Abdullah Almalki went public this week, on CBC Radio’s The Current. He told a standard torture tale, so it was pretty unbearable. He is another Canadian of Arab descent whom our intelligence agencies seem to have shopped (in the case of Maher Arar, one might say shipped, or just outsourced) to Syrian torturers as part of the war on terror. The issue was not raised in Question Period (they are dealing with more urgent matters), and it’s unlikely to engender a public inquiry as in the Arar case. So in lieu of that, let me raise some questions re torture.
Can you justify it under “the new normal”? This is sometimes done in the name of the ticking bomb. What if you know one is set to go off in a subway etc., wouldn’t that validate torturing a terrorist who has details? U.S. law prof and human-rights buff Alan Dershowitz thinks torture should be legalized under clear conditions in these harsh times, so as to control and regulate its negative effects. He says this precisely because, he claims, he is opposed to torture. There’s a fine legal mind at work.
Now, I certainly think you can imagine a situation in which any of us might act brutally under stress for the sake of a noble result, often involving kids or loved ones, or mass murder of innocents. You don’t have to be Jack Bauer on 24. Personally, I can imagine anyone doing almost anything, under certain conditions. If you get tossed into that blender, you have to achingly do what seems right or required, and live with the consequences. That’s what having a conscience is all about: lonely individual choice and responsibility.
But it is sheer fantasy to think you can write laws or policies that are inherently general to cover every extreme situation. Only lawyers could think that way, and even for them it should be illegal. So I’m against legalizing acts like torture, or slipping them in via, say, Syria. They should remain crimes, to be punished or — very rarely — treated as exceptions, full of moral ambiguity.
But perhaps it doesn’t seem so ambiguous to you. Isn’t it just a matter of the end justifying the means, even if that means is torture? I’d say the problem with means-ends arguments lies usually not in the means, where attention mainly focuses, but in the ends, which tend to go unexamined. I mean, what’s the purpose for which we seem to be dispatching these men to Syrian torture chambers? There’s no ticking bomb; it’s at best a fishing expedition in that respect. It seems more about gaining a vague advantage in the “war on terror,” which is no real war, more an endless state of tension like the wars in Nineteen Eighty-four. Even George Bush says it will last years, or decades.
It makes me respect the power in that phrase, the new normal. It normalizes what is absurd, objectionable and entirely questionable (and not so new, either). Instead of challenging this absurd and disastrous “new” version of reality — clash of civilizations, war on terror and their like — you end up agonizing over issues like torture, as a response to it. You don’t seek out a different interpretation altogether of events such as 9/11. Instead, you fall in line with the war mentality, though you might be for or against a particular tactic.
Means and ends reverse: The end of fighting a successful war on terror becomes the means to multiply practices such as torture and moods such as fear. I’d say this applies as much to Osama bin Laden’s jihad as to George Bush’s “war.” All the intensity would be far better invested in rejecting their versions of reality, which jibe minimally with actual conditions in places such as the Middle East and offer no hope for a better future.
The late Hannah Arendt was always peeved by the phrase: You have to break some eggs to make an omelette. It was used in her time to justify utopian visions on the left and right, and shame people who were reluctant to endorse harsh means such as torture and war to realize the visions. She said the true debate should be over the omelette, and whether it was an illusion for which eggs were pointlessly smashed. She wrote an article called The Eggs Speak Up. This column is written in honour of that tradition.