is the same evasiveness – to the point of dissembling – displayed by John Yoo, co-author of the infamous ‘torture memos’, before an outraged US House Judiciary Committee in June, 2008.

If we now ask what this has to do with the general debate on torture, the answer is reasonably obvious. If the Guantanamo cases are, in Sheridan’s words, ‘extreme’, it means there are no meaningful constraints on the use of torture as a tool of foreign policy; but if they exceed the scope of legitimate torture he has a clear duty to say so.

But if he speaks his mind he will lose the access to US power he commanded as an influential supporter of US policies during the Iraq War when, in April 2004, he enjoyed a private interview with Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defence, who he saw as ‘chief intellectual architect of the Iraq invasion and high priest of the neo-conservatives’. This is important to any writer on US defence policies and to the proprietor of a national broadsheet which strongly supports them – if he is not welcome in Washington he will quickly be replaced as Australia’s most influential foreign affairs analyst.

All moral and political argument relies on the difference between exceptions and inconsistencies. When someone puts a controversial claim that torture should be used in certain cases, they have a responsibility to do so with articulate consistency. When Tony Jones – within the limits of the show’s format – sought this, Sheridan did not know what to say. It was clear he could not reconcile his special cases with his claim that torture is wrong, and the more he tried to do so the less articulate he became.

The incoherence goes deeper; justification presupposes a personal commitment, and commitment to a moral position is as much an affair of the heart as the mind. We test our judgments against our moral intuition and confirm this intuition by reason. We often rely, as elsewhere in the social sciences, on a method some philosophers have described as a process of ‘reflective equilibrium’, seen in the idea that we learn about ourselves by studying others, and about others by studying ourselves.

Is it unreasonable to conclude that this experienced journalist could not, as a civilized human being, bring himself to do what the US has been doing for years, but was simply unwilling to criticise it in public?

First published as, Justifying garden-variety torture, on Eureka Street, here