Stephen McGinty: Tortured question of ethics

Zero Dark Thirty shows graphic depictions of torture. Picture: PA
Zero Dark Thirty shows graphic depictions of torture. Picture: PA
Share this article
Have your say

The debate over the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ as a valid artistic device helps focus our own position on where our personal moral boundaries may lie, writes Stephen McGinty

One of the most disturbing scenes on television in recent years was in an episode of the US crime series 24. Jack Bauer, the exasperated counter intelligence agent who was forever having a really bad day, was, this time actually having a really, really bad day. Los Angeles was being held to ransom by a terrorist in possession of a nuclear bomb.

The terrorist ordered Bauer to take his commanding officer hostage and insisted that he shoot him in the head at the top of the hour. Convinced that Bauer would find a way to wriggle out of the order, I along with the rest of the TV audience was shocked to see him pull the trigger rather than risk the lives of millions of citizens.

For eight seasons, until his eventual retirement in 2010, Bauer played by Kiefer Sutherland was the public face of a private, clandestine operation. There was no-one Bauer wouldn’t shoot or torture for the greater good of protecting the American people. His CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit) was a glorified CIA and when the show featured a corrupt and dangerously maniacal presidential candidate they cloaked him in the campaign colours of John Kerry.

Jack Bauer may have retired but a new export from Hollywood has taken his place as a lightning rod for the debate over the ethics and efficacy of torture. Zero Dark Thirty, the new film released this week and directed by Kathryn Bigelow chronicles the CIA search for Osama Bin Laden and his eventual assassination in Abbatabad in 2011. The film’s initial critical success and nominations have now been swamped by a growing controversy over whether or not it advocates or acts as an apologist for torture. In the film a character is waterboarded, the “enhanced interrogation technique” in which victims experience the terrifying sensation of drowning. He provides a key piece of information that leads to the courier, that eventually leads to Bin Laden. Critics have pounced on the scene for, according to John McCain, the former presidential candidate who was himself tortured in Vietnam, while enhanced interrogation techniques were used on Khalid Shiek Mohammed, one of the architects of 9/11 it produced false and misleading information. Naomi Wolf, the feminist writer has compared Bigelow to Hitler’s favourite film-maker, Leni Reifenstal.

“Like Riefenstal you are a great artist but now you will be remembered forever as torture’s handmaiden.” In a way, Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal have been hoisted by their own petard as they claimed the film was “journalistic” and more akin to a documentary, but while dramatically it fitted the story to show crucial intel being spat out with the water, it may have been wiser to focus instead on the false leads and lies that were also frequently sloshed out.

For all the evidence illustrates that while torture can lead to the truth, it can also lead to lies, anything to make the pain go away. But can it ever, under any circumstances be permitted? It was a question that a few years ago Jack Bauer and his real-life supporters were keen to ask.

Advocates of “enhanced interrogation procedures” to use its Sunday name, but torture to you or me or any close family member of those advocates should they have the misfortune to try it out, have a scenario designed to put prohibitionists to the test. It is, as far as I’m aware, a scenario that has never actually occurred and involves a captured terrorist who has hidden a bomb, perhaps even a nuclear device in a city, with detonation set for five hours time. All attempts at reason, persuasion and co-ercion have failed and all intelligence indicates that the threat is certain and the consequences of detonation catastrophic. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people will die unless this man is made to state the location of the bomb. What do you do?

Well, first you argue against the scenario: How else could the bomb be found? How do you know time is running so short? Are the casualty estimates accurate? Surely the death toll won’t be so high? But lets imagine all those questions are dead ends that serve only to lead you back to the same grim scenario: an unco-operative terrorist, a suitcase nuclear bomb and a ticking clock. What do you do? For many people the correct response would be to do nothing, persuade, reason, interrogate, maybe even plead all the while feverishly searching for that hidden bomb but what they would not do is lift a finger against him, because torture is wrong and utterly indefensible. The subsequent explosion and the deaths of tens of thousands of citizens would be as a consequence of his actions, not yours. The second question is: is that an acceptable outcome? To know that there was one dark, blood splattered avenue that you as director of the CIA wouldn’t go down in an attempt to stop a cataclysm that would dwarf 9/11? I know on paper or sitting at home it might seem easy to stick with that first gut instinct. To hold true to your values and accept the consequences of failure but its one I’m not so sure I could maintain. My response to such a hellish, inescapable and fantastic scenario is that as a last resort I would ask for a volunteer to break the rules, to break the laws, to break his bones if necessary to extract that information. Now that is a foul and disgusting sentence to type but I repeat it is within a fantasy scenario: all other avenues exhausted, a suitcase nuclear bomb and a ticking clock. But think about it? I’ve already lost my firm moral footing, I appear to have found a situation where torture is acceptable. Having lost one’s footing you are on a slippery, sliding slope, for if its acceptable to save the lives of tens of thousands from a nuclear bomb, why not to save the lives of five hundred, or a dozen? If it is permissible to prevent a terrorist incident five hours away, what about one a few weeks away. At what point do you break out the leather restraints, face cloth and jug of water?

But I’m not quite finished with the previous scenario. Let’s suppose the enhanced interrogation was successful, he didn’t lie or say any old rubbish to stop the pain but actually coughed and spluttered up the truth, just like in the movies and as a result the suitcase bomb was found and diffused. How do you find a balance to the horrific wrong committed for the common good? My interpretation is that both the volunteer and the director of the CIA, the man who got his hands dirty in his country’s service and the man at the very top who ordered him to do so, would immediately be arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. They would be sentenced and imprisoned. There would be no presidential pardon. It is the only way, at least that I can see, to square a very difficult circle. Torture is illegal and cannot, under any circumstances be condoned by the state. They broke the law and the law must be upheld. Their liberty would be sacrificed for the good of society.

Torture is illegal in America, but enhanced interrogation techniques are not, would it have been used at all, in the scenarios in which it was, if the life and liberty of the practitioner and the CIA director were on the line? If the personal cost to them – and lets be clear anyone who tortures another human being isn’t escaping without an emotional toll, unless, of course they are a sociopath – was certain imprisonment, do you think they would still have deemed it an operational necessity? For the moment such enhanced interrogation techniques have been put back in the CIA’s tool box, safe for another day and under another administration.

The “war on terror” is fading but each day, in between dinner with his daughters, president Obama makes a choice about which families sitting down to dinner in Afghanistan could soon be interrupted by the annihilation of a drone strike. Now wiping out innocent women and children is clearly not his intent, but if their father happens to be a wanted terrorist they may become collateral damage. All manner of foul deeds are done in the name of war, but what makes torture so deeply disturbing and repulsive to us is the personal and intimate nature of the act. It cannot be accomplished at a distance of thousands of miles by a drone, it has to be up close and personal.