Subjective Objectivity – The Blog of The Reasonable Man

October 28, 2010

Remember, Jack Bauer isn’t a real person, and 24 wasn’t a documentary

Filed under: Uncategorized — mikeshotgun @ 4:06 pm

Allow me to endorse this from Sir John Sawer, head of MI6, wholeheartedly:

“Torture is illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it. If we know or believe action by us will lead to torture taking place, we’re required by UK and international law to avoid that action, and we do, even though that allows that terrorist activity to go ahead. Some may question this. But we are clear that it’s the right thing to do. It makes us strive even harder to find different ways, consistent with human rights, to get the outcome we want.”

Telegraph contributor Con Coughlin is concerned about public opinion on the matter:

But how would the public feel if, out of respect for the terrorist’s human rights, another atrocity was inflicted on the innocent and hard-working people of London? Would the citizens of this great city believe our intelligence officers had made the right call in allowing the terrorists to carry on plotting so they could be spared some rough treatment in a Pakistani jail cell? I’m not so sure.

Coughlin’s question really seems to be based on the ticking time-bomb scenario, which is so fantastical a premise it boggles the mind. It’s actually a distraction of the point that torture isn’t particularly effective. In the second world war, when countless people were dying on a saily basis during the blitz, we eschewed torture as a matter of course on the basis that if you engage in physical coercion, you’re more likely than not to get false intelligence. And you can still win by not resorting to it. Indeed, the fact that less pernicious responses to the terrorism “threat” have proven to be utterly ineffective, and little more than a security theatre, strengthens the case that Sawer is making, albeit from a different direction.

In any event, I’d hope the public, hard-working or otherwise, would recognise that if we willingly mortgage some of our most deeply held principles for the expediency of temporary public safety, then the grand experiment of democracy may as well die. I can see why they might not – such a notion is cold comfort to the friends and families of those killed in terror attacks, and abstract philosophical and moral debates won’t bring any victims of any terror attack back. But this group must not determine public policy on terrorism, anymore than the continued use of cars and alcohol ought to be determined by people who have lost family members to those things. It’s a decision making process that must necessarily be cold and unemotional and balancing human rights with public opinion, with the latter a secondary concern. The coward’s way out this would be denouncing torture in one breath, but declaiming the desirability of its absolute prohibition by appealing to the demands of the public.

Our democratic institutions exist to preserve rights and principles that we deem inalienable over the objections of what would otherwise be a ruling mob. The unspoken, but ever present attitude that only a certain type of person is likely to be a victim of this is all the more odious, for it outsources minority rights to majority discretion, which is anathema to liberal democracy. But if the attitudes of the torture hawks do become so prevalent as to move public policy, then, in the words of Lincoln, “I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty… where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy”.

Fair play to our right wing commentariat on this – I wasn’t expecting as measured and reasonable response to this, and even Will Heaven is on the side of the angels for once.

Cross-posted at Something Quotable

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