Does terrorism justify torture?

02 November 2006

SINGLE WORDS in the public domain continue to bring dramatic images to our minds. “Auschwitz”, “tsunami”, “Iraq” are just three. Another is “torture” — a potent word much in the news. It has both an old-fashioned and a very modern ring about it. Time was when torture was accepted as a part of life, necessary if the state was to keep order. People knew that if they did not obey the monarch, torture was just round the corner.

Today, most governments agree that it is evil. Most have endorsed the various UN conventions against it. Yet, more importantly, many governments at best turn a blind eye to the torture of prisoners, who are often innocent of any crime, and, at worst, positively encourage it. It produces information and the compliance that the state demands. While there is general agreement that torture — physical, mental or psychological — is wrong, there are today new and worrying elements appearing on this ugly scene.

ONE OF the many repercussions of the assault on the United States on 9/11 is that torture can now be said to be justified because the so-called “war on terror” can justify almost any action that helps to keep the state and its citizens secure.

Alberto R. Gonzales, the newly appointed US Attorney General, wrote a memorandum to President Bush on 25 January 2002: “We are engaged in a new kind of war which renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitation on the questioning of enemy prisoners.”

In the US, political debate is now held on changed bases: the fear of threats from a little-known source; the belief in a better world for which sacrifices must be made; and a nationalistic and intensely patriotic ideology that must be defended at all costs. Victims of torture, which is thought necessary in the circumstances, are seen as standing in the way of the realisation of this ideology.


The reactions to 9/11 take several forms. There is what is known as the “ticking-bomb” scenario. This advocates that if a suspected terrorist is thought to know when and where a violent act, endangering the lives of perhaps thousands of people, is due to take place, torturing that person is justified to save the lives of potential victims. The biblical argument put forward for this stance is said to be the words of Caiaphas, the high priest, that it is better that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should be destroyed (John 18.14).

Those who advocate this weakening of the absolute ban on torture argue that it is indeed the state’s duty to torture in such a case because of its greater duty to protect its citizens.

One of the most insidious attempts to justify torture today is the use of euphemisms for the vicious and sub-human treatment of another person. Under such strategies of disguise, torture becomes “aggressive questioning techniques”; killing civilians in war becomes “collateral damage”; and mistreatment of prisoners is called “stress and duress”. But, whichever words are used, the dehumanising effect of torture, for both tortured and torturer, remains the same.

By using euphemisms to describe breaches of international law and human rights, governments seek our tolerance of those breaches. If the general public becomes tolerant of torture, those who seek to justify it in the interests of national security have no barrier to push back. They are on a winner. It was not until the horrific photographs of torture in Abu Ghraib prison were flashed round the world that the general public knew what was happening, and reacted strongly to the evidence.

Amnesty International’s report, USA: Human Dignity Denied: Torture and accountability in the “war on terror” (2004) states: “The image of New York’s Twin Towers struck by hijacked airliners on 11/9/01 has become an icon of a crime against humanity. It is tragic that the response to those atrocities has resulted in its own iconography of torture, cruelty and degradation.”

The US and the world will be haunted by the photos from Abu Ghraib for years to come — icons of a government’s failure to put human rights at its heart. Now the UK is faced with pictures of its own soldiers allegedly abusing Iraqi civilians.

SO CAN the ordinary individual do anything to halt this weakening of the absolute ban on torture? The answer is definitely yes.


In addition to organisations such as Amnesty, there are charities such as Action by Christians Against Torture (ACAT, part of the international federation, FIACAT), which campaigns for the total abolition of torture. It organises members to write letters or send faxes or emails, suggesting draft wording about what might be said.

There is much evidence that such letters work. In some cases, a quick response can save a life; in others, detainees are supported by gifts of money, books, and toiletries. From Mexico comes the reply that they will investigate allegations of torture in a detention centre; from Brazil, a similar response to letters about prisoners in São Paulo. A released political prisoner tortured in Zimbabwe said: “After these letters, the beatings stopped — after these, I had a bed — and a desk and books — and then I was allowed to shop in the village without a guard — but other men were dying.”

Just as the outcry at what went on at Abu Ghraib has had an impact on the treatment of Iraqi prisoners, a public expression of horror at the excesses of torture in more than 120 countries could help to halt the slide down a very slippery slope. If enough people feel committed and respond, governments do listen.

The Revd Richard Dent is a retired solicitor and cleric in the diocese of Bristol. For information about ACAT, visit:

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