Opinion: Torture – taking back control of the debate

Following the publication of the Senate report into the CIA’s treatment of detainees during the ‘war on terror’, David Cameron said ‘Let us be clear. Torture is wrong, torture is always wrong’. This is undoubtedly a powerfully attractive view for anyone of a humanist disposition, concerned to condemn all violations of basic human rights.

But there is a nagging problem – the British public seem not to be so sure. A survey by Amnesty International in May this year showed that 30% of Britons believe that torture can sometimes be justified, and that 44% believe we should not rule out its use altogether – more than in Russia and China, countries where torture is endemic.

How worried should we be? Is it true, as some have suggested, that US-style dramas such as ’24’ have created an artificial impression of the necessity and effectiveness of torture in the face of the threat of global terror?

I don’t really buy this. I think there is a deeper problem, which is that as a society we simply aren’t clear about the reasons why torture should be absolutely prohibited. This worries me, because while it might be easy to preach absolute condemnation of torture from a position of relative safety, without a firm foundation for our objections we risk falling into bad habits when our security is threatened. It already looks as though some of our security officials may have known an uncomfortable amount about CIA interrogations. While David Cameron may be clear in his opposition to torture or ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, I’m afraid I am not convinced that all his conservative colleagues share his views, and a possible future collation involving UKIP would potentially take a much harder line.

It is therefore essential that we take back control of the argument. If we are to do this, I think we have to accept that, from a strictly moral point of view, torture isn’t always wrong. What if the only way to prevent an innocent child from being tortured was to torture their captor? What would we think of somebody in this situation who refused to torture the captor on grounds that they didn’t want to ‘sink to their level’? We might understand if they refused on other grounds – perhaps because it was simply too horrible – but the argument about not sinking to their level just wouldn’t wash. It is a fundamental requirement of justice that, if the captor has made it inevitable that someone will suffer torture by their actions, it is they and not the innocent person who suffers. Many will argue that a scenario like this will not arise in practice. But I’m not convinced we can be so sure. It seems to me that there are plausible scenarios in which severe interrogation amounting to torture would seem to the responsible security official to be morally required to protect innocent lives.

Simply preaching absolute condemnation in the face of such circumstances will just leave the public puzzled and feeling we have not engaged with the issue – with the result that public opinion over the legality of torture remains frighteningly unsure and equivocal.

There are, thankfully, more persuasive reasons for keeping torture absolutely illegal. The moral philosopher Jeff McMahan puts the case clearly. In the first place, the vast majority of regimes and private individuals who have used torture throughout history have done so for evil and unjust reasons- that is, they have tortured innocent people to further their own illegitimate aims. The brute fact is that nasty people are far more likely to resort to torture given the chance and will use it to establish and protect themselves and thus be able to continue to commit further violations. We only have to look at Greece or Latin America in the 80s, or North Korea now, to see this. Anything that gives such people a legal pretext to torture, at the state or the international level, should be avoided. Secondly, even ‘decent’ democracies like the US have shown that they cannot be trusted to use torture only on those very rare occasions when it is justified. The recent senate report shows this most starkly. Legalising torture seems inevitably to open the floodgates to abuse at all sorts of levels, and the resulting injustices are of the most grievous kind.

The world is such that it is simply far, far too dangerous to even think about permitting torture. We are all much safer in a world in which torture is absolutely prohibited and the ban enforced with the toughest possible sanctions. If there ever are cases in which torture is morally required (and I think there are very few, if any), we have to accept that we should nonetheless refrain from torturing in these cases because the gains in our overall security, which come from not giving would-be torturers a legal pretext for acting, are a price worth paying.

A better tag line would be, ‘a world without torture is a safer and better world’. I believe this would resonate with the public, resolve existing uneasiness, and help shore up opposition to the despicable practice of torture by rogue regimes and over-zealous security services. The stakes could not be higher, as we face an uncertain future in which these issues will continue to test our resolve and principle.

* James Harper works for a Liberal Democrat MP specialising in Asylum and Immigration casework. The views expressed are his own.

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  • Bush moved goalpost on what torture is (wrong) Labour in power gave free reign to US in all aspects Our security organization’s are up to their eyes in all the missdeeds the US perpetrated and no doubt some of their own. What will happen as usual cover up. Not one person Not one MP will go to jail things as normal. The public notes these things trust they do.

  • Your example involving a child demonstrates to me the difference between a personal choice and the line that must be taken by the state. If it were my child, and I had the possibility, however remote, to save them, nothing would be off limits. Any parent worthy of the title would rather die themselves than see their child hurt, if one is willing to die being willing to hurt is a small step. That is why a parent should never be allowed to make that decision our police would never allow it and rightly so. The same is true of a battlefield commander if their troops are at risk. That is why there is a chain of command, and standard operating procedures, to stop that being their call. If you remove the decision maker from the event, you remove the possibility of understandable emotions clouding judgement.

    The state should have a simple position, torture is wrong, it is illegal and anyone found sanctioning it or carrying out an order to use it will be prosecuted according to the law. The decision should never be left to those closest to a situation, if it has been, those who allowed that situation to occur should likewise be held liable.

    Using information obtained by torture is less straightforward. Firstly, the state should never illicit such information, nor should it turn a blind eye when partners are clearly using such methods. The state cannot however refuse to use such information if it comes into their possession. Whilst it is likely to be less accurate than information obtained through conventional methods, if an agency is passed details of, for example, a plot to harm others it must act on it.

  • James Harper 17th Dec '14 - 1:50pm

    I agree about the importance of chains of command and that the state should have a simple policy that torture is illegal. I don’t however, think it should take the position that torture is always morally wrong, because that isn’t plausible. I just think the blanket ban needs to be properly justified a) so that those at the coal face in the security services know why they should obey the law and b) so that the policy commands solid public support.

  • Torture is part of the definition of what “morally wrong” is. If you don’t think that deliberately, sadistically inflicting pain on helpless people is immoral, then you have no moral principles whatsoever. The notion of trying to finesse away opposition to torture by removing the moral arguments — which are fundamental — is shockingly cynical.

  • James Harper 17th Dec '14 - 3:31pm

    I would say that it wouldn’t be ‘sadistic’ in the hypothetical terrorist case, because it would be being done purely to save innocent people and not for pleasure. It would still be utterly awful. I just think it would be better to confront that fact that sometimes there are difficult decisions to make, and explain why we should *nonetheless* have a blanket ban on torture.

    I wish I’d made clearer in the article that I do accept that there are no clearly established cases of torture being used effectively. I just don’t think we can get directly from this fact to the conclusion that torture can and will never ever be justified in individual cases. Nonetheless, that it doesn’t seem to work is undoubtedly one of the strongest arguments against it.

  • May I ask a question – what is torture? May seem a bit of a dumb question, but the definition is all important. Is depriving someone of sleep torture? How about making some one stand for protracted periods? Depriving someone of something they are addicted to, thus causing withdrawal symptoms?

    A recent article in The Spectator actually raises some of these issues and is quite interesting: http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2014/12/arguing-that-torture-is-torture-ignores-the-complex-nature-of-intelligence/

  • James Harper 17th Dec '14 - 5:36pm

    It’s clearly a very difficult moral and legal question. I guess that any of the acts you describe, if done for long enough or with enough severity, could constitute torture. There probably isn’t a fine line separating torture from harsh treatment. Maybe the difference is that harsh treatment is still designed to preserve the person’s autonomy and get them to confess freely, manipulating their psychology in various ways to get them to do this. Torture, on the other hand, is designed to forcibly extract a confession by putting the person in a situation where it is worse to continue to suffer than to confess.

  • Jenny Barnes 17th Dec '14 - 7:03pm

    “Sadism” implies that the person inflicting pain is doing it for their own pleasure, often sexual. Torturers usually aren’t . I expect they think they are just doing a difficult and necessary job . The Stanford prison experiment is instructive.

  • @James Harper
    “It’s clearly a very difficult moral and legal question”

    It is, it’s a changing feast through time and circumstance. Last year Lord Carlile of Berriew QC CBE (a Lib Dem peer I believe) said “… I think I’m right in saying that in the law of England and Wales at least, the use of fairly extreme violence to prevent the murder of the large number of other people would be regarded as lawful,”
    ( taken from another interesting article http://henryjacksonsociety.org/2013/09/30/getting-counterterrorism-right-a-transatlantic-conversation/ ).

    When all of this started the CIA asked the politicians and their lawyers about the methods that could be used for interrogation, the methods used were considered legal at the time – although methods had to be changed over time as legal opinions changed, This is why I asked the question, you can’t really just say torture is wrong unless you are willing to define what exactly is torture.

    Rather than turning it into a party political issue (as seems to have happened with the committee in the US), it may be better for all parties to come up with a system where a set of interrogation methods are agreed and then anything outside of that list is judged by the legal system (although you may end up upset if juries decide that the treatment was a proportional response to the threat).

    As an aside, there may be people that feel that “manipulating their psychology” is also a form of torture, so again it’s all a matter of degree.

  • @Paul Walters
    Re the UN convention. So any pain up to but not including severe is OK. However, each person has their own pain threshold so whilst there are obvious examples (e.g. ripping out toe nails) that go beyond the line, there will be grey areas.

    The Geneva Convention (GC) and army manual are actually a good example of how political types have got themselves in a muddle. On the one hand they say that the conventions should apply, but on the other hand the conventions do not cover these types of combatant. So if you agree that they should be treated iaw with the GC, do you also think that they should be held as PoWs for the duration of any conflict? If you don’t, then surely you’re just picking and choosing which laws to follow (perhaps that’s the “woolley” bit 😉 )? If the decision is made to follow the GC, will politicians be upfront with the people about the risks/costs involved (goes blue holding his breath)?

  • Paul is correct that it is always immoral. Military Law as supplemented by local rules of engagement, applicable UK Laws, and, in some circumstances, local laws all apply to UK service personnel on operations overseas. Problems can occur where there are conflicting rules (such as the Lee Clegg incident where he was convicted of murder despite, in most military observers opinion, operating within his ROE’s). For another example hooding of prisoners was standard practice until the last 10 years or so. It was considered useful both for security purposes and to disorientate an individual prior to questioning. The use of certain stress positions was also taught fairly freely in the 80’s. These are now considered inappropriate.

    What happens to someone detained by troops post the immediate phase is not their concern. UK forces in recent conflicts tend to have attached Military Police personnel to help ensure commanders at the lowest level are supported in making the right decisions. Unless things have substantially changed, Military Law is taught in training and at all command courses.

  • James Harper 18th Dec '14 - 11:25am

    In what sense ‘always’ immoral? Always immoral in principle (could never be right even in the most extreme hypothetical cases) or ‘always’ in the practical sense- i.e in the world we live in the cases where torture might be justified just don’t arise?

    The first sense just doesn’t work. The claim that torture is always wrong in the second sense is the really interesting question. It’s certainly hard to point to any significant cases where torture has been successful, which is good reason to think that it hasn’t been justified whenever it has been used. But do we really know there haven’t been any justified cases, or won’t be in the future? The studies are not so clear on this. And what does the answer to this question tell us about what status torture should have in law- should there be room for ‘special cases’ if they do or might or probably will exist? I think that this almost doesn’t matter, because the side-effects of legalizing torture to any extent are catastrophic.

  • For those reading this thread who wish to ask the question ” What is torture? “. 

    This grisly extract from The Guardian is unpleasantly clear —

    “……The full horror of the CIA interrogation and detention programmes launched in the wake of the September 11 terror attack was laid bare in the long-awaited Senate report released on Tuesday.

    While parts of the programme had been known – and much more will never be revealed – the catalogue of abuse is nightmarish and reads like something invented by the Marquis de Sade or Hieronymous Bosch.

    Detainees were forced to stand on broken limbs for hours, kept in complete darkness, deprived of sleep for up to 180 hours, sometimes standing, sometimes with their arms shackled above their heads.

    Prisoners were subjected to “rectal feeding” without medical necessity. Rectal exams were conducted with “excessive force”. The report highlights one prisoner later diagnosed with anal fissures, chronic hemorrhoids and “symptomatic rectal prolapse”.

    The report mentions mock executions, Russian roulette. US agents threatened to slit the throat of a detainee’s mother, sexually abuse another and threatened prisoners’ children. One prisoner died of hypothermia brought on in part by being forced to sit on a bare concrete floor without pants. ”


  • An excellent and very thoughtful article, avoiding glib statements.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Dec '14 - 12:56pm

    John Tilley

    I think you’re missing the point. Nobody here (or anywhere, I think) is questioning whether the things you describe are torture. The point is that it’s clearly not an exclusive definition of everything that is torture. No list ever could be. The UN definition quoted by Paul Walters is a pretty darn good definition, but inevitably there will be procedures that will at times skirt somewhere close to the borders of it, at least in some people’s eyes. You can’t say “these things are torture therefore anyone who questions what torture might be are implying that these things are okay”, which seems to be what you’re implying.
    For comparison, imagine an argument about whether or not I am tall. (I’m about 5’10” in old money.) Some might say I am, some (mainly my brothers) that I am not. What you’re doing is equivalent to pointing to the seven-foot lad who used to live on my street and saying “If anyone’s in any doubt about what tall is, he is tall.” It’s true, but not very helpful.

  • Julian Tisi 18th Dec '14 - 2:09pm

    “I think we have to accept that, from a strictly moral point of view, torture isn’t always wrong. What if the only way to prevent an innocent child from being tortured was to torture their captor?”

    I disagree with you here, first on moral grounds but also in practice, because torture doesn’t work.

    The main reason I oppose torture is a moral one. It is so abhorent on a human level, such an affront to human dignity, that no society that calls itself civilised should ever countenance it or condone it. Plus, condoning torture would pretty much end the Geneva convention and put our soldiers at more risk of being tortured themselves if they were ever captured by an unscrupulous enemy.

    But, as the recent CIA report demonstrated perfectly, torture doesn’t work. The trouble is that many of the general public are convinced by what I would call the “Hollywood” scenario – where only by torturing someone will you find out the location of a ticking time bomb or a starving abducted girl. This scenario is very rare in the real world because it’s such a contrived scenario. You would have to know for certain that the person in front of you: a) is guilty, b) actually has information that can save the girl, stop the bomb exploding etc and c) is not letting you have that information solely because they want the bomb to explode / girl to die. In the real world, this is all uncertain. Do people talk if tortured? Frequently. But what they tend to say is anything that they think their torturers want to hear. So an innocent person will say they’re guilty. They’ll give the location of the bomb even if there is no bomb.

    It’s notable that the CIA couldn’t point to a single case of torture of terror suspects leading to any useful evidence. They had several examples of bad information distracting the security services from better ways of protecting us.

    So torture has nothing going for it at all. It’s morally wrong and it doesn’t work. If we want to take back the debate we have to shout this from the rooftops. If not us, then who? Torture is wrong, always. Period.

  • All these attempts to muddy the picture are good evidence of the moral cesspool into which public discourse has fallen. No decent person, of any political persuasion, but *especially* no liberal, should have the least difficulty in affirming that torture is, always has been, and always will be, utterly evil and a source of moral degradation to torture victim and torturer alike — in all circumstances, and regardless of the persons involved.

    If “terrorists and insurgents” have “utter contempt for the sanctity of human life,” then what shall we say of ‘Western’ torturers who froze a human being to death, buried others alive, subjected others to Russian roulette? You can try to dehumanize people by replacing “human being” with “terrorist,” but that only changes words, not facts. The fact is that the torturers also had utter contempt for the sanctity of human life. There is no moral high ground to be gained by denouncing terrorism while affirming support for torture. That is not “realpolitik”; that is moral cynicism and indifference to humanity.

    As for the word “sadistic,” it is completely appropriate, both in its common sense and even in its sexual sense. Nobody engages in torture as a mere technician, doing a “necessary job.” It is clear that torture always goes beyond anything which even a cynical, calculating mentality could imagine to be “necessary.” The sexual element is clear in the numerous reports of rape and threats of rape. This is revolting and abhorrent, if your moral standards have not been utterly eroded.

  • James Harper 18th Dec '14 - 3:35pm


    I think I agree with you almost entirely. I’m really just trying to be a bit provocative. I guess I don’t think that, strictly speaking, you can oppose torture BOTH because it’s absolutely wrong AND because it doesn’t work. If it’s absolutely wrong then whether or not it works is irrelevant.

    You make a really interesting point about whether you would need to be certain of the person’s guilt and that they possessed the information you needed. I’m not sure you would have to be absolutely certain- maybe it would have to be beyond reasonable doubt? But then again in a time bomb scenario there wouldn’t be time for a full judicial-style investigation . In war for example, soldiers and commanders must make life or death decisions about causing serious harm to enemy combatants without the benefit of absolute certainty.

    I think these questions do need to be asked, but what you say about the evidence showing that it doesn’t work is undoubtedly more important factor than I suggested in my article.

  • @Paul Walter
    You didn’t directly answer my questions though, would you be happy with something akin to internment for terrorists captured? Will political types be willing to be honest with the public about the cost of such a stance?

    To give an example of what I mean by cost, many are absolutely certain that we should not carry out torture, nor should we condone it, which is fine. But rather than use this politicised report about the CIA why don’t we look at our own Country. Everyone should know that part of the war against the IRA involved turning their members, not only to gather information but also in the hope that they would get to the top and help destabilise/collapse the whole organisation. Now this approach worked and many lives will have been saved, but obviously (and I’m sorry, but it’s only not obvious if you’re unwilling to think about it) you don’t generally get to the top of these sorts of organisations just by sponsoring bob-a-job weeks. Most (including the one referred to in my first link) will have been involved in pretty nasty stuff, including torture, on the way to the top.

    So when political types come out with this view that we should never carry out or condone torture, are they going to be honest with the people and explain that these tactics shouldn’t be used but it will probably result in far more destruction and greater loss of innocent lives? If people are not willing to do that, then the one thing they are not doing is taking the moral high ground.

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Dec '14 - 3:28pm

    Yes, Kerry. Terrorist murderers, being humans, have human rights.

  • Part of the problem is that not enough thought has been given to terrorism. In War between states there is the Geneva Convention. When dealing criminals there is the criminal law. When dealing with terrorists there was the PIRA which invariably gave warnings of attacks of civilian targets. Groups such as the PLO which undertook hijackings , violence was used to obtain a political, often the release of prisoners. In the July 25 bombers there aim was to commit murder without any warning. Are there limits which we impose on ourselves which means that future bombings such as July 25 may occur again?

    When it comes torture the reality that it may work.The Special Forces undergo interrogation resistance training as part of their selection People cannot be expected to resist torture indefinitely but at least 24 hours, hopefully enough time to warn others. SOE were given L pills ( Lethal Pills) because it was understood the Gestapo would use the most brutal methods and agents could be expected to break eventually- even Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas GC admitted this. The reality is that if th Gestapo had caught someone with the knowledge that the landings were going to take place on 6 th June at Normandy involving 5 armies , then the loss of life could have been immense.

    Are we discussing the lesser of evils? If a vessel is holed beneath the waterline , the Captain will give the order that all doors will be sealed. Those trapped within flooded compartments are condemned to die in order that others live and the vessel is saved: this does not make the captain a murderer. If the Captain does not take the decision then many will die. A captain at sea has the right to take any action which will save lives and the ship itself but has the duty to be the last person to leave a ship when it sinks.

  • Charlie,

    By 24th June 1944 there were 233,000 casualties and losses in the invasion of Normandy.

    Some people would say that figure was “immense”.


  • The above remarks are quite naïve. Torture is not a means of gaining information from a prisoner; torture is a means of punishing and degrading a victim. People who are subject to torture will certainly talk if that is the only way to escape sufficiently vicious treatment (of others if not themselves); yet what they say cannot be relied upon as the truth. Torture does not extract the truth; it extracts whatever statement the torturer wants to hear. It provides, not an insight into the mind of the victim, but rather into the prejudices and beliefs of the torturer.

    Torture is thus only reliable if the inquisitor already knows what the facts are — in which case it is superfluous; and it can only produce information from people who have the least reason to withhold it, in which case techniques other than torture work just as well. It is precisely the hardened types, inured to death and pain, fanatical as to their own righteousness, contemptuous of their enemies, on whom torture will not work; rather, it merely reinforces their prejudices about their enemies as the incarnation of all evil.

    All the information we have about these torture programs goes to show not only that it does not work as a method of extracting valuable intelligence, but that it was never intended to get any information of value. The various justifications for torture, grounded as they are in an emotional reaction to one or another atrocity (perhaps validly attributed to the prisoners, perhaps not; many of the victims were innocent) show what the true motive was: not intelligence but vengeance. But the defenders of torture are curiously unwilling to admit that. Perhaps at some level they are aware that to confess that truth is to admit that they had sunk at least to the level of their victims. But that is exactly what torture does: it removes the slightest claim of those who employ it to any degree of moral superiority.

  • Tsar Nicolas 20th Dec '14 - 8:36am

    Kerry Hutchinson 18th Dec ’14 – 2:15pm

    This is an extremely disturbing post because it implies that based on tours of combat duty, you believe that torture is justified. This begs the question of whether you engaged in such acts yourself, otherwise your recommendation of it is spurious.

    Is this view common in the British forces deployed to theatres of war? If it is, that opinion differs sharply from the officially expressed view.

  • Tsar Nicolas 20th Dec ’14 – 8:36am
    “….Is this view common in the British forces deployed to theatres of war? ”

    No it is not a common view unless things have changed since my father’s day. He spent 22 years in the army never rising above the rank of RSM. He was in the Light Infantry serving in theatres of war like North Africa and Burma in the 1940s. He was also in India -Pakistan at the time of partition. So he spent considerably longer in theatres of war than Kerry Hutchinson’s three tours in Afghanistan. Being in the Light Infantry, part of his training involved every kind of hand to hand combat. Along with others who served in Burma he witnessed the results of torture. Whilst this did not make him an admirer of The Emperor of Japan, neither did it make him an admirer of torture. It had quite the opposite impact.

    My father spoke little of his experiences and it took decades to get some stories from him, usually only in the company of old mates who had been there with him. All of them would have been highly critical of the comment by Kerry Hutchinson. Perhaps things have changed, but I doubt it.

    My father used to say — “Those who have been through it don’t need to talk about it.”

  • @JohnTilley 20th Dec ’14 – 3:32am

    “By 24th June 1944 there were 233,000 casualties and losses in the invasion of Normandy.”
    You are talking about the Normandy campaign, not D-Day, the casualties for D-Day were a lot lighter than many feared that they would be, that was probably helped by a successful disinformation campaign. However if that had been blown then there could have been a disaster (but it wasn’t so we’ll never know for certain).

    @Tsar Nicolas 20th Dec ’14 – 8:36am
    I didn’t do 22 years, but I would second what John Tilley said, I never heard anyone so much as whisper that they would or had tortured someone (discounting karaoke attempts in the NAAFI).

  • @Paul Walter
    Apologies if “political types” offends you, it was intended as a term to include everyone from the PM down to the lowliest door knocker.

    I’m glad that you agree with the POW point, I look forward to the LD policy that states that terrorists will be held in camps until the relevent conflict is ended.

    ” If you are asking me to condone stuff we did during the Irish troubles then I am very happy not to”
    No I wasn’t, as should have been obvious. I was asking if those who are politically active (which would obviously include yourself – but I also mean those from all political parties at all levels) will be honest about the ramifications of the moral stance. In other words, when you are on the doorstep, will you just say “we don’t condone torture” or will you explain that this approach means that we won’t be able to infiltrate terrorist organsations and that puts an added risk on them and their families. If there is no honesty then it is not moral, it’s just a political gesture.

  • “will you explain that this approach means that we won’t be able to infiltrate terrorist organsations and that puts an added risk on them and their families”

    I certainly hope that nobody ‘on the doorstep’ will be ‘explaining’ anything so patently untrue as that.

  • @David-1
    Really, why do you think it is untrue?

  • David-1
    The point of most torture is to get information and often works. That is why SOE were given L Pills, members of beach recce units ( COPPS) in WW2 often committed suicide by drowning rather than allowing themselves to be captured and reveal information on seaborne invasions and that is why SF undergo interrogation resistance as part of their selection. Resistance activity in occupied Europe did not become significant until 1943 but the savage torture techniques did lead to many resisters being broken and this why radio operators only had life expectancies of a few months.

    What needs to be considered is nature of the threat. The PLO /Red Brigade units who used the violence of hijacking to obtain political aims and negotiations depended upon the will and skill of the forces opposed to them. The end of the hijacking could end through armed intervention or release of prisoners held by governments: there were usually reasonable chances that most hostages would survive. Where Islamic terrorists are prepared to murder without warning then we entering a different area; what actions should governments take to safeguard people? During WW2 when ships were sunk on convoys there were often sailors in the water : other ships could not stop or sail out of their way and resulted in those in the water being drowned or killed by propellers. When depth charges were dropped to destroy u-boats , this could kill sailors in the water. The book and the film ” The Cruel Sea” shows the dilemma of fighting at sea. In WW2 ,Allied sailors were killed by their own side in order to transport materials: the greater good or lesser of two evils, were ideas put into practice. There is suggestion that due to ENIGMA that the British Government knew the raid on Coventry but sacrificed the city in order to preserve the secrete that German codes had been broken.
    Movement of fighter planes and anti-aircraft guns to Coventry may have warned the Nazis

    Are we the British people prepared to accept that people may be killed if we to ban torture bearing in mind the NATURE of the violence perpetrated by Islamic terrorists which is different to that undertaken by the PIRA or PLO? We may have to accept that with Islamic Terrorists innocent people will be murdered and maimed but British liberty and democracy will survive. The problem is that I do not know of any politician who has shown a willingness to die for the freedom of others and therefore has the moral right to ask this of the British people. Have any of our politicians medals for bravery?

    I think your idea is worth considering , but how will it work with Human rights Legislation?

  • A Social Liberal 23rd Dec '14 - 1:23pm


    You evidently don’t know much about military intelligence. Military thinking circa the Iraq war is that intelligence held by low level ‘players’ (and that includes the SF elements) is only current and therefore helpful to the enemy for 8 hours after capture. Troops are trained to try and hold out for a minimum of 14 hours. All intelligence after this time is useful but ‘background’. There is a saying in the British Army – need to know. That is, if you don’t need to know you aren’t told,

    Debriefing terrorists shows that the ‘cell’ system keeps those who are on the front line much less informed even than their interrogators.

    The above are some of the reasons why British intelligence doctrine states that torture does not work.

  • A Social Liberal 23rd Dec '14 - 1:37pm


    I served in another era, that of the Troubles. I’m not going to willy wave about the differences but suffice to say we didn’t resort to Guantanamo style activities, we knew – as your battalion should have told you – about the cell system and short term intelligence held by low level players.

  • A Social Liberal
    If you can show that all torture is irrelevant , that is good news to me but as you say it depends upon the nature of the people caught and the shelf life of that knowledge.

  • I understand, Charlie. You are using the ‘interrogation’ methods of the Gestapo as evidence that ‘torture works.’ Yet the Nazis were not inclined to torture their victims because it was superior to other methods, but because they were by ideology and temperament addicted to using force and pain wherever possible — that is, because they were demented lunatics — hardly a fit model for the civilised world.

    The Coventry myth was debunked long ago. Although German messages had been decrypted, the code names used in those messages could not always be satisfactorily interpreted. As a result, although it was known that a large air raid was planned, no one was aware that Coventry (codenamed ‘Korn’) would be the target until the raid had begun.

  • @Charlie
    As some one who is fairly certain that they’d do anything to protect their children (including any immoral act) then I’m not going to start preaching about morals. Further to what others have said I would point out that it is not really the most efficient method of getting information. Studies have shown that training or fanaticism have no real bearing regarding the person being tortured, I can’t recall exactly, but I think it was said that there are no real common factors, it’s just an individuals character that determines if or when someone breaks.

    There is also plenty of evidence to show that the less aggressive methods work better, incidentally if I recall my history correctly then this was the method the Gestapo used initially. But as more personnel were lost in the war then less experienced/able interrogators resorted to torture.

    Regarding the second part, it’s not actually my idea, getting people to the top on an enemy organisation has probably been around as long as humans. What started my questioning though was the use of the word condone, if you’re saying that you will not condone torture then you have to ask what that means in practice. You either accept the consequences and explain to the public the reasons and the risks, or you try and waft it away with fancy slogans and hope no one asks awkward questions when something really bad happens. Take the first choice and I’ll be the first to say you’re taking a moral stance, take the second choice and I’ll just call it a political gesture. Of course, there is a third choice which is usually what happens anyway, make a lot of noise about morality but go ahead with trying to turn people on the inside of these oraganisations anyway).

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