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The Times in praise of torture

19 December 2014

I DO NOT understand why Melanie Phillips is still permitted to appear on The Moral Maze. Her defence of torture in The Times on Monday is not only disgusting in itself, but revolves around one very simple message: "It's different when we do it."

It isn't. The only morally salient difference when we do it is that it's worse - because of the resources of self-deception and self-justification that we can bring to bear.

You could defend the BBC by saying that any representative sample of moral debate in Britain needs a voice for the moral imbeciles, but that's not actually the basis on which she performs. If anything, she is a representative of Judaism, a universalist religion, whose moral messages apply to everyone.

If this seems harsh, consider what she actually wrote. "Tyrannies torture their own people and their enemies, inflicting extreme pain in pursuit of coercion, intimidation or aggressive wars of conquest. There is a great difference between this and the ill-treatment used by democracies to protect innocent life."

Beneath the inspiring green skies of Planet Melanie, there are "democracies" that have not tortured their own people or their enemies, have not inflicted extreme pain "in pursuit of coercion, intimidation or aggressive wars of conquest". If the human mind can get that far from earth unaided, it's hard to see why we made such a fuss about landing a robot on a comet.

One of the odder features of the wars on Planet Melanie during the past decades is that her side won them. Back where we live, the wars in which torture was deployed ended in complete and catastrophically expensive defeats for the West, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The consequences will haunt the world for decades.

In fact, Phillips concedes that all we gained from torture was information that we had already gathered without torture: "information gathered by aggressive interrogation that corroborated or clarified scraps of previously obtained but unappreciated intelligence - and which therefore provided essential pieces of the anti-terror jigsaw".

In other words, you can only trust an Arab when he's screaming in pain.

Until now, I had supposed that the single most repulsive "enlightened" defence of torture came from the American New Atheist Sam Harris, who urged the torture of an al-Qaeda operative on the grounds that, if there were even one chance in a million that he could tell us something, we were morally obliged to torture him. Now Phillips appears to prove that really prominent believers in God can get there, too.

Incidentally, one of the odder details of the US report is that the CIA outsourced much of their torture to a couple of Mormon psychologists, who were paid $80 million for their labours. One of them was later promoted to be a bishop, but resigned after a week.

TWO more remarkable stories from the New York Times. The first casts an extraordinary light on the state of race relations there. It's an account of a black-led church in Harlem which is distinguished by the number of whites in its congregation: "The Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. once called church time on Sunday morning 'the most segregated hour' in a racially divided nation. A half-century later, the situation is somewhat more complex, if not drastically different.

"Black Christians commonly belong to congregations led by white clergy members, from urban Catholic parishes to Sun Belt Evangelical megachurches. The traffic, however, has almost never run in the other direction."

The story zooms in on a French woman and jazz singer, Eloise Louis, who wandered off the street into a Pentecostal church and ended up singing in the choir there. Her husband also became a member.

The paper continues: "What is most amazing about her odyssey is that, at First Corinthian, she is not alone. Ms. Louis represents a substantial number of white men and women who have joined this African-American church. Of First Corinthian's 8,000 members, Mr. Walrond estimates, about 3 percent are white, including a staff minister, Willa Rose Johnson."

I wonder what the equivalent figures would be here. I've seen a number of black Pentecostal preachers here with aspirations to the big time who feature white wives on their promotional material - something that may not be as common in the US - and I think that congregations are likely to be a lot more mixed as well.

ALSO from the New York Times, a charming story of faith and finance from Holland, where 90,000 bankers are to take an oath next year, vowing to God to uphold the integrity of the banking system. This has been mandated by industry bodies rather than the government, but seems to be taken seriously enough.

Well, it worked for Lord Green, didn't it? Um, didn't it?

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